The first object to visit us from another galaxy could be a spaceship

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You know scientists: they give the coolest explanation possible to the public and then act like nerds and years later they release a newspaper saying something much more mundane. And so it is with the first object to enter our solar system from another place. Dubbed “Oumuamua,” scientists are still arguing over what the mysterious object might be, and surprisingly, the coolest possible explanation — an alien spacecraft — is still very much at play.

Oumuamua, or “messenger” in the language of Hawaii’s native people, was first spotted through the lenses of a powerful island-based observatory iin 2017. Its speed and orbit clearly indicated that Oumuamua came from outside the solar system and was spit out again shortly after swinging around the sun.

This gave scientists a very limited amount of time to study Oumuamua. Immediately, researchers were excited to be the first to observe an extra-solar object detouring through our neighborhood. Initially stunned a comet, it was later classified as a type of asteroid due to the lack of a coma — the halo of dust, gas and steam that envelops a comet’s nucleus.

But that didn’t seem quite right either. For five years, astronomers have tried to better define Oumuamua based on the limited amount of information available, but have failed to state with certainty that it is this or that. Could it be something more? Some kind of intelligent design?

A new study published by Chinese researchers in Astronomy and Astrophysics Wednesday ignores the possibility that Oumuamua is a ship because the brightness of its bright periods is not bright enough to indicate the propulsion of photon light.

I’m no scientist, but that seems like a silly reason to disregard spacecraft theory. First, while on Earth we think that light sails — sails that capture photons to propel spacecraft in the same way as a sailing ship — are cutting edge, sci-fi technology only recently used in Earth-bound space exploration, aliens that can travel between galaxies probably have something more advanced. In addition, Oumuamua seemed to use our sun efficiently to blast out of our solar system, just as effectively as it blasted in. Couldn’t that be part of his propulsion strategy? To jump from star to star and use its gravity to swing to distant places in our galaxy?

And Harvard physicist Avi Loeb agrees. Loeb told the Daily Beast that the spaceship theory still contains water. Even the Chinese researchers of the original article downplayed the alien angle, admitting that it may still be some kind of craft:

So when `Oumuamua flashed across the solar system, it should have been really bright in some areas—and nearly invisible in others. And while ‘Oumuamua’ did gets brighter and darker from our point of view on its strange journey, it didn’t get bright enoughShangfei said. “If it was a light sail, the brightness variation would have to be much greater.”

But there’s another explanation for “Oumuamua’s relative weakness,” Loeb said — and it’s the shape of a possible sail. The Chinese scientists assume that if `Oumuamua were a light sail craft, it would have a flat sail. A flat sail would reflect more light at its brightest times than, say, a concave sail.

But the sail “doesn’t have to be flat,” Loeb explained. He pointed out that he has been working with the Breakthrough Initiative, a science startup founded by Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Borisovich, on umbrella-shaped light sails as part of the initiative’s Starshot spacecraft project.

The whole argument about the shape of a possible sail could actually be moot. Oumuamua could be a spacecraft ‘in other forms,’ admitted Shangfei. In other words, it may not have a sail at all – and may instead rely on a different kind of propulsion system.

I didn’t think other scientists should insist that their colleagues use a little more imagination, but I think it’s happening. I’m just saying it might not be a spacecraft, but wouldn’t it be so much cooler if it was? Come on guys.

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