We know very little about the universe and life outside of Earth. It really isn’t for lack of trying, because NASA and many other space programs are trying their hardest to learn about space, starting with our very own solar system.
Right now, our very own solar system has a new visitor named Oumuamua. What is so special about this visitor, and what does this mean for our understanding of the universe?
I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth. – Stephen Hawking
What is Oumuamua?
Simply put, Oumuamua is the very first interstellar object to enter our solar system (at least in recorded history). Researchers first saw this in late October of 2017 and originally recorded it as a comet, named C/2017 (the “c” meaning comet, 2017 being the year), but after further observation was reclassified as an asteroid named A/2017 (the “a” standing for asteroid). It was reclassified because, upon further inspection, it did not have a cometary coma.
Little is actually known about what Oumuamua looks like, but the picture above is the general look that researchers believe it has. Oumuamua is about 800 feet by 100 feet, which is roughly the size of a skyscraper. It is completely unknown where this behemoth originated from (although scientists know it is from the Milky Way galaxy), but astronomers believe it has been flying through space for billions of years now, and that our system is probably the first system it has come upon. It is moving at a whopping 196,000 miles an hour and will be out of our solar system at some point 2022.
What is slightly concerning is the fact that scientists weren’t even aware of Oumuamua until after it crossed underneath Earth’s orbit. As you can see in the diagram below Oumuamua crossed near our orbit in early October, and we first saw it on October 19. After it did a sort of slingshot around the sun it drastically picked up speed, making it move through our solar system significantly faster.
Hopefully, with the discovery of Oumuamua humans can develop ways that we can detect an asteroid or comet before they pass through our orbit. It is no secret that astronomers and organizations like NASA have protocols if there is some sort of space object with a direct trajectory towards earth. This asteroid slipped through the system, but we certainly hope that in the future we are able to develop better ways to notice this kind of thing, not just for our safety but for the sake of researching any kind of space object in our solar system.
What is really interesting is that humans will never be able to have a manned mission to study it. Why? Oumuamua is moving so quickly that we cannot make a ship that would catch up to it, land on it, and leave it. With that being said, scientists are looking at the possibility of somehow slowing the asteroid down by using lasers so that we can conduct a mission to learn more about it. It sounds like science fiction because it kind of is.
In case you are curious where the name Oumuamua came from, it actually means “messenger” or “scout” in Hawaiian. Sounds kind of freaky and alien-ish, right?
Speaking of alien, here is a different theory as to what Oumuamua is.
There is another idea of what Oumuamua actually is. Some researchers, and average people. are wondering if Oumuamua is actually some sort of space vessel for aliens. One of the biggest flags for this theory is the odd shape of Oumuamua. It is pretty cigar-shaped, which would be a good shape for space travel because it would have little resistance from natural space phenomena (like dust and gases), and the shape could also minimize chances of a collision. Another thing that is making some believe Oumuamua is something more is its speed. This thing is zipping through space at quite the fast clip, which makes people wonder how the heck it got to going that fast.
While the theory sounds pretty ridiculous, it has none-the-less gotten the attention of super genius Stephen Hawking. Hawking is leading a research mission, named Breakthrough Listen, that’s primary focus is to find out if Oumuamua is a natural phenomenon, or if it is something else. They will listen and send, radio signals to the asteroid to see if they get any type of response. So far that has proven fruitless and they haven’t received any waves back, but they are still trying.
Because the “craft” has no radio waves, some researchers are theorizing that Oumuamua was part of a larger ship that was abandoned because it stopped working. Now, these theories do sound like something out of “War of The Worlds”, but since this is our first dealings with interstellar object scientists don’t want to rule anything out just yet. Like we said above, the name Oumuamua literally means messenger, because this thing is so foreign to humanity. The shape is curious, the speed is curious, the unknown origin of this thing is curious, and even the outer coating (we will discuss that further) is curious. I think it is very safe to say that we have no real understanding of what this thing is, which is why studying it is so important. Even if it isn’t anything designed by aliens, it will help us understand a little bit more about the universe.
As we mentioned above, scientists believe that Oumuamua has some sort of organic outer coating. This was theorized just a few days ago, and it is an extremely interesting idea. Like we said before, Oumuamua was originally designated as a comet but was found to not actually have a coma, nor does it have a tail. Tails happen when ice begins to melt and you see the water running off the back of the comet. When comets pass near hotter planets or the sun, we should see a visible trail from the water melting off. A reason that Oumuamua was originally thought to be a comet is that comets are typically believed to form far from the sun, meaning that ice crystals form onto the surface of the comet. Oumuamua was not even formed in our solar system, therefore it should be coated in ice.
When scientists began to study the object they lucked out and were able to watch Oumuamua pass near the center of our solar system, the sun. It was expected that they would see the ice melt off because it made such a close pass. Oumuamua, however, had no tail whatsoever when we watched it go near our sun. Because it formed far away it should have ice covering it, but the fact that nothing came as a surprise to many scientists, which is partially why it was reclassified as an asteroid.
It is believed that Oumuamua is covered in ice, and it more than likely is, but why didn’t we see the ice melt off? When astronomers were able to view the asteroid through spectroscopy they found that it was reddish in color (a little like Mars), but when viewed with infrared light Oumuamua is gray. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s University, theorized that Oumuamua had developed a sort of crust, or film, over the ice. When they discovered the differing colors he was able to determine the crust, and scientists were able to prove his idea. Dr. Fitzsimmons stated, “When we crunched the numbers we found that this crust should insulate the interior of the object so that if there were any ices inside it, it wouldn’t change the form”. When he was able to really look at the coating he determined, “We have also found that a half-meter thick coating of organic-rich material could have protected a water-ice-rich comet-like interior from vaporizing when the object was heated by the sun, even though it was heated to over 300 degrees centigrade.”
The theory now is that Oumuamua has gotten its crust from the millions of years traveling through different rays and gasses for so long (possibly over 1 billion years) that it developed some kind of organic crust. This is a massive discovery for scientists because it can actually help us learn just a little bit more about the universe. This behemoth is so incredibly foreign to us that we didn’t even know that objects in space could develop a coating on it that would trap ice in until a month ago. Studying Oumuamua is so vital to us because it offers us a glimpse into what is out there in the universe, and can even help us in our search for life in other worlds.
In all honesty, researchers are just barely scratching the surface of Oumuamua, and we will learn a considerable amount more in the upcoming year. One thing is for sure, this skyscraper-sized asteroid is full of mysteries that we want to learn all about.