In October 2017, a telescope operated by the University of Hawaii picked up a strange cigar-shaped object (artist rendering in top image), which had slingshotted past the sun at a more-than-brisk top speed of 196,000 miles per hour. Scientists at the university dubbed it ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for scout, and at first labeled it an asteroid, then a comet, but agreed that it came from another solar system.

Around the world, telescopes were quickly aimed toward ‘Oumuamua’s path, and scientists dove into the data. One of them, Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department, published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters the following year theorizing that the object could be artificial. “Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” he and co-author Shmuel Bialy, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, wrote. “Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”


That’s not something you read every day in a serious scientific journal. The paper went viral and Loeb began fielding an onslaught of media calls while fellow scientists weighed in. In terms of his colleagues’ reaction, Loeb said, “almost all of them reacted favorably, and they thought, you know, it’s just an interesting idea.”


Even so, he added, there were some negative reactions as well. One cutting tweet by Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State University, reads: “No, ‘Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it.” In Forbes, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel called the paper a “shocking example of sensationalist, ill-motivated science.”

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