Ever since its discovery in mid-October as it passed by Earth already outbound from our solar system, the mysterious object dubbed ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for “first messenger”) has left scientists utterly perplexed. Zooming down almost perpendicularly inside Mercury’s orbit at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour—too fast for our star’s gravity to catch—‘Oumuamua appeared to have been dropped in on our solar system from some great interstellar height, picking up even more speed on a slingshot-like loop around the sun before soaring away for parts unknown. It is now already halfway to Jupiter, too far for a rendezvous mission and rapidly fading from the view of Earth’s most powerful telescopes.
Astronomers scrambling to glimpse the fading object have revealed additional oddities. ‘Oumuamua was never seen to sprout a comet-like tail after getting close to the sun, hinting it is not a relatively fresh bit of icy flotsam from the outskirts of a nearby star system. This plus its deep red coloration—which mirrors that of some cosmic-ray-bombarded objects in our solar system—suggested that ‘Oumuamua could be an asteroid from another star. Yet those same observations also indicate ‘Oumuamua might be shaped rather like a needle, up to 800 meters long and only 80 wide, spinning every seven hours and 20 minutes. That would mean it is like no asteroid ever seen before, instead resembling the collision-minimizing form favored in many designs for notional interstellar probes. What’s more, it is twirling at a rate that could tear a loosely-bound rubble pile apart. Whatever ‘Oumuamua is, it appears to be quite solid—likely composed of rock, or even metal—seemingly tailor-made to weather long journeys between stars. So far there are few if any wholly satisfactory explanations as to how such an extremely elongated solid object could naturally form, let alone endure the forces of a natural high-speed ejection from a star system—a process thought to involve a wrenching encounter with a giant planet.
These bizarre characteristics have raised eyebrows among professional practitioners of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, who use large radio telescopes to listen for interstellar radio transmissions from other cosmic civilizations. If ‘Oumuamua is in fact artificial, the reasoning goes, it might be transmitting or at least leaking radio waves.
So far limited observations of ‘Oumuamua, using facilities such as the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array, have turned up nothing. But this Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern time, the Breakthrough Listen project will aim the West Virgina-based 100-meter Green Bank Telescope at ‘Oumuamua for 10 hours of observations in a wide range of radio frequencies, scanning the object across its entire rotation in search of any signals. Breakthrough Listen is part of billionaire Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives program, a collection of lavishly-funded efforts aiming to uncover evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. Other projects include Breakthrough Starshot, which intends to develop and launch interstellar probes, as well as Breakthrough Watch, which would use large telescopes to study exoplanets for signs of life.Hhhhhmmmm...To read more, click here.