A speck of light discovered nearly two months ago has turned out to be one of the most exciting astronomical discoveries of recent times.
I wrote about this about a month ago – an object was discovered near Earth which was initially thought to be a comet or asteroid, but was moving so fast that it could not be gravitationally bound by the sun.
It had shot in from outside of the solar system, rounded by the sun and the Earth, and is now shooting out back into interstellar space.
This object is the most “alien” that we have ever seen near the Earth – nothing of its kind has been detected before.
This object is now confirmed to have originated outside of the solar system. Due to this, it has been given a name. Previously designated C/2017 U1 – C for comet, and then A/2017 U1, A for asteroid, as it was known as the last time I wrote about it – it is now known as ʻOumuamua – from the Hawaiian language, essentially meaning “scout”, or “a messenger from afar arriving first”.
A new scientific designation was created to classify this type of object. The scientific designation for ʻOumuamua is now 1I/2017 U1 – I as it is an interstellar object, and 1 as it is the first of its kind discovered.
Perhaps the second most interesting thing about ʻOumuamua, apart from its origin, is its extremely unusual shape. It is thought to be six times longer than it is wide or high – 180m x 30m x 30m. An object this elongated has not been discovered before.
It is interesting to me that the first object we find of this shape is not from our solar system at all. It just so happens that the first object we find in space this long and cylindrical is from interstellar space.
There is speculation that this object could be the result of some kind of violent event – perhaps a tremendously powerful volcanic eruption spewing debris into space, or some kind of planetary impact, or a stellar explosion. This may help to explain its unusual shape.
Of course, there is always the explanation that we all find ourselves drawn towards, and hope for – that this is an object of alien origin.
I don’t believe there has been any object discovered more resembling some kind of spaceship than this one.
Perhaps this object is some kind of alien probe, sent to chart and map our solar system, and send back information to its point of origin.
Maybe it is some kind of derelict ship, which suffered some kind of calamity and is now drifting through space dead, and just so happened to encounter our solar system.
Or maybe it is some kind of sleeper-ship – some sort of alien colony ship filled with passengers in suspended animation, waiting for the signal to be woken up. It is fun to think about!
It could have any number of crazy explanations.
While these explanations are unlikely, it is impossible to discount them. We really have no way of knowing what this object is.
It is a shame that we do not yet have the technology to intercept ʻOumuamua and analyse it. It would be an extremely valuable opportunity to learn more about objects from beyond our solar system. Perhaps if we encounter another object in 30 or so years, we may have the technology to launch a spacecraft, catch up with it and take a good look at it up close.
At our rate it takes years to design and build a spacecraft, and then launch it and potentially wait a decade or more for it to reach its target. If we were to start designing a spacecraft to intercept ʻOumuamua, it would have to be the fastest spacecraft ever made, and even then it could take many years for it to actually reach it.
We will have to hope that we spot more objects like this in the future, hopefully with advance notice so we have time to send something up to have a close look at it.
These are exciting times, and I cannot wait for the space discoveries we will continue to make in the future!