The scientist who discovered a mysterious cigar-shaped space object says suggestions by Harvard astronomers it is an alien probe are “wild speculation”.
When ‘Oumuamua – a Hawaiian word meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first” – was detected last year, it became the first object originating beyond our solar system to be observed in our vicinity.
The discovery sparked speculation over whether it was a comet or an asteroid, as it did not develop a halo of gas as it got close to the Sun.
Then two astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb, further muddied the waters, suggesting it could have been a discarded light sail of extra-terrestrial origin, perhaps sent here on purpose.
However, astronomer and physicist Robert Weryk, who first detected the object using the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii, has added his voice to criticism of the alien theory.
“Honestly, that’s a bit of wild speculation,” Dr Weryk told Canada’s CBC network.
I think it’s a remnant from another solar system. It’s just something that happened to run into us, and we were very lucky to have been operating the telescope that night and looking in that direction.
“It’s been theoretically predicted for decades but we’ve never seen one. Until we see another one, there are a lot of questions that we just can’t answer.”
An object of ‘artificial origin’?
In a draft version of their study, the Harvard astronomers said ‘Oumuamua could be an alien craft using a light sail to propel itself using radiation pressure, similar to how a sail boat uses the wind in its sail to push it forward.
“Recent observational and theoretical studies imply that ‘Oumuamua is not an active comet,” they wrote.
“If radiation pressure is the accelerating force, then ‘Oumuamua represents a new class of thin interstellar material, either produced naturally, through a yet-unknown process in the [interstellar medium] or in proto-planetary disks, or of an artificial origin.”
They said it seemed to use the Sun’s radiation as an energy source, and even if it was only a natural object, it was still unique.
However, Dr Weryk said data gathered during his research contradicted that theory and he had concluded the object was a comet.
“There’s a maximum speed that you can be travelling to be bound gravitationally by the sun,” he said.
“When we first saw this object, it was travelling faster than that, so we know for a fact that it’s from outside our solar system. We decided that it was a comet that had a bit of outgassing that wasn’t visible from the ground, which is why it didn’t appear to be a comet.
“[The Harvard researchers] decided to focus on another aspect of that, that it’s an alien space craft and that it has a solar sail type material that’s causing the non-gravitational trajectory. But we actually believe that’s not true based on the data we obtained.”