Science

Scientists Are Tuning In To Oumuamua, Our First Interstellar Visitor

Oumuamua is moving fast, but scientists are listening in to see if they can hear anything indicating that it’s a space probe from another world. The space object is believed to be our solar system’s first visitor from another star system.

Oumuamua
geralt / Pixabay

Oumuamua, the “first messenger”

The University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRs project initially discovered the object about two months ago as it moved by Earth on the way out of our solar system. It was dubbed Oumuamua, which means “first messenger” in Hawaiian. Scientists at Breakthrough Listen are studying the object for signals to see if it might offer evidence of alien life. Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner funded the group with $100 million.

According to Scientific American, it was moving too fast for our sun’s gravity to capture it and pull it into orbit. At the very least, scientists say it doesn’t appear to be in orbit around our sun because of its very high speed, so they expect it to continue back into interstellar space on its same trajectory. Breakthrough Listen estimates the object’s top speed at about 196,000 miles per hour.

Ideal shape for a space probe

While Oumuamua is interesting enough simply because it may be the first interstellar visitor to our solar system, it also has a very unusual shape. Scientists describe it as having an “elongated cigar shape,” according to the group.” It’s hundreds of meters long with a height and width that are about a tenth as long as its length, which makes it a very unusual shape for an asteroid, and that’s not the only reason its shape interests scientists so much.

Researchers who have been studying whether traveling long distances through space is possible believe that a needle or cigar shape would be the best one for an interstellar space probe, according to Breakthrough Listen. Such a shape would enable it to move more easily through the stars by minimizing dust and gas damage.

One of the other features that makes Oumuamua so unusual is the fact that scientists did not see a tail like comets have while near the sun. The space object is also a deep red color, matching some of the objects in our own solar system that have been bombarded by cosmic rays, explains Scientific American. Oumuamua also is twirling through space very fast, and scientists say it looks very solid and possibly made up of rock or metal.

Artifact or something else?

Breakthrough Listen emphasized in its press release that “a natural origin” for Oumuamua but added that there isn’t any consensus on what it could be. Breakthrough Listen is studying the space object to see whether it might be an artifact of some kind.

The organization plans to spend hours listening for radio signals from Oumuamua by monitoring it across four radio bands spanning from one to 12 GHz. The group will start listening at 3 p.m. Eastern tomorrow and stay tuned in for 10 hours, which will be its first observation phase. The time will be organized into four “epochs,” with each epoch designated by the period of rotation.

If Oumuamua is giving off radio signals within those bands, scientists could get an answer very quickly after they begin. Breakthrough Listen said that at the object’s current distance, the Green Bank instrument would be able to pick up a transmitter in less than a minute.