On Oct. 19, 2017, the first interstellar object ever known to visit our solar system soared past Earth at a whopping 196,000 miles per hour. The interstellar “object” was thought to be a comet, but scientists and skeptics are unsure. The object, officially named ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “a messenger from afar arriving first,” has origins that are unknown. Much about ‘Oumuamua continues to be a mystery to this day, but scientists may have a new explanation for the strange object.
Originally, when the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope first caught a glimpse of ‘Oumuamua, scientists classified it as a comet. However, once they began to look more at the nature of the “comet,” astronomers and scientists were puzzled by its behavior. Observations would reveal that ‘Oumuamua had no signs of cometary activity. The interstellar object lacked the traits of an ordinary comet, such as a tail and a coma. Alongside this, ‘Oumuamua measured around 400 meters long and had a strange “cigar-shape,” as NASA noted, a shape never before seen in any comet or asteroid from our solar system. But the part that really left astronomers and scientists the most perplexed was the way it slingshotted around the Sun, speeding past it and Earth.
With such unexplainable behavior, two Harvard scientists were convinced that ‘Oumuamua was an alien vessel sent to observe our solar system. The two noted the object’s distinct irregular characteristics and how it did not behave like a normal comet or asteroid. Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard University astronomy department, stated in Tony Dokoupil’s interview for CBS News, “There seemed to be an extra force that is pushing it, and it’s not clear what this push is from.” The two scientists offered a possible explanation that the object could be fully operational and was propelled intentionally to observe Earth. They examined the odd wide shape of the object, serving almost like a sail, and that it was harnessing solar radiation to propel itself. However, the pair noted that ‘Oumuamua did not emit any signals that suggested it was a space craft.
Expert in astrochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of a new study Jennifer Bergner, proposed a scenario that didn’t involve aliens or out there theories. She wrote in a paper titled Acceleration of 1I/’Oumuamua from radiolytically produced H2 in H2O published in Nature, “We show that this mechanism can explain many of Oumuamua’s peculiar properties without fine-tuning, this provides further support that Oumuamua originated as a planetesimal relic broadly similar to solar system comets.” Bergner stated that ‘Oumuamua likely started off as a water-rich comet-like object. The explanation for the slingshot around the sun is simple. She proposed that when the object neared the sun, the heat radiating off released the hydrogen trapped inside ‘Oumuamua, propelling it towards Earth. However, many scientists weren’t convinced of Bergner’s theory, and controversy still persists to this day.
Let’s ask Palmetto students what they think.
I interviewed two students and gave them background information on the subject. Alayna Funk said that the comet being sail-shaped reminded her of a movie she’s seen called Treasure Planet. When questioned if they believed the interstellar object was an alien probe, a comet, or something else Brayden Ibbott responded, “I think it’s probably just a comet with odd behavior.” Funk stated, “I think it could be like a different type of comet that hasn’t been studied or discovered before because it came from a different solar system… We have confirmed there’s no other life in our solar system.” Alien probe or just a strange comet, we’ll never know for sure what ‘Oumuamua was — we lost our chance. But for now, we should worry about our own worldly issues.