'They're reaching': Experts question Harvard's alien visitor claim
Jackie Dunham, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Wednesday, November 7, 2018 9:53AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2018 12:55PM EST
Astronomers in Canada are questioning the evidence behind a sensational new paper by researchers at Harvard University that suggests a mysterious cigar-shaped object spotted last year may have been an alien probe sent intentionally to Earth.
The paper, which was recently submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters by astronomers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, proposes the object known as “Oumuamua” – which means messenger from afar in Hawaiian – may be of artificial origin.
“Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” the paper’s authors wrote.
Despite the excitement surrounding the paper’s claims, Paul Delaney, a professor of astronomy and physics at Toronto’s York University, and Alan Jackson, an astrophysicist at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Planetary Sciences, have expressed doubt about its accuracy.
“Let’s not get too carried away here,” Delaney told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “There is a suggestion by a couple of astronomers that this might be of an artificial origin. I think they’re reaching a little bit.”
The Harvard researchers contend the elongated interstellar object – which is believed to be the first known visitor to have originated outside of our solar system – is not an asteroid or a comet because it’s lacking characteristics distinctive to those types of space rocks.
For example, Oumuamua is not bound by the gravitational pull of the sun, as are other objects in our solar system, and appears to accelerate in speed through another way.
“It generated what we call a non-gravitational velocity signature,” Delaney explained. “That is to say, as it swung through the inner solar system and on its way out, it moved in a way that wasn’t just explainable by its gravitational signature from the sun.”
Astronomers have suggested that the puzzling object’s incredible speed – NASA said it was recorded tumbling through the inner solar system up to 112,000 km/h – may be the result of “outgassing,” which is how comets travel through space.
“The object could have been outgassing like a comet. If you’ve got a balloon and you open up the end of it, it sails off very, very quickly because of this pressure from the gas,” Delaney said.
However, as the Harvard researchers note and Delaney acknowledged as well, astronomers have been unable to conclusively identify Oumuamua as a comet because it lacks a tail or “coma” around it.
The uncertainty has led to rampant speculation about what the object could be and where it came from, Delaney said.
When asked if there was a possibility Oumuamua is a light sail – a piece of technology used to propel spacecraft by harnessing solar energy from the sun – that was developed by an unknown intelligence, Delaney replied yes.
“Is it a possibility? Yes. Is it a likely probability? No,” he said. “Because to be like that, it would have to be incredibly wide and very, very thin. We have no evidence to suggest that was in fact what we were seeing.”
Because astronomers were only able to study the object and record data for approximately six to eight weeks when it was first detected in the inner solar system in March 2017, Delaney said there are still a lot of unknowns.
“We picked this object up after it went through closest approach to the Earth and closest approach to the sun,” he said. “We couldn’t look at it for really a long time. We’ve haven’t got definitive imagery of it. It was too small.”
The image accompanying research and articles about Oumuamua is only an artist’s rendition of what it might look like, Delaney explained.
The York University astronomer isn’t alone in his skepticism on the research paper.
When Jackson, the astrophysicist from the University of Toronto, was asked about it, he invoked the words of famed American astronomer Carl Sagan.
“Carl Sagan once said, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ and this paper is distinctly lacking in evidence, never mind extraordinary evidence,” Jackson was quoted as saying.
In this case, Delaney said the Harvard researchers just don’t have enough “extraordinary evidence” to support the astonishing claim that aliens may have sent a spacecraft to Earth.
“It’s not there. It’s not that extraordinary,” he said. “It’s a little bit of speculation.”