Remember 'Oumuamua, the mysterious cigar-shaped asteroid that's hurtling through our solar system at 27 miles per second? SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) professional practitioners are beginning to question whether the interstellar asteroid is a natural object at all.
This oddly-shaped asteroid, which passed within 60 lunar distances from Earth on October 14, has a number of peculiar features that have perplexed astronomers. The interstellar asteroid is quite small, a mere 800 meters (about 2,624 feet) in length, yet it's about 10 times as long as it is wide. On top of that, it sports an enigmatic reddish hue that is believed to be the result of cosmic irradiation spanning millions of years.
'Oumuamua's unique appearance has left astronomers wondering whether the asteroid might actually be something else than what it appears, for instance, an alien spacecraft.
Researchers specialized in long-distance space transportation have hinted that an interstellar spaceship would most likely have a cigar or needle shape, just like 'Oumuamua, as this is the optimal shape to minimize friction and collisions in outer space.
Therefore, Breakthrough Initiatives, the alien contact program founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in 2015, is planning to study this first confirmed interstellar visitor before it zooms out of our solar system to make sure it is, in fact, natural and not artificial.
In a recent news release, Breakthrough Initiatives announced that the program, dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial civilizations, is prepared "to explore the possibility that 'Oumuamua could be an artifact."To that effect, Breakthrough Initiatives will be observing 'Oumuamua via its $100 billion Breakthrough Listen project, an astronomical enterprise that actively searches for alien life in the cosmos with the help of antennae and other detection apparatuses. This summer, Breakthrough Listen made headlines after it detected as much as 15 new fast radio bursts from the FRB 121102 galaxy 3 billion light-years away.
The project's newest goal is to scan 'Oumuamua using the Green Bank Telescope, based in West Virginia, to look for any evidence of alien technology, such as potential radio transmissions. The 100-meter telescope will be aimed at the interstellar asteroid for approximately 10 hours, searching across four radio bands from 1 to 12 GHz, details the news release.
In a statement for the Scientific American, Milner points out that 'Oumuamua is close enough for the radio telescope to "detect a signal the strength of a mobile phone," if such a signal were to be transmitted by the interstellar asteroid.
"We don't want to be sensational in any way, and we are very realistic about the chances this is artificial, but because this is a unique situation we think mankind can afford 10 hours of observing time using the best equipment on the planet to check a low-probability hypothesis."According to the Breakthrough Initiatives news release, the Green Bank Telescope would only require less than a minute to detect a cellphone-strength radio signal coming from the asteroid, considering that 'Oumuamua is much closer than New Horizons and Voyager 1, or any of the other probes humanity has sent into space.
The cigar-shaped interstellar traveler, which Breakthrough Initiatives acknowledges "has a highly unusual structure for an asteroid," is currently about two astronomical units away from our planet — twice the distance between Earth and the sun.
However, 'Oumuamua (which is already halfway to Jupiter) will not remain within the telescope's field of vision for long, so astronomers need to act fast if they are to glean as much information as possible from the wandering asteroid.This is why Breakthrough Listen will commence its observations as soon as possible, starting tomorrow (December 13) at 3 p.m. ET, the news release disclosed.
"Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it's a great target for Listen," said Andrew Siemion, Breakthrough Listen's lead scientist and director of Berkeley SETI Research Center.
Although Siemion believes the interstellar asteroid "is most likely a natural object," he concedes that, in the absence of a similar encounter, its presence in our solar system "would indeed be very strange and would increase interest from a SETI perspective."
Nevertheless, if the Green Bank Telescope should happen to pick up any evidence of alien technology, Breakthrough Listen is fully prepared to let everyone know right away. In this scenario, the first step would be to redo the observations in order to confirm the potential radio signal coming from 'Oumuamua, and then immediately contact astronomers worldwide to target the asteroid with other radio telescopes, the Scientific American reports.
"There's no way to keep something like this a secret, because it requires us calling everyone we can," Siemion explained in a statement.
Even if Breakthrough Listen doesn't detect any radio signal coming from an alien civilization, the research team still hopes to gather further data on the chemical composition of the famous asteroid.
"Listen observations will cover portions of the radio spectrum in which the object has not yet been observed, and could provide important information about the possibility of water/ice, or the chemistry of a coma (gaseous envelope), neither of which have yet been identified," shows the news release.