Experts believe the first evidence of extraterrestrial life will not be as dramatic as science fiction movies with flying saucers dominating city skies but will more likely be passing trash from an alien civilization.
Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, says that we may have already found some of that trash from little green men.
In his upcoming book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, which will be in stores on Jan. 26, the professor outlines an intriguing argument for why an object that found its way into our solar system was not a space rock, but a piece of discarded technology from an alien civilization.
The strange object made its way into our solar system from the direction of Vega, a star which is relatively close at about 25 light years away, and drifted through our solar system’s orbital plane on Sept. 6, 2017.
On Sept. 9, the object’s journey brought it closest to our sun. Later that month it shot off at nearly 58,900 miles per hour, bypassing the orbital distance of Venus. On Oct. 7 it blew past Earth before “moving swiftly toward the constellation Pegasus and the blackness beyond,” Loeb says in his forthcoming book.
The strange object was first seen by a Hawaiian observatory which houses the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), known to be the highest-definition telescope on the planet.
The unusual space object was called ‘Oumuamua (pronounced “oh moo ah moo ah”), a Hawaiian word that translates roughly to “scout.”
Compared with other objects seen in space, it was small, measuring roughly 100 yards long, but it made big waves among scientists and star gazers.
Firstly, it holds the distinction of being the first interstellar object ever discovered inside our solar system. By the object’s trajectory, astronomers determined it was not tethered to the sun’s gravity, which indicates it was simply traveling through our solar system and not part of it.
Observers were not able to take clear photos of the object, but astronomers were able to watch it through telescopes for 11 days, with which they were able to collect a treasure trove of other data.
Scientists thought it was a comet at first, but Loeb said that expectation can allow “the familiar to define what we might discover.”
“What would happen if a caveman saw a cellphone?” he questioned. “He’s seen rocks all his life, and he would have thought it was just a shiny rock.”
Loeb then laid out the possibility that the object was not a comet at all, but cast-off tech from another civilization. Several uncommon traits about the object drew Loeb to this conclusion. Firstly, were ‘Oumuamua’s measurements.
Astronomers observed how the object reflected sunlight. Its brightness changed considerably every eight hours, indicating that was the time it took for it to finish a full rotation.
Scientists came to the conclusion that it was a minimum of five to ten times longer than it was wide, giving it a cigar shape. There has never been a naturally occurring space object that looked close to that.
“This would make ‘Oumuamua’s geometry more extreme by at least a few times in aspect ratio — or its width to its height — than the most extreme asteroids or comets that we have ever seen,” Loeb explains in his book.
‘Oumuamua was also uncommonly bright. It was on average “ten times more reflective than typical solar system [stony] asteroids or comets,” Loeb writes, comparing its surface to a shiny metal.
However, the problem that really made Loeb lean into his alien hypothesis was how ‘Oumuamua moved.
“The excess push away from the sun — that was the thing that broke the camel’s back,” he stated.
Scientists can calculate the precise path an object should take and how fast it should travel due to the gravitational force wielded by the sun. The sun’s pull will make an object go faster at a much higher rate as it gets closer, then throw it out the other side, only for the object to slow down significantly as it gets farther from the sun.
That is not the trajectory ‘Oumuamua followed. Rather, the object sped up “slightly, but to a highly statistically significant extent” as it got further from the sun, Loeb says.
This means that it had to be pushed by a force other than the gravity from the sun.
Loeb determined that with all of it’s anomalies, the odds that ‘Oumuamua was a comet were about 1 in a quadrillion, provoking him to his explosive hypothesis.
“It would put us in perspective,” Loeb stated. “If we are not alone, are we the smartest kids on the block? If there was a species that eliminated itself through war or changing the climate, we can get our act together and behave better. Instead, we are wasting a lot of resources on Earth fighting each other and other negative things that are a big waste.”
Since ‘Oumuamua’s discovery, a second interstellar object dubbed 2I/Borisov was seen entering the solar system by a Crimean telescope in 2019. However, that ended up being an ordinary comet.
The instruments we’ve had available have not been delicate enough to detect these kinds of anomalies until recently. Loeb says our technology will soon make it feasible to find more space travelers, and the only way the riddle of ‘Oumuamua will be solved is if a similar object is discovered and more vigorously examined using a probe.
He wrote his book “should motivate people to collect more data on the next object that looks weird.”
“If we find another and we take a photo and it looks like a light sail, I don’t think anyone will argue with that.”