Just before Halloween, the chairman of the Harvard Astronomy Department openly stated that an interstellar object transported through our solar system may be only part of an extraterrestrial craft. And then … crickets.
The astrophysical blog Centauri Dreams broke the story to cognoscenti three days later. He presented an informed overview of the academic paper that raised this unstable opportunity, fueled by quotations and comments by the newspaper's co-author, (and pointed out by the head of the department), Avi Lebe. It was good in November ahead of stores like CNN, Time, and Washington Post raised the story, full of inevitable sarcastic quotes and snowy headlines. The object, named "Oumuamua, there were a number of strange and seemingly contradictory properties; it could be that these properties appeared in the way they do it, because our observations were not so great. There are other possibilities.
I read the book of Lebanon – which was quickly accepted for publication by the respected ones Astrophysical Journal. A few days later, Lob and I sat at the longest and own account of Lob – the most serious and in-depth interview given to this subject. Built-in audio player following the colon at the end of the this very sentence features an editing of an hour, including all the highlights:
If you are not in an audio spoken word, we have a transcript available both plain text and PDF (which is probably a bit easier to read).
"I'm not saying it's aliens, but …"
Avi Loeb is clearly worn about one of the most beautiful claims in astronomy. This, of course, requires extraordinary evidence – a condition from which Loeb's job title earns without exception. But we also have to avoid the overturned response to our knees, which is something similar: "Just because the president of Harvard's astronomy says can to be an alien craft does not mean that is one; and in fact that means that it's not one, because the irony! Oh, and boldness, too. "
My interview with Loeb should not solve this debate in favor of foreigners for you, me or anyone (Loeb himself needs much more evidence to come everywhere close to the case). But the story of "Omoomoa" is inherently fascinating. Digging into it, non-astronomers can not help but learn something or three about how the universe works. If you go this way, you need to keep in mind that alien technology is being considered, and then ultimately rejected as an explanation for many astronomical phenomena. "Oumuamua is likely to join this list definitely one day. But much has been learned in the pursuit of water – both in the field of astronomy and by curious outsiders who follow the process.
If you listen to our interview (or read our transcript of probable-OK-ish), you will understand this debate at a subtle level by most people who contend it. And a really cool thing? For reasons that are discussed at the end of our conversation, the big questions here could be resolved dramatically in 2022, when an important new telescope will emerge.
For those who are in a hurry, I will now give a brief overview of our interview, emphasized by time stamps, to help you seal the parts that are most interesting to you.
There is something about "Omoomoa"
Our story starts on October 19 last year (the timestamp 07:55 from the sound of an interview above, if you want to hear more details than is contained in this brief record). Then the object called "Oumuamua" was first noticed by the Hawaii Pan-STARRS system, which tracks and reveals nearby objects on Earth.
Astronomers soon discovered that "Omoomoa traveled too fast to be tied up with our Sun, which means he originated from a distant star system, making it the first interstellar object definitely identified in our Solar System. The right intrigued, astronomical community pointed out much of the hardware to the distance. So the masses of observation data were obtained before "Omoomoa disappeared from the field of vision in January.
"Omoomoa was bizarre on many fronts of escape. It is interesting that it travels to" local standard of rest "(timestamp 15:36) between our local package of stars. For reasons explained by Loeb, this is a fascinating attribute – and incredible (though not impossible) for a natural object.
In June (timestamp 23:22), Nature published a rigorous analysis of the Oumamoua route. His authors found – with 30 standard deviations of confidence – that the subject accelerated as he withdrew from the sun. This was interpreted as evidence that it was a comet, not an asteroid (the other probable candidate). Comets are usually accelerated in this way, driven by gases released from the heat of the Sun, which create their tails.
However, several observations have opposed this. (timestamp 25:44). For example, the "Omoomoa" has not been observed a tail. Neither was a coma (head of the comet blurred). There were no signs of water, and comets usually carry water. And the reflectivity of the Omuaouma surface is far beyond the boundaries associated with comets.
These and other variants can be explained or justified independently. But for Loeb, the last straw was a September paper by Rome Rafikov of the University of Cambridge (timestamp 28:39). She argues that "Oumamoi's spin rate (which was quite vigorous – another miracle) remained constant throughout the scope of observations, while the outbreak should significantly upset the spin.
Lob concluded that extinguishing could not cause "speeding up Oumoomamo". He examined the alternative forces and settled on the one that the astronomers understood very well: the pressure of radiation faded from the sun. But this is a much weaker force than overcoming. If it is responsible, "Omoomoa will need to be far smaller than the predicted part of the rock astronomers." Loeb bore him as small as 20 meters in diameter, more precisely, and here's the clincher – less than a millimeter thick.
Close meetings of some sort or another
No known natural process can produce anything remotely this slim in space. But this sounds awfully much like a sunny boat. And Loeb spent many long hours as modeling the physics of the sun's sails, helping to guide Yuri Milner's breakthrough to the "Starshot" (timestamp 18:55). Yes, the cliché for the owners of a hammer that does not think of nail nails immediately comes to mind, and Loeb acknowledges this (30:07). But the shoes are also known to accurately identify the nails.
The most exotic opportunity was fun in Lab's work (33:55) is that "Omoomoa was on a target reconnaissance mission (it does not have to separate the Earth, but maybe generally cruising zones that can be inhabited by star systems.) This is based on hereditary calculations that relate to the relative abundance of interstellar objects and other factors.
Lob and I then discuss the online archive where he and his co-author, postdoctoral colleague Shmuel Bialli, originally put their paper (36:58) and the unusual speed with which Astrophysical Journal and accepted and published (40:35). Then I present Loeb with the hands of some of his critics, to whom he reacts (44:51). This leads to a discussion of Loeb's philosophy about the roles and responsibilities of academics.
We are closing in a fascinating perspective that a large telescope debuting in 2022 can quickly respond to issues that draw current hardware (56:56). This returns to the abundance of interstellar objects such as "Oumuamua". If they are as rare as the previously mentioned calculations, the more powerful new equipment will only discover a small number of new ones. But if they are common enough to make the Oumamoua discovery not surprising, the new telescope should quickly notice thousands.
This argument is too involved for full research here (I'm a podcast, not a journalist). So I urge you to listen to this section. All this, however, gives him a controversial explanation of Loi on a date of sale, and that date is only a few years.
Personally, I can not wait to closely monitor events while approaching. Listen to this section, and you'll know the basic problems, like me. Still slim, there is at least a slight chance that 2022 will bring cruel suggestive evidence that "Omoomoa is an artificial relic. And whatever the outcome, would not it be cool to follow that story while it is going on?
This interview is the latest episode of my podcast After that. If you enjoy it, the full archive of my episodes can be found on my site or through your favorite podcast podcast application under the words "After On." The wider series is built around deep dive interviews with world class thinkers, founders and scientists, and tends to be technically and scientifically difficult.