The head of Harvard’s department of astronomy thinks that there’s a possibility that a strange object that visited our Solar System from interstellar space may be an alien probe sent from a distant civilization.
He and a colleague outlined their idea in a paper published this week analyzing what the mysterious space object might be, setting off a media frenzy.
But let’s take a breath before we jubilantly cry “aliens.” A single idea about what this object could be doesn’t make it the only explanation, and many scientists still argue that a natural explanation is more plausible.
To add a bit of context, one of the scientists making this “exotic” claim is currently working on an initiative to look for extraterrestrial life in deep space, by sending probes from Earth to other star systems.
The paper that captured everyone’s attention is written by Harvard astrophysicists Avi Loeb and Shmuel Bialy, who tried to describe some weird behavior exhibited by a space rock called `Oumuamua.
Spotted last October, `Oumuamua is a mysterious object that is passing through our Solar System, coming from some unknown deep-space origin.
Objects like this one are thought to pass through our Solar System all the time, but this is the first exo-comet — or a comet from outside our cosmic neighborhood — that we’ve ever detected.
In addition to being a rare find, `Oumuamua is a bit bizarre. Astronomers expected a visitor of this kind to be an icy comet, surrounded by a trail of gas and dust as it passed close to the Sun.
But `Oumuamua seems to lack this kind of cloud, making it look more like an asteroid, which is mostly made of rock and metal. So no one was quite sure what this thing was — a comet, an asteroid, or something totally new.
Then after analyzing `Oumuamua’s orbit, scientists from the European Space Agency noticed that the object was accelerating, more so than it should be if it was just interacting with the gravity of the planets and Sun in our Solar System.
They concluded that `Oumuamua must be a comet; the Sun is likely heating up ice within the object, creating gas that provides an extra boost of speed.
However, Loeb and Bialy are skeptical about this “outgassing” claim, mostly because no one was able to observe gas and dust coming from `Oumuamua.
They also point to recent research from another lab, which is still under review by other scientists, that indicates that if gas were coming from this object, it would change how the rock is rotating — something that hasn’t been observed.
“This rules out the possibility that it’s a comet,” Loeb said.
Of course, the possibility exists. But aliens are a very bold claim to make when natural explanations are still on the table.
“I can understand the excitement, and as a scientist, I can’t sit here and say I have 100 percent evidence this was a natural object,” Fitzsimmons says. “It’s just that all the observations can be matched with a natural object.”
And that could be a problem when we actually do find signs of alien life one day.
Astronomers are finding new planets outside our Solar System all the time, and we’re working on more sophisticated technology to peer into the atmospheres of these worlds.
One day, we may find solid evidence that life exists in deep space, but it may be hard for the public to swallow if they think aliens have already been discovered.
“I don’t want people to think we already saw that when it actually happens,” says Mack. “I want people not to be super cynical about claims about aliens by the time we actually have something that is really solid evidence.”
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