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Mon Jan 4, 2021, 09:00 AM

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Alien Trash


Artist’s impression of a possible shape for `Oumuamua. The object’s length is estimated to be between tens to hundreds of meters, up to the size of a football field.

At first, scientists thought it was an ordinary comet. But Loeb said that assumption ran the risk of allowing “the familiar to define what we might discover.” “What would happen if a caveman saw a cellphone?” he asked. “He’s seen rocks all his life, and he would have thought it was just a shiny rock.” Loeb soon opened his mind to another possibility: It was not a comet but discarded tech from an alien civilization. A number of unusual properties about the object helped Loeb make this conclusion.

First were ‘Oumuamua’s dimensions.

What’s more, ‘Oumuamua was unusually bright. It was at least “ten times more reflective than typical solar system [stony] asteroids or comets,” the author writes. He likens its surface to that of shiny metal.

But the anomaly that really pushed Loeb toward his E.T. hypothesis was the way ‘Oumuamua moved. “The excess push away from the sun — that was the thing that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Loeb calculated that with these and other anomalies, the chances that ‘Oumuamua was some random comet was around one in a quadrillion, leading him to his blockbuster hypothesis. But what was it exactly? One possibility, weirdly enough, could be found in technology we already have here on earth.

Some 400 years ago, astronomer Johannes Kepler observed comet tails blowing in what looked like a solar breeze and wondered if that same force could propel rocket ships through space like the wind pushes boats through water.

It was a smart idea that scientists now use to develop light sails for probes. Thin, reflective sheeting is unfurled in space to capture the particles streaming off the sun, propelling a ship at great speeds through the empty void. Alternatively, powerful lasers from earth could be aimed at the sail to make it go even faster.

Loeb, who is involved in a light-sail project to send a tiny, unmanned craft to a nearby star, said if we earthlings have thought of this idea, then why couldn’t aliens?

He and a colleague crunched the numbers and hypothesized that ‘Oumuamua was not actually cigar-shaped but possibly a disk less than a millimeter thick, with sail-like proportions that would account for its unusual acceleration as it moved away from the sun.

As to its purpose, Loeb isn’t entirely sure. He speculated it could be “space junk” that once served as a kind of space navigation buoy used by a long-ago civilization.

“The only way to look for [alien civilizations] is to look for their trash, like investigative journalists who look through celebrities’ trash,” Loeb said.



Scientists solve mystery of interstellar object 'Oumuamua
June 2018

Visitor from another solar system is actually a comet in disguise, say researchers

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