Thursday, December 21, 2017

Oumuamua is silent, but still interesting

It was a fun idea while it lasted.

Space scientists, including a Harvard astronomer and Stephen Hawking, made a startling suggesting two weeks ago. It had to do with Oumuamua.

That's the name given to an asteroid-like object first sighted back in October. By analyzing it's speed and trajectory, astronomers soon realized that Oumuamua originated outside of our solar system. It's doubtless not the first time one of these types of things has wondered through, but it is the first time we've had the means to detect and identify one. What's more, it didn't take long for Oumuamua to start exhibiting a few strange characteristics.

For one, it is shiny. That should mean it's covered in ice. However, there is no "outgassing," meaning when an icy body nears the Sun, warms, and releases gases as a trail. There is also the matter of its shape. You can see an depiction of it at the top of the post that it's strangely elongated. All of this prompted scientists, including the aforementioned Hawking, to request that Oumuamua be scanned for radio transmissions. This might, just might, be an alien probe visiting our solar system. After all, we've been spitting probes into the universe for decades now, right?

When I read this, I was all abubble that prominent scientists would even consider the possibility. It raised several different Star Trek scenarios in mind:

-This is the "whale probe" from Star Trek IV. Thank goodness we still have a few humpback whales around in our oceans.

-This is the "planet killer" from the Original Series episode, "The Doomsday Machine."

-It's a Borg ship with an alternate design.

-It's V'Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture...a much maligned film that I still defend as having one of the most intriguing and mind-expanding premises of the entire franchise.

Alas, none of these were to be. After study via the Breakthrough Listen initiative, nothing remotely resembling radio transmissions could be detected. Meaning it's just a plain lump of rock. So then why no outgassing? There's a proposed answer for that question that should at least tantalize exobiologists.

Oumuamua may be "wrapped in organic insulation." This coating, mostly carbon, was discovered via spectroscopy. In fact, you'll read at the link that scientists have found the surface of this thing to be unlike either rocks on Earth or those of the asteroid belt. There may also ice or even liquid water deep in its interior as it is shielded by the coating. That's right. Water and possibly organic matter from another star system. It might even have full, living organisms. Remember, we're finding life in all manner of inhospitable locales here on Earth.

I like David Brin's idea. He's an astronomer and science fiction author who suggests pointing our SETI arrays at Oumuamua's point of origin. I'd also like to add one other point. While the evidence does seem to overwhelmingly indicate that this is nothing more than an asteroid, bizarre shape aside, I wonder if the "alien probe or craft" hypothesis should be entirely discarded just because radio signals weren't detected?

If this, on the off chance, really is the product of an alien civilization capable of interstellar travel, would they still be using radio?  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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