Space

Scientists listen for signs of alien technology coming from asteroid ‘Oumuamua

Scientists listen for signs of...
Artist's impression of the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, also known as A/2017 U1
Artist's impression of the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, also known as A/2017 U1
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Artist's impression of the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, also known as A/2017 U1
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Artist's impression of the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, also known as A/2017 U1

You can't get much more mysterious than the interstellar asteroid 'Oumuamua, but is it mysterious enough to be an artificial probe designed by a spacefaring alien civilization? Researchers at the Breakthrough Listen initiative want to find out, and have begun observing the asteroid in an effort to determine if it's a naturally occurring object (unfortunately that's the far more likely scenario) or something else entirely.

When astronomers first discovered 'Oumuamua on October 19, the asteroid had already made its closest approach to the Sun, and was racing towards the outer reaches of the Solar System. Data collected on the asteroid allowed scientists to piece together its orbital trajectory to a high degree of accuracy.

The orbital data, in conjunction with the knowledge that 'Oumuamua was hurtling through the solar system at a top speed of around 196,000 mph (315,431 km/h) led scientists to conclude that the object was not gravitationally bound to our Sun, and was instead a transient visitor from interstellar space.

The fact that 'Oumuamua represents the first detection of an extrasolar object visiting our solar system is incredible enough in its own right, but the bizarre shape of the asteroid has some questioning whether it was more than it seemed.

According to this line of thinking, the 400 meter (1,312 ft)-long cigar-like shape of 'Oumuamua would make some sense in the context of an alien probe. Its streamlined profile would minimize the drag and damage caused by collisions with the clouds of gas and cosmic dust that populate the interstellar medium through which it may have been travelling for hundreds of millions of years prior to reaching our solar system.

Breakthrough Listen, which is engaged in an ambitious mission to search one million nearby stars, and 100 galaxies for evidence of technologically advanced alien species, has tasked the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, located in West Virginia, with collecting data on the asteroid across four radio bands, from 1 – 12 GHz, over the course of an initial 10-hour period.

'Oumuamua, which is currently located about 186 million miles (300 million km) from Earth, has never been observed in these radio bands. Despite the vast gulf of space separating telescope from would-be-probe, Breakthrough Listen stated in a press release that the GBT would be able to detect a signal from an omnidirectional transmitter with the power of a cellphone less than a minute after it left its source. In other words, if E.T. is trying to radio us from 'Oumuamua, we stand a pretty decent chance of hearing them.

So, best-case scenario – we find out that we are not alone in the universe, finally answering a question that has occupied humanity since we first looked to the stars as more than remote islands of light in the firmament, and began to understand their true nature.

Of course, if this phenomenally unlikely scenario comes to pass, it could also end up being a worst-case scenario, depending on whether our new neighbors are in the market for a resource-rich blue marble.

Then there is the far more likely outcome, in which scientists are about to get their hands on a treasure trove of new data on an awesomely weird visitor to our solar system before it slips away into the cold expanse of interstellar space, never to be seen again.

Source: Breakthrough Initiatives

11 comments
aki009
If I were an alien designing a probe that sends back data, my biggest concern would be efficiency of transmission, because the energy requirements increase massively if I didn't. Hence if this were an alien probe, we should not expect there to be any sidelobes to their transmissions and we'd only capture a signal in the unlikely event that we happen to be between the putative probe and its origin.
phissith
Is it really that hard to believe in such an asteroid exist? This particular one could have been in collisoin with something else and split off sending a wird looking shard into the cosmo.
VincentWolf
Perhaps an aircraft carrier inside? Just about the right size. Just kidding.
El Bonko
@phissith9 I don't think there are many people who actually believe it's artificial. They're just hoping it is, and the unusual shape is something to cling to. But aki009 is right, the only real way to know if it's signaling home would be to send a probe out to it (or across its path).
Rocky Stefano
If there was a space faring race able to send out a probe which can stroll around the galaxy at 200,000mph then I highly doubt they would be using anything as archaic as radio transmissions to phone home. People really know how to grab those grants.
Grumpyrelic
Nostalgia! Remember when the FBI investigated the song Louie Louie for two years (mid 20th century) looking for obscenities and messages from the devil? Maybe an old Russian satellite will wake up and beep at them from the same direction and keep the CIA busy. I am glad my taxes aren't funding this nonsense.
The 1 TaiN
Depends on WHAT if Anything is STILL Alive!/? Considering by Earth Standards this Asteroid/Vessel entered Our Solar System at ~150,000mph and Left by way of Sling Shot at ~195,000mph. Not exactly Warp Drive...
EZ
El Bonko--I'm curious as to why you think some people wish this huge rock-like formation is from an alien civilization. I would think the vast majority of humans would be hoping the opposite.
Miner Bob
Although it's come and gone we may not have missed the opportunity to do something about it (keep reading) . The object looks exactly like the ship, doing exactly the same thing of using our Sun to sling-shot though space, that Arthur C. Clarke wrote about in his sy-fi book, "Rendezvous with Rama". Earthlings in the book were able to "break into" the ship before it went scooting out of the solar system on it's way to be colonized by the creatures it was built to house. Because the creatures were did everything based on the number 3, (spoiler alert!) the book ends by inferring that 2 more ships should be coming along so we can learn more the next time.
The Creator
It's all good, we haven't driven the humpback whale to extinction yet so it will NOT attack us.