Science

Is solar system's first 'tourist' a spaceship?

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The first ever interstellar object in the solar system might be an artificial light sail sent to look for signs of life, it’s claimed.

In a study released on Thursday, astronomers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics published their observations of an interstellar object known as ‘Oumuamua’.

According to the scientists, the rock — which is the first observed to enter our star system from another — received an unexpected boost in speed as it passed through the inner solar system last year.

Because the object seems to exhibit qualities associated with both asteroids and comets, the astronomers have speculated its unusual acceleration might be as a result of a ‘light sail of artificial origin’ being pushed by solar radiation.

The study ‘Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?’ was conducted by Shmuel Bialy, a researcher at the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) and Professor Abraham Loeb, director of the ITC, the Frank B Baird Jr Professor of Science at Harvard University.

The astronomers wrote: “Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that ‘Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment”.

The asteroid was first spotted by the Haleakala observatory in Hawaii on October 19 last year.

The strange cigar-shape of the object and its unusual behaviour led many to speculate that it might be an alien artefact.

In the year since debate has raged in the scientific community as to whether Oumuamua is a comet or an asteroid. The object appeared to speed up as it left the solar system — suggesting it had omitted materials from its surface after being heated by the Sun in a way consistent with a comet.

However, as it did not go through a similar process when it was closest to the Sun, Bialy and Loeb argue it is a light sail — a form of spacecraft that relies on radiation pressure to generate propulsion. Loeb told ‘Universe Today’: “Oumuamua could be an active piece of alien technology that came to explore our Solar System.

“The alternative is to imagine that Oumuamua was on a reconnaissance mission. The assumption that Oumumua followed a random orbit requires the production of such objects per star in our galaxy.”

Karen Meech, an astronomer at University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy and co-author of the study, suggested that dust grains on the surface of most comets had eroded away during Oumuamua’s journey through interstellar space.

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