A sign of interstellar life? A Harvard scientist takes a close look at Oumuamua

Mysteries

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 12: Theoretical Physicist Avi Loeb speaks during the New Space Exploration Initiative “Breakthrough Starshot” Announcement at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

MYSTERY WIRE — Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb has spent 2021 explaining and defending why he thinks a celestial object that passed relatively close to earth might be an indication of life outside of our solar system.

Oumuamua (Getty Illustration)

Loeb’s research started an academic firestorm by suggesting that Oumuamua, a mysterious object that hurtled close to Earth in 2017, could be an artificial object sent from an extraterrestrial civilization.

In January of this year he also published his eighth book, “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” in which he outlined his research along with discussing ideas on ways humans might be able to stop or divert another object like this from harming Earth.

Oumuamua is the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, according to NASA.

Mystery Wire had the opportunity to talk with Loeb about his book, research, and what he believes we need to be doing now to better the future.

You can watch and read the entire interview below.

Duncan Phenix
Joining me now professor of science, astrophysicist at Harvard University, have a load. Thank you for taking the time to talk with Mystery Wire.

Avi Loeb
My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Now,

Duncan Phenix
The main reason that we’re talking today is your relatively new book that just came out earlier this year, The Extraterrestrial: The first sign of intelligent life beyond Earth. So I guess my first question to you on this book, and what you’ve looked into is, it is the book science fiction or science fact.

Avi Loeb
Oh no, it’s science in the sense that the evidence that I described in the book that makes this object unusual, is scientific. It was obtained through telescopes by astronomers. And that’s the only reason why I was attracted to work on this subject and wrote scientific papers and commentaries about it. And now this book, the evidence implied that this object that was discovered in October 2017, which was the first object that we spotted near Earth, that came from outside the solar system, looked nothing like we have seen before in the solar system didn’t look like a comet or an asteroid. And the data that was collected about it, made it very weird, in many different respects, and there were at least six anomalies that this object showed, and I described them in my book, extraterrestrial. And eventually, they led me to suggest that perhaps this object is artificial. Perhaps it was made by a technological civilization elsewhere, and the in that case, if that’s the case, we are not alone. And there might be a smarter kid on our block.

Duncan Phenix
And the object you’re talking about is what most people have probably heard of, Oumuamua, is that correct?

Avi Loeb
Yes, this name was given, because it means the scout in the Hawaiian language and the telescope that discovered this object is located on Mount Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii. And so it was given a local name and, or more or more, was the first object that we discovered from interstellar space. I should say that then it showed them some anomalies that were later replicated by another object that we saw in September 2020, which was also not showing any cometary tail, no gas around it, just like Oumuamua, and also exhibiting push away from the sun as a result of reflecting sunlight, just like Oumuamua did. And then this object that was discovered in September 2020, by the same telescope, ended up being identified as a rocket booster, from a mission to the moon, that was launched in 1966. lunar lander surveyor to and the subject we know was made by us it had the very thin walls, and that’s why it exhibited and pushed by reflecting sunlight. In the case of more and more, we don’t know who produced it.

Duncan Phenix
So how do, in your opinion, how do we know that it’s not another piece of Earth originated space junk?

Avi Loeb
Because it spent only a few months in the within the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, and we know what we launched during that time. And the first thing we knew about it is that it moved too fast to be bound to the sun so it came from interstellar space from outside the solar system. You know, the planets are bound to the sun gravitationally, but if you have an object moving too fast, it cannot bound to the sensory just visits the region near us and then exits. And that’s exactly how or more and more behaved and it was moving when it went by us it was moving much faster than any rocket that we can launch. So not only we didn’t launch anything like it, it was also moving faster than our technologies allow us to launch something. So it was definitely not human made.

Duncan Phenix
Now, could it just be a remnant from a comet, from another planet, from Star, non Earth space junk? Just a big piece of rock?

Avi Loeb
Well, that’s that’s an excellent question. So of course, astronomers initially thought that, well, it’s probably just a comet or an asteroid, the type of objects we’ve seen before. And a comet is a rock that is covered with ice. And when it gets close to the sun, it warms up and the ice evaporates and creates this cometary tail of water vapor and dust around it. And that reflects sunlight, you see this cometary tail. We haven’t seen anything like that around Oumuamua. And moreover, the Spitzer Space Telescope looked for any traces of carbon based molecules and couldn’t see anything to very tight limits. So it definitely did not look like a comet of the type that we have seen before. And then the problem with it just being bare rock, an asteroid, is that it exhibited a push away from the sun. And you cannot get such a push from the evaporation of gas, because we haven’t seen any gas around it. And so the question is, what is it if it’s not an asteroid, and it’s not a comet, it must be something else. And the other thing we found about it is it was tumbling, spinning around every eight hours is that it’s most likely a flat object, pancake shaped object, not them, not elongated.

Duncan Phenix
I had read it described as a sort of a chocolate chip cookie, in a way.

Avi Loeb
Yeah, that’s one way

Duncan Phenix
A simple explanation.

Avi Loeb
And now, I have to mention that there were some scientists that tried to explain it in terms of a very unusual type of object. And so just to give you examples, there was a suggestion, maybe it’s a cloud of dust particles that are loosely bound, they’re sort of like a dust bunny that you find at home. That is lightweight, and so when it reflects sunlight, it can be pushed. And the problem with that idea is that when a dust cloud gets close to the sun, so more more did it heats up by hundreds of degrees, and it will not maintain its integrity if it’s 100 times less dense than air as you need it in this case, another suggestion was maybe it’s an object that made purely of hydrogen, hydrogen iceberg. We’ve never seen anything like it before. But the idea is that if hydrogen evaporates that we can see the cometary tail because it’s transparent. And the problem with that idea is we showed in a paper that it would not survive the journey, it will evaporate before it reaches us. So an object the size of a football field will not really survive that journey. And so hydrogen iceberg looks unlikely. And then there was a suggestion, maybe it’s a nitrogen iceberg, something made of pure nitrogen. And to get that you needed to be a chip from the surface of an object like Pluto, for example, which is known to be covered with nitrogen. And we showed that in a paper a week ago, we show that you need in order to account for enough of that those objects such that we see one of them in our vicinity, you need the more mass than you have in all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. So it’s really untenable in terms of the amount of the mass budget that you need, because we are basically chipping off just the outer layer of a planet like Pluto. And even if you assume that this process is very efficient, and there are lots of Pluto’s around other stars, you just don’t have enough masking stars to account for that for seeing one of these chips in our vicinity. And so that that was another suggestion. And then there was a suggestion, maybe it’s a piece of a bigger object that was ripped apart when that bigger object passed, close to a star. And the problem with that is usually you get elongated pieces that are cigar shaped, whereas a more and more was most likely pancake shaped. So all of the natural explanations did not appear to me as very viable. And all of them contemplated something that we’ve never seen before. So given that I argued it, we should definitely contemplate the possibility that it came from an artificial origin and, and leave it on the table. And the way of course, to find out better evidence for an artificial origin is, next time we see an object of the same population, we can send a spacecraft that will take a close up photograph of that object, we just need an advanced warning, let’s say a year in advance, which we will have in the future years, because there would be a better telescope to detect these objects called the Vera Rubin Observatory, and it could see them a year in advance and have them approaching us and then we can send a spacecraft equipped with a camera that would take a close up photo. And, you know, they say a picture is worth 1000 words. In my case, a picture’s worth 66,000 words, the number of words in my book.

Duncan Phenix
I like that, very nice. Now, for people who haven’t looked into this, when this past, are we talking, like I could stand outside and see it, or is this a theoretical, you know, through math and equations that it’s out there?

Avi Loeb
No, what we, what we saw with our telescopes is the reflection of sunlight from the subject. So you can’t see such an object when it’s far away. Nowadays, it’s already, it went away from us. And it’s already a million times fainter than when it was close to us because it simply reflects sunlight and it gets dim very quickly as it moves away from the sun. And we can see, we use the sun as the flashlight as a, you know, as a lamppost that illuminates our neighborhood. And when objects come close, they reflect that light, and we can see them, and then we saw it with a telescope. The only problem is that the size of this object was roughly the size of a football field. And then, as a result, we could not resolve it with our telescopes, we couldn’t get an image. But you could get an image if you pass very close to such an object. So you know, we have currently missions that intercepted the asteroids came very close to them. There is one asteroid where we actually landed on then. And we can imagine that in the future, when there are objects coming into our vicinity, we from outer space, we could potentially send the spacecraft that will intercept their orbit their trajectory and take a close up photograph. And I call that space archaeology. It’s the best way to figure out the difference between naturally produced rocks, and an artificial object, sort of like walking on the beach, and identifying plastic bottles among all the rocks.

Duncan Phenix
Now is Oumuamua. Is that, like a comment that might come back around like Halley’s Comet?

Avi Loeb
Oh, no, it will not. That’s the distinguishing feature that it came to us from outer space interstellar space, and it only comes from one visit. The best way to think of it actually, one of the anomalies of Oumuamua was that it was pretty much addressed in the neighborhood of the sun in the galactic neighborhood, the sun is moving relative to that frame, which is called the local standard of rest. And the sun just bumped into it. Just like a giant ship bumping into a buoy that sits at rest on the surface of the ocean. And so it gave it the kick gravitationally. And it’s definitely not bound to the sun. And there should be many more like it, you know, when I go to the kitchen and find an end, I usually get alarm because I know there must be many more like it. And based on our calculations, there should be about a quadrillion such objects right now, within the solar system. So you know, we just need to monitor the sky and we will see more of the same.

Duncan Phenix
And that’s just within the Milky Way?

Avi Loeb
Within the Oort cloud of the solar system, which extends halfway to the nearest star actually. So within that volume, there should be lots of such objects that are football size. The only caveat is if this object came on a very targeted orbit it its orbit was designed such that it will probe the habitable zone, the region close to the sun, where life may exist. In that case, if it came on an orbit that was plunging towards the sun, Then you need very much, many fewer objects. But then if you assume that the trajector, for Oumuamua was not designed to get close to us that it was completely random, then you end up with lots of objects out there.

Duncan Phenix
Interesting. Now, to make the leap from a big rock in space to intelligence, intelligence life as we as humans know it. It sounds like you’re, you know, sort of in layman’s terms, you’re ruling out everything else and you’re left with, it has to be or it definitely could be intelligent life. Now, I think I saw in a different interview, you said that, you know, it doesn’t mean that there’s intelligence life on the object, it could be previous, eons ago. And this is just the remnants of.

Avi Loeb
Yeah, that’s the most likely scenario because we know that most of the stars formed billions of years before the sun. And so if they had a technological civilization around them that launched the equipment, just like we did the launch of Voyager, one Voyager to New Horizons, then these pieces of equipment will be billions of years old, and the civilization might be dead by now. But we can still find relics of it. Just like we find relics of ancient cultures in archeological digs. So that’s why I call it space archaeology. And most likely, this equipment will not be functional anymore, because it’s billions of years old. But we it will give us a very important message that there was someone out there that was advanced technologically and of course, it will change our perception about our place in the universe.

Duncan Phenix
Do you believe or your colleagues believe that they’re, that much like you said, much like the satellites we’ve put out there, the Voyagers, was this a messenger, or a vehicle with a message?

Avi Loeb
Most likely, it’s just a defunct piece of equipment, that is not functioning anymore. And the reason I say that is, because that’s what will become of the Voyager spacecraft, you know, within a billion years, it will not be functional anymore. And so there is no reason to expect it to operate with a mission in mind. And there might just be a space trash out there debris, you know, leftover.

Duncan Phenix
We’re only seeing through a pinhole of what might be out there.

Avi Loeb
Like, you’re exactly you know, that, I think it’s a wake up call for us to monitor all the objects that arrive to our vicinity from far away, and it saves us the trip, instead of us needing to go to those places, you know, these objects traveled for millions of years, or maybe billions of years and on their way to us. And we can learn about what happens in the cosmic street, you know, by just monitoring our backyard and looking for objects that came there from the street. And that’s a very, it’s a new way of searching for technological civilizations. In the past, we looked for radio signals, for example, for seven years. But that is just like, trying to establish a phone conversation, you need the counterpart to be alive at the time that you’re listening. And it’s possible that most of the civilizations are dead by now. And we cannot establish any radio communication with them. And so the best way to find out that they existed would be to find relics they left behind. And I call that space archaeology. I think it could become a major frontier. And I hope that it will become a part of the mainstream of astronomy in the future.

Duncan Phenix
Sure, and with all the private ventures that are going into space right now that’s definitely being talked about. Now. I also read that, that since you are professor at Harvard, very distinguished school, you’ve had a little bit of pushback with this. What has been your your colleagues or former colleagues in the academia, reaction to your research?

Avi Loeb
Well, I think it takes a lot of scientists out of their comfort zone. And there are several reasons for that. Well, first of all, the comfort zone is defined but what by what we already know and astronomy for the past century focused on on physical objects that are naturally produced, then, if you start talking about perhaps that there is evidence that there might have been another technological civilization out there. It takes people out of their comfort zone, they’re not used to discussing it. But moreover, you know, a lot of people prefer to believe that we are special and unique and that there is nothing out there. That resembles us. And it reminds me of my daughters when they were young at home, they thought very highly of themselves. But once we took them to the kindergarten, they realized there are other kids and some of them are smarter than they are. And that was a psychological shock. And, you know, our civilization will mature only when we go out and find others on the, on the cosmic street. And the other thing is, there is all this literature about the unidentified flying objects, aerial phenomenon that does not stand up to the level of solid scientific evidence. And a lot of the scientists prefer not to be connected to those discussions. And the difference, of course, is that I’m discussing an object that was identified and characterized by the standard scientific method. And therefore, you know, we should definitely contemplate the possibility that it originated from an artificial source. And, and, you know, it’s just the way that, for example, there were discussions in ancient history that the human body has a soul and therefore anatomy should be forbidden. And imagine if scientists would say this subject is controversial that people making statements that we do not believe that the human body has a soul, therefore we should never engage in in anatomy and operating bodies and so forth. Where would the modern medicine be? If that was the case? I think scientists have an obligation to address any subject that can be studied using the scientific method. And we currently have telescopes that allow us to address this question to do space archaeology, to take photographs of objects coming from outer space. And not only that, we have an obligation to do that, because this question is of great interest to the public. So rather than shy away from from that topic, I think science will be better funded, actually, if it were to attend to a subject that the public cares about.

Duncan Phenix
Now, speaking of taking out of your comfort zone. Last thing I want to talk to you about is just to get your reaction, that mystery wire, we released several, three pictures yesterday, this week. And and there are more on the way probably by the time this is out there, there will be new images, and a video that’s coming out showing what is been officially classified by the US government as a UAP unidentified aerial phenomena, the fancy new way of saying UFO. Now to be clear, we, the government, most level headed people are not equating UFO with aliens. Two different things they don’t UFO does not mean Little Green Men, it just means something we can identify. Sort of like Oumuamua probably at first. It was there, but you couldn’t really identify it. And, of course, there’s still questions. So we have these things that Navy pilots are seeing. Now, that’s just the ones we know, we’ve been able to confirm, what’s your reaction to to the possibility of something from outer space or interstellar even coming into our atmosphere.

Avi Loeb
I mean, it’s clear why the government cares about these unexplained phenomena, because it’s a matter of national security as to whether another nation has technologies that we do not possess. And they may use those technologies for espionage. And so you want to understand these reports that came from military personnel. Now, I should say the equipment used by pilots or Navy people, is not necessarily the best for finding such objects and getting clear images and the images always look fuzzy. And my take on it is that instead of arguing whether the reports are credible, and obsessing with the release of classified information from the Pentagon, we should just do scientific experiments and deploy the best cameras that we have the best audio sensors in similar locations, and just monitor the sky and see if there are things that we cannot explain. And you know, that would be in the spirit of a scientific experiment where we collect data that we for which we use the best equipment at our disposal, and also it will be open data it will not be done by military equipment. And then if we see something unusual Then that would be the subject of a scientific discussion, rather than relying on eyewitness testimonies or equipment that was not optimized for detecting such things. And I suggest that we do just that in order to clear up this issue because, you know, science is about reproducibility of results, you should be able to reproduce results in order to believe them. If you see a one time phenomenon, you know, that you can’t really tell whether it’s real, or an illusion, or some malfunction of the instrument, the equipment you were using. For example, there is this biblical story of Abraham, hearing the voice of God telling him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and if Abraham had the cell phone with a voice memo up, and he would have pressed the button, he could have recorded the voice of God, and then you we will need to believe the biblical story, we could have listened to that recording, and, you know, that is much more valuable. So my point is, if we want to scientifically examine evidence, the best way to to approach it is to collect, to use the best scientific instruments we have and collect the evidence and reproduce it such that we can discuss it more reliably. And that’s the way to proceed.

Duncan Phenix
Do you do you foresee a time when research will be happening on a level like you’re doing with your field of study, well, large to UFOs, or, you know, just the unexplained within our atmosphere?

Avi Loeb
I think the community is approaching it the wrong way. And I think the best way to make advances in our understanding of these phenomena is to collect better data with the best equipment, and that should not be very expensive, we can do it tomorrow, if if we have 10s of millions of dollars dedicated to this task. And, you know, it would save us the trouble of arguing about it for decades, you know, and instead of it become being a subject of debate and you know, have insufficient evidence, we can just collect better evidence and see what it shows. I think that’s the best way to proceed. Let’s clear up the fog. Rather than argue whether there is something hidden behind the fog.

Duncan Phenix
It seems like a very level headed way of doing it. I’m not sure humans are up to that.

Avi Loeb
We can do it tomorrow. You know, I don’t see any problem with that. It’s just that a lot of people prefer to argue forever, rather than trying to solve the problem, you know, and in my mind that this is a problem that can be solved easily just by deploying the equipment in some in the right places and monitoring the sky. That’s all it’s really simple.

Duncan Phenix
Which is exactly what you were saying about Oumuamua or the next Oumuamua have the technology in place. Very interesting. Well, thank you very much for taking a few minutes of your day for this and we really appreciate you talking with us.

Avi Loeb
My great pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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