Humankind’s insatiable curiosity ignited the advancement of our civilization, allowing for the development of technologies that continue to augment our knowledge and understanding of the universe. The Cosmos, once a realm of awe and speculation, pivots now toward an achievable destination, the next frontier of exploration and conquest.
One might summarize humanity’s excursion into the stars as an endeavor aimed at resolving one of the most perplexing questions:
Are we alone in the Universe?
On October 19, 2017, astronomers at the University of Hawaii conducted research on the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, they noticed an object traversing our Solar System at high speeds.
First observed at a distance of 3,000,000 KM away from the Earth, astronomers calculated its trajectory, tracing the origin from the direction of the Star Vega, within the Lyra Constellation.
Initially referring to the new discovery as Rama, after a spacecraft in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction stories, astronomers opted to honor the local culture instead, landing on the name ‘Oumuamua,
The Hawaiian word for a messenger from the distant past reaching out to us.
An object from another Solar System, the first of its kind.
Astronomers worldwide calibrated their scopes, noting Oumuamua’s dark red color, hinting its composition, while an analysis of its brightness helped determine shape and size, though conflicting reports soon emerged as observations around the planet reported different readings.
‘Oumuamua’s brightness was not constant, growing brighter then dimmer over the course of a week, leading to the supposition that its physical appearance resembled a cigar, half a mile long and narrow, with an axis ratio of 10 to 1.
A mere handful of unique celestial objects found within our solar system have maximum axis ratios of 5 to 1;
No object ever discovered in our solar system remotely resembles anything close to the dimensions of ‘Oumuamua, baffling researchers who could only speculate as to how this object formed.
Further observations revealed that ‘Oumuamua rotates on a short axis, wobbling like a top, spinning on its side while concurrently nodding up and down, a clear indication that it was violently thrust from its home solar system, barreling through interstellar space for an undisclosed amount of time.
This revelation prompted astronomers to reimagine ‘Oumuamua’s structure, with some theorizing that it appeared more like an oval-like pancake, rather than a cigar.
After the first week, Oumuamua’s brightness diminished by a factor of 10.
Then, following analyses PLURAL from several observatories, NASA uncovered that ‘Oumuamua gained an unexpected boost in speed and shift in trajectory as it reached its perihelion on September 9, 2017, its closest approach to the sun, passing within the orbit of Mercury a month preceding its discovery.
Researchers at the European Space Agency reported that their high-precision measurements of ‘Oumuamua revealed that something unrelated to the gravitational forces of the Sun and Planets had affected its motion, and that the speed boost seemed consistent with the behavior of known comets when warmed by the Sun, expelling jets of gaseous material from the surface, causing an acceleration and creating the signature coma and tail.
However, no visible signs of outgassing were identified from ‘Oumuamua.
The broadly accepted explanation conjectures that what few dust particles remained from traversing interstellar space allowed a sufficient kick when ‘Oumuamua approached the Sun, though too scarce to be detected or confirmed, captivating astronomers worldwide.
One theory suggests that ‘Oumuamua could be debris from a disintegrated exo-comet, a comet from interstellar space, tumbling across our solar neighborhood, and its endless time spent beyond our solar system eroded any dust particles, explaining the lack of a visible tail or coma.
Another theory, though shunned by members of the scientific community, offers an alternative explanation for ‘Oumuamua’s behavior and possible origin.
Professor Avi Loeb of Harvard University, an esteemed astronomer with three decades of Ivy League Experience and a trove of astronomical publications to boot, pointed out several distinguishing features that differentiate ‘Oumuamua from any other celestial object thus far observed, particularly its shape, color, and movement.
While the majority of scientists settled on the idea that ‘Oumuamua is purely natural, Loeb points out that it moves too fast to be a simple comet or asteroid, unaffected by the Sun almost as if it’s not even there.
And though its acceleration did change within the Sun’s proximity, Oumumamua’s rotation rate remained the same, atypical of outgassing comets.
Unavoidably, Loeb’s proposition was mostly dismissed within the scientific community, many of whom were quick to ridicule his theory.
Accused of lack of motivation, quick assumptions, and sensationalism among other by prominent astrophysicists, some even suggested that Loeb sought to publish this idea for the sake of publicity alone.
Regardless, Loeb stands firm on his postulation in the international press, suggesting that ‘Oumuamua could be of artificial origin, perhaps a piece of debris from a light-sail, or similar advanced technology which Humanity may one day possess. In the present, Space Entrepreneurs, like Russian billionaire Uri Milner, collaborate with Professor Loeb to design the first human made interstellar spacecraft and light sale fleet, as a part of Breakthrough Starshot, co-founded by Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg.
Loeb fills the role of a risk taker within an Acadeima ever so increasingly shrouded by bias, during a period in history characterized by massive exponential technological growth and curious space discoveries. The pursuit of scientific truth demands a gamble, as history reminds us particularly within the scope of astronomy, in an ever changing landscape.
Unlike the medieval era dominated by Papal Authority, Professors are protected by Tenure, yet persecution persists in other forms, though certainly less lethal.
In Loeb’s own words: “The history of astronomy teaches us not to put blinders on our telescopes. Galileo suggested that to the church.” – from AMA
Though most astronomers believe ‘Oumuamua a natural object, our technological limitations make it so we cannot actually prove that it is not something artificial.
The possibility that ‘Oumuamua is a satellite constructed to resemble an interstellar comet screening a nearby solar system is hardly a stretch of the imagination, meriting a debate that some of the greatest minds of our species have begun. But of course, it could just be an ordinary space rock.
The facts remain. Unlike any asteroid, this object escaped the gravitational pull of the Sun, thrusting itself on a trajectory to escape the Solar System.
For years, scientists speculated the nature of ‘Oumuamua, how it may have formed in such a way unlike anything we’ve seen in our Solar System. Astronomers anticipate additional interstellar visitors, believing we are surrounded by them, blinded by our technological limitations.
After all, we reside within a massive universe.
Then in 2019, their wishes came true, in the most unexpected of ways.
On August 30, 2019, amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov made a fascinating discovery when he detected a comet set on a rather odd path. From his very own MARGO observatory located in Crimea… Russia or the Ukraine… Borisov spotted Comet C/2019 Q4 approximately 3 AU from the Sun.
The Minor Planet Center announced his discovery on September 11, 2019, after follow-up observations confirmed the comet, reporting that it follows a hyperbolic trajectory and will approach its perihelion) (approximately 2 AU) sometime in December of 2019. Borisov C/2019 bears all the characteristics of the second detected interstellar visitor, though unlike Oumuamua, its trajectory seems to completely ignore our Sun.
Named after Gennady Borisov, the Crimean amateur astronomer discovered the comet on August 30, 2019 with a telescope he built himself. After reporting his findings, astronomers around the world, amateurs and professionals alike, began a comprehensive study of this mysterious visitor, ongoing to the date of this posting. The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center and the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) calculated Borisov’s trajectory and concluded that it originated from Interstellar Space, aging Comet Borisov considerably. SOURCE
Astronomers describe Borisov as active, with its trailing visible tail curiously resembling a standard comet, its speed and trajectory indicates that it originated from outside of our solar system. This contrasts Oumuamua which bears more of a rocky composition, and lacks the evident features of a comet.
‘Oumuamua’s discovery occurred on its way out of the Solar System, while Borisov’s trek has only just begun, allowing researchers a wider window to study the interstellar visitor.
Researchers hope that an analysis of its chemical composition and structure will offer a historic examination at what planetary building blocks from a distant alien star system might look like.
On October 16, 2019, NASA released footage of comet 2I/Borisov captured by the Hubble Telescope several days prior, the first footage of an interstellar visitor by our civilization.
Hubble caught the image of Borisov at a distance of 260 million miles away from Planet Earth, on a hyperbolic trajectory racing through our planetary neighborhood at 110,000 miles per hour, unaffected by the gravitational forces that bind our Solar System. Sometime in 2020 it will pass Jupiter and resume its infinite voyage back into interstellar space, perhaps visiting other solar systems just like ours (or returning to the mothership, take your pick).
The first two confirmed interstellar visitors serve as a significant marker at the dawn of the Golden Age of Space Exploration for our civilization. It is believed that our Solar System might host an abundance of interstellar objects, though most may be too faint to be seen due to our current technological limitations. All scopes are set on Borisov as it continues its adventure in our solar system, with Hubble’ superior sensitivity and resolution playing the paparazzi to this interstellar visitor.
The origins of both interstellar visitors remain shrouded in mystery.
Humanity’s prowess in seizing the impossible, a tradition tracing back to the hunter gatherer tribes of old, As a civilization we continue unraveling the Mysteries of the Cosmos.