Is an unknown space object a “message in a bottle”?

Oumuamua, discovered in 2017 by the Pan-STARRS observatory, displayed many properties that raised the possibility that it was artificially manufactured by a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technology.

Are we alone in the universe? Recent findings suggest that we might not be.

Hawaii\’s Pan-STARRS observatory can detect reflected sunlight from objects larger than a football field passing within Earth\’s orbit around the sun. The first known interstellar visitor of that size was discovered by this telescope on October 19, 2017 and named Oumuamua – “explorer” in Hawaiian.

The object displayed many anomalous properties that made it unlike any naturally occurring comet or asteroid astronomers had previously witnessed in the solar system, suggesting it was artificially manufactured by a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technology.

Oumuamua had a flattened shape with extreme proportions – never before seen among comets or asteroids – as well as an unusual initial speed of 196,000 miles per hour and a bright appearance that exhibited an outward thrust from the sun in excess of the sun\’s gravitational force. The excess force could be explained if Oumuamua was propelled by the pressure of sunlight; that is, if it is an artificially manufactured light sail, a slim relic of promising technology for space exploration that could accelerate spacecraft by harnessing the thrust of light. Such technology is currently being developed by the Starshot Initiative and other organizations. This possibility would imply that Oumuamua is a message in a bottle of unknown origin.

Oumuamua\’s numerous anomalies force all natural scientific interpretations of it to invoke objects we\’ve never seen before, all with unlikely drawbacks. They include the hypothesis that it is a hydrogen iceberg – but that it would have probably evaporated by absorbing starlight during its journey; a nitrogen iceberg sheared off the surface of a Pluto-like planet around other stars – but that requires much more raw material than is available in the Milky Way; a “dust bunny” a hundred times thinner than air, but which might not have the material strength to withstand heating to hundreds of degrees by the Sun; or a tidal disruption relic, which would not have the pancake shape deduced for Oumuamua.

The experience of finding Oumuamua is similar to walking on a beach and discovering a bottle among all the natural rocks and shells. Even if Oumuamua is an artificially manufactured \’bottle\’ – unlike all the natural rocks in the solar system – it is likely to be equipment billions of years old and out of service. Most stars formed billions of years before the sun, and technological relics launched into space by another c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳ are probably too old to be functional. We can learn more about technological relics by taking close-up pictures. Such a photo could have helped determine whether Oumuamua was a natural rock or an artificial object made by an e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ c̳i̳v̳i̳l̳i̳z̳a̳t̳i̳o̳n̳.

Getting our hands on a piece of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technology would change the way we perceive our place in the universe, our space aspirations, and our philosophical and theological beliefs. Copying an a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ technology that the world does not possess could be a financial and scientific goldmine. However, it would be a psychological shock, and we must prepare for it.

Stories about occasional miracles are the basis of myths, but they do not stand up to the standards of science. The situation is complicated by the testimonies of eyewitnesses of specific events. Congress ordered the P̳e̳n̳t̳a̳g̳o̳n̳ to reveal everything it knows about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena by June 2021. And last month, “60 Minutes” reported on the federal government\’s acknowledgment of said FANI. But this focus on past eyewitness reports is flawed. It would be wise to advance scientific research with the best technology on Earth. Rather than declassify documents reflecting decades-old technologies used by unscientific witnesses, it would be much better to deploy state-of-the-art recording devices, such as cameras or audio sensors, to the locations from which the reports are coming, and look for unusual signs.

A scientific expedition focused on reproducing the old reports would be far more valuable in unraveling the mysteries behind them. Its most important purpose would be to inject scientific rigor and credibility into the discussion of whether we are alone – or not.

Avi Loeb is the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, founding director of the Harvard Black Hole Initiative, and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is the author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.”

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