Telescope to scan mysterious cigar-shaped asteroid for signs of alien technology
The object, named Oumuamua by its discoverers, is 400 metres long and highly elongated. (ESO / M. Kornmesser)
Published Tuesday, December 12, 2017 11:53AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 11, 2019 5:38PM EST
If E.T. has a cellphone, astronomers are hoping to find it.
Researchers will use a listening telescope to search for signs of alien technology on ‘Oumuamua, the mysterious, fast-moving, cigar-shaped interstellar object currently speeding through our solar system.
The object, which was first spotted in October, is not shaped like anything else astronomers have seen, and is moving so fast that it’s expected to escape the gravitational pull of the sun and continue on toward other star systems.
Those peculiarities were enough to pique the interest of Breakthrough Listen, a global group of astronomers dedicated to monitoring the universe for signs of alien civilizations. The group is scheduled to monitor ‘Oumuamua for a 10-hour period beginning Wednesday at 3 p.m., using the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia. Breakthrough Listen says its team will listen to the object across four radio bands ranging from 1-12 gigahertz in frequency, in hopes of detecting signals that might indicate the presence of alien artifacts.
“It has a highly unusual structure for an asteroid – an elongated cigar shape, hundreds of metres in length but with a width and height perhaps only one-tenth as long,” Breakthrough Listen said in a news release.
The group cites research by others suggesting that a long, cigar- or needle-shaped object might be the most practical design for an interstellar craft, because it would “minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust.”
They also acknowledge that the object is most likely natural in origin, although there is no consensus on how it might have been formed in the first place. “Breakthrough Listen is well-positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artifact,” the group said.
Breakthrough Listen says the telescope is strong enough to detect a cellphone signal on ‘Oumuamua, which is approximately twice as far away as the sun from the Earth.
Breakthrough Listen is far from a crackpot group, with the likes of physicist Stephen Hawking, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and billionaire Russian physicist Yuri Milner on its board of directors.
The group has yet to find evidence of alien civilizations, but it did detect a series of repeating radio signals coming from a distant galaxy in August.
Andrew Siemion, who runs Berkeley’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, says listening to the object could yield beneficial results regardless of its origin. “Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen,” he said in a statement.
Breakthrough Listen says it’s more likely to detect ice and various gases than the presence of an alien laser gun, but it’s still worth taking a look.