Earlier this week, the mysterious interstellar object Oumuamua was back in the headlines. It didn’t resurface because of any new observations or studies since its pass through our solar system back in late 2017, but rather because of a new paper that not-so-subtly hinted the object was actually of alien origin.
The paper, which was penned by researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, talks about the behavior of the object as it looped around the Sun and zoomed back out into space. It highlights the fact that the object appeared to speed up as it left, wrapping up with some vague suggestions that maybe it was an alien ship or even a piece of extraterrestrial space junk. Not everyone in the scientific community is willing to take the theory at face value.
Up to this point, there was really nothing to suggest that the cigar-shaped object was the work of aliens. It cruised through our system very quickly, and while scientists went back and forth over whether it was an asteroid or a comet, there was no evidence to support an explanation involving aliens. The new paper doesn’t change that, but it does attempt to explain how a spacecraft propulsion system known as a lightsail might be responsible for the acceleration of the object.
A lightsail is like the sail of a boat, only in space. A lightsail would be attached to another object and, as it gets struck by material flowing from a star, builds up speed without using any fuel. Nobody has actually built or tested a lightsail yet, but that didn’t stop the researchers from suggesting it might be a plausible explanation for Oumuamua’s increasing speed as it left the solar system.
This suggestion, and the implication that an alien civilization may have been using the object to monitor our system or even study Earth up close, has drawn the ire of many.
“The thing you have to understand is: scientists are perfectly happy to publish an outlandish idea if it has even the tiniest sliver of a chance of not being wrong,” astrophysicist Katie Mack noted in a thread on Twitter. “Some of us are more conservative, of course. And it surely varies by field. But in my area (astrophysics/cosmology), there’s generally no downside to publishing something that’s (a) somehow interesting and (b) not completely ruled out, whether or not it ends up ‘the right answer.’”
She’s not alone, and other scientists have weighed in with their own doubts about the theory. Put simply, there’s no real smoking gun that screams “aliens!” but there’s also not much to prove that it isn’t. The result is a theory that sounds groundbreaking and incredible, but is almost certainly nothing more than a dream.