For hundreds of millions of years, an unusual object has traversed the Milky Way Galaxy, heading straight for us.
And on October 19, 2017, the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii detected it – the first known interstellar object to enter the Solar System. Designated 1I/2017 U1, or ‘Oumuamua, by the International Astronomical Union, the object was later found to be an asteroid unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
The asteroid is fairly odd – it’s extremely elongated and, according to NASA’s Paul Chodas, “shaped like nothing we’ve ever seen in our own solar system neighborhood.” It measures a quarter mile (or 400 meters) long, with a metallic and “somewhat reddish hue.”
Currently traveling roughly 85,700 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per second), ‘Oumuamua is likely to have come from the “direction of the bright star Vega,” says NASA . In May 2018, it will pass Jupiter’s orbit, in January 2019 it will pass Saturn. From there, it will voyage beyond our solar system.
In the meantime, astronomers are eager to gather as much information about this interstellar traveler as possible. And, wouldn’t you know it, its unique characteristics have raised more than a few questions.
A Strange Visitor
“For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there, and now – for the first time – we have direct evidence they exist. This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own .” – Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate
This being the first interstellar object we’ve ever successfully detected is, alone, an incredible thing. But some believe ‘Oumuamua could actually be more than a mere asteroid.
Even SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, pointed one of their radio telescopes toward the object to detect possible radio transmissions, though nothing has turned up, yet.
Strangest of all are the recent claims that the asteroid could actually be an alien spacecraft with busted engines, helplessly careening through space.
That’s not an idea astronomers are necessarily taking seriously. However, on his blog, the associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics Jason Wright muses about the possibility.
Could ‘Oumuamua be an alien spacecraft? Oddly enough, its trajectory, axis ratio and the way its tumbling are consistent with how a spacecraft would act if its engines had failed.
It’s unclear why the asteroid is tumbling the way it is, though its strange shape may have something to do with it. Or, there could be more here than meets the eye.
That’s an interesting post, along with its update. Check it out.
By the way, ‘Oumuamua means “first messenger” in Hawaiian. Even though, for now, it appears to be an ordinary, albeit peculiar, asteroid, it makes you wonder if some day in the far distant future, an alien civilization in another star system will detect one of our space probes.
What will they think? I suppose we’ll never know.
Or maybe we will.