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07 November 2018, 09:57 | Edward Lowe
Illustration of Oumuamua. Credit European Space Organisation M Kornmesser
Nobody knows what Oumuamua is or where it came from, and it's too late to find out for sure.
The object was discovered past year with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope atop Haleakalā on Maui and was given the Hawaiian name ʻOumuamua, meaning 'a messenger from afar arriving first'.
The boulder-like object, nicknamed "Oumuamua", could be a "fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilisation", according to scientists from Harvard University. It was moving inexplicably fast but not circling the sun. The object has left our solar system and is no longer visible even with telescopes. "Namely that it's a comet or asteroid from afar". Scientists have also been unable to concretely identify it as a comet because it lacks a tail or "coma" around it.
But since Oumuamua's discovery, scientists have continued to wonder whether it could have originated from some intelligent life-form.
According to the new study compiled by Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb, "The large variations in its apparent magnitude and the non-trivial periodicity of the lightcurve, suggest that 'Oumuamua is rotating in an excited spin state (tumbling motion), and has an extreme aspect ratio of at least 5: 1, an unprecedented value for previously known asteroids and comets in the Solar System".
The change in course and speed was so pronounced they concluded it "might be a lightsail of artificial origin". "If Oumuamua is a lightsail", he added, "one possibility is that it was floating in interstellar space when our solar system ran into it, "like a ship bumping into a buoy on the surface of the ocean".
"I've been saying for years that the only thing that could happen that would make this more insane and I don't think anybody would blink, is if all of a sudden an alien spacecraft appeared above Earth", he added.
Although it's "extremely thin", the researchers said the object could survive interstellar travel over galactic distances and withstand collisions with gas and dust grains.
Oumuamua has already passed Earth on its way out of the solar system, so the object is too far away for scientists to continue studying it, meaning its origin, behaviour, and makeup will remain a mystery.
"A survey for lightsails as technosignatures [of extraterrestrial civilizations] in the solar system is warranted, irrespective of whether Oumuamua is one of them", Loeb told NBC News.
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