Artist's depiction of 'Oumuamua

Astronomers search passing asteroid for signs of alien technology

Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As a large, unusually shaped asteroid passes through the Solar System at great speed, researchers will listen in for signs of extra-terrestrial technology.

The asteroid, which was discovered at the University of Hawaii in October as it passed near the Sun, is named ‘Oumuamua (meaning “scout” or “messenger”). The asteroid is cigar-shaped, hundreds of metres in length, and dark red in colour.

According to researchers, its extreme speed – approximately 60,000mph (970,000km/hr) – is so great that it is extremely unlikely to have originated in our solar system, or to be captured in orbit around the Sun. This makes it the first known interstellar object to have passed through our Solar System. Its  origins, however, remains unknown.

As ‘Oumuamua passes, researchers will observe the unusual object. Most notably, researchers involved with Breakthrough Listen will study the passing asteroid for signs of intelligent life. Breakthrough Listen is a $100m (£75m) program launched in 2015 and aimed at searching for extra-terrestrial communication. It is the most comprehensive search for these signs of life so far.

The researchers will use the Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County, West Virginia – the world’s largest steerable radio telescope – to search across four different radio frequencies for signs of alien technology on the asteroid. The first phase of observations will continue for ten hours.

According to Professor Avi Loeb, an astronomer based at Harvard University and advisor to the Breakthrough Listen program, the object’s “peculiar” oblong shape has intrigued researchers.

“Researchers working on long distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimise friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust,” a statement by Breakthrough Listen explained.

“While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that ‘Oumuamua could be an artefact.”

TV personality and particle physicists Professor Brian Cox tweeted about ‘Oumuamua, commenting that it was “highly unlikely” that any signs of alien intelligence would be detected, it would be “crazy” not to investigate the unusual object as it passes.

“‘Oumuamua’s presence within our solar system affords Breakthrough Listen an opportunity to reach unprecedented sensitivities to possible artificial transmitters and demonstrate our ability to track nearby, fast-moving objects,” said Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Center, who is working on the Breakthrough Listen program.

“Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen.”

The observations of the asteroid may reveal whether the asteroid is carrying liquid or solid water from another Solar System.

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