Scientists are now arguing about whether Oumuamua was sent by aliens

Artist’s impression of the large thin ’Oumuamua object venting gasses as it approaches the sun

Artist’s impression of the large thin ’Oumuamua object venting gasses as it approaches the sun

In a paper set to be published next week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astrophysicists Avi Loeb and Shmuel Bilay claim Oumuamua could be, "a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization".

Yesterday, a number of astronomers criticized Loeb's conclusions, particularly the lack of direct evidence pointing to alien influence.

Since scientists are not able to explain the unusual features of a celestial body and its origin, giving it finally a new class of "interstellar objects". For reference, Voyager 1, the spacecraft that's now leaving our solar system, is traveling at around 35,000 miles per hour.

While it's not explicitly clear that Oumuamua was sent by aliens, researchers used meticulous mathematical analysis to make the case that the object was a "lightsail of artificial origin" due to the way it sped up as it passed by the sun.

That high speed is what the Harvard astronomers are basing their theory on. Its unusual origin story wasn't the only thing that set Oumuamua apart from other comets and asteroids - it was also odd in shape; highly elongated, like a cosmic cigar. But 'Oumuamua didn't have a "coma", the atmosphere and dust that surrounds comets as they melt. Loeb is saying that the Oumuamua doesn't exhibit the type of characteristics seen in other comets and asteroids.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, said: "It's certainly ingenious to show that an object the size of Oumumua might be sent by aliens to another star system with nothing but a solar sail for power". In order for it to be effective, Oumuamua needs to be less than a millimeter in thickness, like a sail.

Solar sails also can't change course after being launched, so if 'Oumuamua was truly a solar sail, it would be traceable back to its origin.

This year, the mystery of Oumuamua deepened further. "But until every other possibility has been exhausted dozen times over, even the authors probably don't believe it. What they have said is there is interesting and unusual and anomalous behaviour which could potentially be explained by it being an alien spacecraft".

Loeb said he is not definitively claiming the object is alien, but said it is important to acknowledge the possibility. It's also possible Oumuamua was just created to wander through space, collecting information, and our solar system just happened to be in its way - its operators weren't necessarily looking to pry into the lives of humans.

"I have no problem with this kind of speculative study", Bailer-Jones added. There are plausible natural processes that might have done the trick, or maybe it really was aliens.

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