Mysterious interstellar object floating in space might be alien, say Harvard researchers

New research from Harvard astronomers claims the only explanation for a mysterious object that flew close to the sun previous year is an alien spacecraft, but their bold claim has drawn criticism from a number of other astronomers.

Now a pair of Harvard researchers are raising the possibility that Oumuamua is an alien spacecraft.

Light sail technology has already been developed by scientists here on Earth, such as Japan's IKAROS project and the Starshot Initiative, the authors write.

"This is the only other explanation we could come up with", said Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard's department of astronomy.

Since its discovery, scientists have been at odds to explain its unusual features and precise origins, with researchers first calling it a comet and then an asteroid before finally deeming it the first of its kind: a new class of "interstellar objects".

"Recent observational and theoretical studies imply that 'Oumuamua is not an active comet", the researchers said in a draft version of their study.

Jackson said the spectral data from 'Oumuamua looks like an asteroid or a comet, while that of a solar sail would look very different. It's dark red, somewhere between 250m and one kilometre long, ten times longer than it is wide, and is spinning end-over-end through space at about 196,000 miles per hour.

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The cigar-shaped rock is now speeding through the galaxy and is the first known interstellar object to enter our solar system.

The object has been described as "a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object, about 400 metres long, and is unlike anything normally found in the solar system".

At least, that's what astronomers from Harvard University suggest in a research paper.

If nothing else, Loeb hopes this story serves as a vehicle to make the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Institute (SETI) more mainstream through evidence-based science. The name "Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "scout" or "messenger".

"It's possible it's space debris, it's possible it could be artificial", he said.

The change in course and speed was so pronounced they concluded it "might be a lightsail of artificial origin". "Since it is too late to image Oumuamua with existing telescopes or chase it with chemical rockets", they wrote, "its likely origin and properties could only be deciphered by searching for other objects of its type in the future". "But until every other possibility has been exhausted dozen times over, even the authors probably don't believe it".

The Harvard paper will be published November 12 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, NBC News reports. That means the object would be made of some thin material that could absorb radiation from the sun - either a naturally created material we've never seen before, or something made by aliens.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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