Cigar-shaped comet may actually be an alien probe, Harvard scientists suggest

Illustration of Oumuamua

Illustration of Oumuamua. Credit European Space Organisation M Kornmesser

New research from Harvard astronomers claims the only explanation for a mysterious object that flew close to the sun a year ago is an alien spacecraft, but their bold claim has drawn criticism from a number of other astronomers.

Scientists first spotted 'Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word for scout or messenger, in 2017, when they detected it blazing through the solar system at 196,000 miles per hour, Reuters reported.

Oumuamua was dubbed an "interstellar object" when scientists decided it was neither an asteroid or a comet; while comets can speed up in a process known as "outgassing", the shape lacked the cloud of dust that surrounds a melting comet.

The paper's authors, which include Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard's astronomy department, suggest the object could be a "lightsail" used to propel spacecraft with solar energy. That means the object would be made of some thin material that could absorb radiation from the sun - either a naturally created material we've never seen before, or something made by aliens.

Astronomers were sure that the object was not a member of our solar system and came from some distant world in the universe.

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The scientists also noted that light-sails with similar dimensions have originated on earth. After being described as an asteroid, a team of the European Space Agency estimated in June 2018 that it was more likely a comet - with ice that turns into gas near the Sun.

Recall Oumuamua, who came from interstellar space is one of the most protoplastic space objects known to science.

But not everyone agrees that the "cigar-shaped" space object shows signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Loeb said he is not definitively claiming the object is alien, but said it is important to acknowledge the possibility.

In a letter published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on 12 November, the researchers add that Oumuamua could be a spacecraft pushed along by light falling on its surface.

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Of course, the pair aren't claiming that Oumuamua's definitely of alien origin. It's also possible Oumuamua was just created to wander through space, collecting information, and our solar system just happened to be in its way - its operators weren't necessarily looking to pry into the lives of humans.

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"This unusual object ... is less than [400 metres] in diameter and is moving remarkably fast", NASA said at the time.

Astronomers were baffled, eventually settling on the term "interstellar object", the Washington Post reported.

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