New research from Harvard astronomers claims the only explanation for a mysterious object that flew close to the sun past year is an alien spacecraft, but their bold claim has drawn criticism from a number of other astronomers.
Oumuamua, which is the Hawaiian name for "pathfinder" or "scout", was discovered in October 2017 by the PanSTARRS1 telescope after it spotted a new spot of light coming from a odd direction at an unusually fast speed.
Now a new article by researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for astrophysics considers the likelihood that the elongated dark-red object, which is 10 times longer than its width and moves at a speed of 196 000 miles per hour, may have "artificial origin".
Now professor Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard's astronomy department, and post-doctoral fellow Shmuel Bialy have again raised the possibility that it's an alien ship - or possibly a piece of one.
The scientists are not claiming with certainty that Oumamua was definitely of alien origin (they admit in their paper that scenario is "exotic"), but the shape was determined to have come from outside our solar system. Given the name "Oumuamua" - which means messenger from afar arriving first, or scout, in Hawaiian - the object is believed to be the first interstellar visitor to our solar system.
"It's certainly ingenious to show that an object the size of Oumuamua might be sent by aliens", says SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak. Instead of the normal mechanic used by comets to accelerate (called "outgassing"), the authors suggest solar radiation pressure could explain 'Oumuamua's behavior.
"It is impossible to guess the objective behind Oumuamua without more data", Loeb was quoted as saying.
"Because I am a scientist, not a believer, I rely on evidence to find possible physical explanations for observed phenomena".
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The technology, NBC news says, is still in its infancy on Earth, however.
Jackson said the spectral data from 'Oumuamua looks like an asteroid or a comet, while that of a solar sail would look very different. In order for it to be effective, Oumuamua needs to be less than a millimeter in thickness, like a sail.
The solar sail would also be thinner than the authors of the new paper describe, he said.
Loeb said he is not definitively claiming the object is alien, but said it is important to acknowledge the possibility.
"The thing you have to understand is: scientists are perfectly happy to publish an outlandish idea if it has even the tiniest *sliver* of a chance of not being wrong", Katherine Mack, an astrophysicist, wrote on Twitter.
The truth may be hard to establish, as Oumuamua has left the solar system and is no longer visible even with telescopes.
"I have no problem with this kind of speculative study", Bailer-Jones added.