The Earth has just had its first known encounter with ‘Oumuamua’, an object from another star and Stephen Hawking leading an investigation into whether this Cigar Shaped object is an alien spaceship.
The Unique first interstellar object Oumuamua was discovered on 19 October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawai`i. Subsequent observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world show that it was travelling through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system.
Oumuamua seems to be a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object, about 400 metres long, and is unlike anything normally found in the Solar System.
Calculations revealed it was on a so-called hyperbolic trajectory, unlike the elliptical paths of ordinary comets and asteroids.That means the sun’s gravity has never been able to hold on to the object, which must have started its journey in another star system.
This makes 1I/Oumuamua – as the object is now officially called – the first known visitor from interstellar space. But astronomers got another surprise when they turned some of the world’s largest telescopes onto the object for a closer look.
They were expecting it to be some kind of comet, one of the myriad piles of dust and ice known to orbit other stars. But Oumuamua appears to be something different. Despite shooting past the sun closer than the planet Mercury, it showed no sign of melting in the heat, and lacked the bright tail of a comet.
Instead, analysis of the sunlight bounced off its surface reveal Oumuamua to be deep red in colour, consistent with long exposure to cosmic rays in deep space, and sometimes seen on asteroids.
But the mystery deepened again when data revealed that Oumuamua is shaped like a long cylinder, around 200 to 400m long and around one-tenth as wide. No known comet or asteroid has such a bizarre shape.
Now, a scientific body led by Stephen Hawking is now trying to decipher whether the “cigar-shaped” object is an alien probe or a previously unseen natural phenomenon.
Professor of astrophysics at Harvard University Avi Loeb said: “Perhaps the aliens have a mothership that travels fast and releases baby spacecrafts that freely fall into planetary system on a reconnaissance mission.
“If this object is natural in origin, there should be many more like it in the solar system… and even if most of them are natural, perhaps one of them will be found to be of artificial origin, some space device or junk from an alien civilisation.
A £75 million programme that searches for evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth called Breakthrough Listen, led by Stephen Hawking, is attempting to detect evidence of alien technology transmitting from the object.
Breakthrough Listen is led by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. He said: “Whether it’s artificial or not, we will definitely know more about this object.” Astrophysicists theorise there are between one and ten “visitors” per year in our solar system but they move so quickly that we have never seen one before.
As science fiction buffs quickly pointed out, however, there are striking similarities between Oumuamua and the centrepiece of the 1973 novel Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In Clarke’s novel, astronomers resolve the mystery of Rama by sending an unmanned probe to photograph it, revealing its obvious alien nature.
There has been talk about doing the same for Oumuamua, but unfortunately, it seems it’s too late for that. Calculations by NASA experts suggest the object is travelling too fast to be intercepted using conventional rocket power.
By the end of this month, Oumuamua will be beyond the reach even of the world’s most powerful telescopes, and its true nature will remain forever unknown.
During an episode of Discovery Channel TV special Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking he said: “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach.
“If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?
“We don’t know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.
“A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”