When you think of space rocks, what do you think? If Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 comes to mind first, we applaud you for your excellent taste but regretfully inform you that that’s not where this is headed.
No, most-talked about space rock on Earth – or rather, above it – is Oumuamua. Meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” in Hawaiian, Oumuamua was first sighted in October and has become the topic of fierce discussion and scrutiny within the scientific community.
The object was first discovered on the night of October 19th, 2017. After being picked up by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope atop a Hawaiian volcano, Rob Weryk – a postdoctoral researcher for the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy spotted something that no human ever had before: an object from outside of our solar system barreling past us.
At first, Weryk and his team believed the object to be a comet, but Oumuamua offered none of the typical indicators that it was such. Typically, comets form what is called a coma – a trail of dust left by the rock heating as it they pass within the vicinity of our sun. No matter how long Weryk hunted for the coma, there was none to be found.
Calling in the rest of the astronomic community for help, Werky’s hunt has become the globe’s. As more eyes trained their gaze onto Oumuamua, more questions arose. Detailed analysis began to reveal more about it – and it only gets weirder.
Oumuamua’s scale is perhaps the strangest thing about it. It is cigar-shaped, roughly 800 meters long, and is red in color. Large asteroids are nothing to balk at, but the sheer proportions of the object have called some to question whether or not the object is natural or synthetic in nature – and there’s credence to their questioning. It’s difficult to imagine what sort of conditions nature needs to produce something of that size and proportion.
The mystery doesn’t end there, however. The object was zipping along so fast through our solar system that astronomers claim there is no possibility that it originated from within our happy little system of Sol. It clearly came from somewhere – but where could that be?
There have been theories that an object of this sort could appear in our solar system given how turbulent of a place the budding universe was, but now that we’ve finally seen one, the theories have given way to excitement from all fields in uncovering more about the mysterious traveler.
Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire who is behind Breakthrough Listen – a $100 million search for extraterrestrial life, has announced that his company will start analyzing Oumuamua for any potential radio signals that the object could be broadcasting out on frequencies.
Although all ground-based telescopes have already lost sight of the object, several space-based lenses still have it in view as it speeds on its way out of our solar system. With a rough estimated viewing window of late into December 2017, Milner and his coworkers are going to have a lot of data to parse through on a very short time frame. While the probability of the object being nothing more than a lump of frozen matter is incredibly high, we’ll still be keeping our Reese’s Pieces handy in case of first contact.