Oumuamua: just a piece of rock

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If you can watch the whole bit of this piece of New Age woo hoo without flinching or giving up, you will likely shake your head at the utter, mindless gullibility of humankind. And it’s not even political. But by now you know the Net is crammed full of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, food fads, creationism, homeopathy and other claptrap. And you already have seen how the wingnuts can easily bend and twist everything, taking stuff out of context or simply making it up to suit their wacky beliefs.

That blue circle shows the best magnification from the biggest Earth-based telescopes of the rogue asteroid Oumuamua.

The latest codswallop is that scientists claim a tumbling cigar- shaped (or was that penis-shaped?) chunk of rock that passed through our solar system in October was actually an alien spaceship. Well, no, they didn’t. And they certainly did not CONFIRM anything of the sort no matter what some UFO-addled wingnut claims.

Oumuamua – or more technically, 1I/2017 U1 – zipped by us about 33 million kms away, reaching a speed of 87.71 km/s (196,200 mph) before slowing. The eccentricity of its path made astronomers hypothesize that it came from outside our own solar system and thus was the first recognized interstellar traveller we have encountered. That’s only a hypothesis based on its trajectory, not even a full theory yet, because no one has seen it close up, let alone sent a probe to examine it closely. And never will.

The minimal data available says it’s a chunk of rock, roughly 180 by 30 meters (600 ft × 100 ft) in size. Even if it did come another stellar system, and even if it’s oddly shaped, there’s nothing to indicate it wasn’t natural.

OumuamuaEven its shape is just a best guess based on its rapidly changing brightness, not on direct observation because, as Astrobob points out, the asteroid was “…about 10 million times fainter than the faintest stars visible with the naked eye.” As Sky and Telescope noted:

While the mystery object’s spectrum seems reasonable, its shape borders on bizarre. According to rapid-response observations pooled from five large telescopes in Hawai‘i and Chile, the apparent brightness of 1I/2017 U1 varies periodically and shows about 2½ magnitudes of range. Of the roughly 750,000 asteroids now known, only five display light curves with swings of at least 2.2 magnitudes — and none as high as 2½. As Karen Meech (University of Hawai‘i and others explain in a Nature article posted online on November 20th, this wide swing implies that the object has an extremely elongated shape – perhaps 10 times longer than it is wide.
If ‘Oumuamua has a very dark surface that reflects only 4% of sunlight, then its average diameter must be a bit more than 100 meters (330 feet) across. But that’s a rather meaningless mean given the extreme light curve. Instead, note Meech and her colleagues, the true shape must be 800 m (0.5 mile) long and only 80 m across — more like a gigantic spindle or cigar than a ball of rock. As the team notes, “It raises the question of why the first known [interstellar object] is so unusual.”

But, despite this, many media and conspiracy wingnuts recently published all sorts of unfounded speculation about the rock, some craftily sculpting stories with partial quotes, wild imaginings, and half-truths to make it seem like there’s some sort of scientific consensus this is an alien craft. There isn’t. And it isn’t. It’s a rock. Maybe with ice under its skin.

The Independent – which I once thought a usually reasonably credible paper – had a headline that roared, “HUGE, MYSTERIOUS OBJECT FLYING PAST EARTH MIGHT BE AN ALIEN SPACECRAFT, SCIENTISTS SAY.” But if you read the article, you will note that no “scientists” are quoted making this claim, and in fact no scientists are named at all who say anything even close to this.

A statement from the Russian-oligarch-created and funded Seti project Breakthrough Listen” said, “…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.” Likely means based on our own perceptions and physiology, and on popular science fiction like Rendezvous with Rama. But then they added, “While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been…”

Rama was, it seems I must remind people, fiction, not a documentary. It was a brilliant story, but a story nonetheless.

Of course there’s no consensus . It’s tiny, on a cosmic scale, and was many millions of kilometers away – too far to get a good look with our equipment. It flashed through the solar system and was gone so quickly that no proper assessment of its structure could be made. It was odd, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s alien.

The quoted statement continued, “…Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that Oumuamua could be an artifact.” But there’s no mention of any named scientists or researchers here. It’s nice that a radio telescope will try to catch something from the rapidly disappearing rock – it’s about twice as far from us as the sun is right now – but so what? That proves nothing. Even if radio signals are detected – highly improbable – there are other possible explanations for their source, not the least of which is background noise.

But there are scientists involved, The Independent mentions Dr Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI Research Centre in California. he merely said “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. Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen.”

That’s not a statement that the rock is artificial, just that the telescope will attempt to “listen” for a signal from a small, speeding item. And the Independent closes with an important comment that really should lead the article:

Since the 1960s there have been more than 98 Seti projects around the world, none of which have turned up any convincing evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations.

We may not even be able to recognize any such evidence. I personally believe there is life outside our planet, outside our solar system and the chances are good that some of it is intelligent (at least more intelligent that the buffoons in the White House these days). But will we ever find one? As Popular Mechanics said, the SETI search is a very long shot at best:

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) institute is constantly listening with our most capable radio telescopes, and they are broadcasting messages from us as well. But given the sheer size of the galaxy, SETI will likely have to listen and transmit for tens of thousands of years at least to have a chance of making contact with another intelligent species—and even that might not be long enough. Perhaps, in the meantime, we should contemplate Carl Sagan’s next line in his Pale Blue Dot speech: “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

It strikes me as rather parochial and even arrogant to assume that even if that life evolves sentience, and develops civilization, then an advanced civilization, that it will have developed similar communication technologies as we have and even want to communicate. And even if they are as much like us that they communicate as we do and that they have developed space travel, there is no evidence that they have interstellar travel, or have visited us or even know we exist. Or care.

In similar histrionic form, Slate Magazine – also usually credible outside this fluff – had an article with the headline, “Is This Cigar-Shaped Asteroid Watching Us? Scientists are tracking it because they think that maybe—just maybe!—it might be.” But none of those alleged “scientists” are identified. This is becoming like a Food Babe rant: full of hyperbole and emotional gibberish, but short on factual details.

Then there’s the conspiracy-new-world-order-paranoid site Antimedia, with the headline, “An Object That Just Passed Earth Was So Strange Scientists Are Testing It for Alien Life.” Nonsense, No one said that. The telescope will seek radio signals from the asteroid and its immediate vicinity for ten hours, but it won’t be searching for life. It will be limited to only four bands of radio frequency, hoping that if a signal is present, it is broadcast on one of them. Just keep in mind that radio signals from natural sources in space are fairly common, mostly from stellar objects. But a signal isn’t alive.

Perhaps the best headline is from the Daily Mail – the poster child for the alt-fact, conspiracy theory believers – “Strange tumbling motion of cigar-shaped interstellar ‘comet’ Oumuamua suggests it’s an alien probe with BROKEN engines, says leading astronomer.” That leading astronomer is Jason Wright of Pennsylvania State University and a very credible source. And he didn’t say that. On his own blog he clarified that,

I don’t think ‘Oumuamua is an alien spacecraft. While other astronomers have made that suggestion, and while I’m happy to engage in such speculation in a SETI context, I think ‘Oumuamua is interesting in its own right as an asteroid and because of how it is getting us thinking about how to find alien probes in the Solar System

The Daily Mail piece concludes:

Dr Wright suggests that the object could be a ‘Von Neumann probe’ – a theoretical self-replicating spacecraft that visits star systems.

Which is more bullshit. What Dr. Wright actually wrote is:

Such a discovery would imply that there are lots of these things in the Solar System at any given moment (even if they are deliberately targeting the Sun, they are hard to spot and we’ll miss most of them), and so lots of opportunities to study them.
Why would there be so many of them? Part of the argument that it is possible to settle the entire Galaxy is that exponential growth is possible, because the only limiting resource is the stars (and the material around them) themselves. Exponential growth can be achieved via Von Neumann probes: self-replicating spacecraft that go to a system, make lots more of themselves, and then go to more systems.

In other words: from our perspective, self-replicating probes (should we ever be so advanced as to develop anything like that) would make sense when and if we want to explore the vastness of our galaxy. But we don’t have the technology now, and there’s nothing to suggest any other species does. Or that they would agree with that conclusion.

In the comments section, Wright answers the question, “Is 1I/’Oumuamua an Alien Spacecraft?” He replies, “No, I don’t think there’s any reason to think it is…” And that’s the closest thing to consensus from scientists: it’s not likely artificial.

Perhaps the most telling comment is also on Wright’s blog, when he notes about the asteroid that: “Its discovery closely tracks the opening chapter of the book Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke, about the discovery of an interstellar spaceship on a similar trajectory to ‘Oumuamua.”

It would hardly be the first time that people equated fiction and a natural event and came up with more conspiracy bunkum. Just look at the claptrap about witches, angels and demons that abound among today’s faithful believers.

Wright notes that just because it’s odd doesn’t mean it’s not the way it should be: “Oumuamua is the first interstellar asteroid we’ve seen, so we have very little to go on… I’ll need to see a lot more data and hard, critical analysis of the anomalies in ‘Oumuamua before I get interested in the SETI angle.”

Yes, real scientists are interested in possibilities, if not as committal about the alien prospect as the shallow media and online nutbars would have us believe. No real scientist will rule out a possibility, however remote, without more and reasonable evidence to do so. That means real scientists are eager to turn radio telescopes to the asteroid if for no better reason than to lay the bunk to rest and move on. As Futurism notes, even the possibility is worth examining:

Scientists do admit that the likelihood of this object being anything other than naturally occurring is very small. However, science does not tend to work in the realm of absolute impossibility.

Scientific American has a piece titled, “Alien Probe or Galactic Driftwood? SETI Tunes In to ‘Oumuamua.” It notes:

Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist and Breakthrough advisor at Harvard University who helped persuade Milner to pursue the observations, is similarly pessimistic about prospects for uncovering aliens. There are, he says, arguments against its artificial origins. For one thing, its estimated spin rate seems too low to create useful amounts of “artificial gravity” for anything onboard. Furthermore, ‘Oumuamua shows no sign of moving due to rocketry or other technology, instead following an orbit shaped by the gravitational force of the sun. Its speed relative to the solar system (about 20 kilometers per second) also seems rather slow for any interstellar probe, which presumably would cruise at higher speeds for faster trips between stars. But that pace aligns perfectly with those of typical nearby stars—suggesting ‘Oumuamua might be merely a piece of galactic “driftwood” washed up by celestial currents.

Galactic driftwood – I like that, except that it would be more like driftrock or driftmetal. Dennis Overbye, writing in the New York Times called it a “cosmic vagabond.” Either way, it’s most likely just what it appears to be: a tumbling tube of rock that was spun from another stellar stem and ended up passing through our own solar system by random chance; a small natural object we were fortunate to spot and no more associated with UFOs or aliens than Area 51 or Roswell have proven to be.

Loeb is quoted in the less-hysterical Guardian article as saying,

“It would be prudent just to check and look for signals. Even if we find an artefact that was left over and there are no signs of life on it, that would be the greatest thrill I can imagine having in my lifetime. It’s really one of the fundamental questions in science, perhaps the most fundamental: are we alone?”

That’s perhaps a bit of damage control. In The Atlantic, it says

“The more I study this object, the more unusual it appears, making me wonder whether it might be an artificially made probe which was sent by an alien civilization,” Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard’s astronomy department and one of Milner’s advisers on Breakthrough Listen, wrote in the email to Milner.

Well, it’s fine to wonder, and to speculate, but in today’s alt-fact, anti-truth environment and viral social media, scientists might be advised not to share those thoughts in a searchable, shareable medium. Unless you want it to be shared, that is. Or leaked. And acidentally or not, it was shared on media and websites around the world. Perhaps hundreds or even thousands of times.

I think Breakthrough Listen is a great, exciting project, but pardon my skepticism if their enthusiasm seems more like a structured media event to get them into the headlines than real scientific curiosity. Don’t lose sight of the fact that Yuri Milner is the Russian billionaire who fund the Breakthrough Listen project and Avi Loeb is one of his advisors (I cannot ascertain from its website whether these advisors are also paid for their role). Both have a vested interest in getting the publicity, in the attention, in creating public interest and even in stirring the conspiracy wingnuts (public pressure from the wingnut community got NASA to send its satellite to examine a mesa on the Cydonia plateau when it was supposed to be the “face” on Mars – it proved to be just another chunk of rock. And then there’s the loud Nibiru wackiness that got so noisy that NASA had to make a debunking statement saying there is no such thing…).

Plus, other SETI telescopes have been quietly looking at Oumuamua already, but their work has received almost no publicity. NBC news noted on Dec. 14:

The SETI Institute began scanning Oumuamua with its Allen Telescope Array on Nov. 23, 2017. So far, we’ve spent 60 hours checking for transmissions over a wide range of frequencies.

And in all that time, nothing unusual has been announced. But when Breakthrough Listen joined in, late in the game, it got a lot of media attention and excited the conspiracy theorists. So again, pardon my skepticism if I see some newsjacking going on.

The Guardian article adds,

Previous work on the body found it to be extremely dark red, absorbing about 96% of light that falls on it. The colour is associated with carbon-based molecules on comets and asteroids.
If, as expected, the telescope fails to pick up any intelligent broadcasts from ‘Oumuamua, the observations are still expected to aid scientists in understanding the body. Other signals detected by the Green Bank telescope could shed light on whether the object is shrouded in a comet-like cloud of gas, and reveal whether it is carrying water and ice through the solar system.

The object is interesting, curious and in many ways challenges our understanding of such objects and of our universe. But that means it’s worth studying, not that it represents anything supernatural or alien. It’s not going far out on any limb to predict that nothing unusual, exotic or alien will be discovered when the radio telescope operators report back from their investigation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look. As the New York Times noted,

The discovery set off a worldwide scramble for telescope time to observe the object. Astronomers from the SETI Institute even got into the act, swinging into action to look for alien radio signals Just In Case.
For now, however, those are just science fiction thrills. “Our observations are entirely consistent with it being a natural object,” said Karen Meech of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy and leader of the international collaboration that discovered Oumuamua with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Maui.

Where did it come from? Maybe from the direction of Vega (oh there it is again: fiction. Vega was the source of the radio signals in the book and movie, Contact). No one is sure, because if it is an interstellar visitor, it’s been travelling a very, very long time to reach us. So long, in fact, that we can’t follow its trajectory backwards because the stars have shifted enough in its journey that we cannot pinpoint the origin. Plus there’s no way to tell if any other objects have altered its path in between.

From the New York Times again:

Where did it come from? Dr. Meech said the astronomers were initially excited when the orbit appeared to point to the brightest star in Lyra, Vega, which is known to have a debris disk. It would have taken the object about 600,000 years to get here from there, astronomers estimated.

But that’s another guess. It could have been travelling for billions of years. If nothing more, the time it took would rule out an alien craft. And rule out the possibility of visitors aboard it.

Where Oumuamua is headedWhere is it headed? In the direction of the Pegasus constellation, for now. NASA tells us:

Oumuamua is travelling about 85,700 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per second) relative to the Sun. Its location is approximately 124 million miles (200 million kilometers) from Earth — the distance between Mars and Jupiter – though its outbound path is about 20 degrees above the plane of planets that orbit the Sun. The object passed Mars’s orbit around Nov. 1 and will pass Jupiter’s orbit in May of 2018. It will travel beyond Saturn’s orbit in January 2019; as it leaves our solar system, ‘Oumuamua will head for the constellation Pegasus.

Six months to reach Jupiter’s orbit at 38 km/s. That should give readers a clue as to the vast distances involved. At that speed, it would take more than 123,000 years to reach even the closest star, and it’s not even headed that way. NBC News again:

The most likely outcome of these efforts will be to find nothing but radio silence. But it’s never smart to rule out surprises, for they’re the stuff of science. Who knows? Perhaps, just perhaps, Oumuamua is someone else’s attempt to boulderly go.

That last line gave me a chuckle. Futurism’s article concludes:

Many humans seem to be eager to prove that we are not alone in the universe. To that end, they can tend to cling to any remote possibility more than the evidence should afford. While mysterious signals or strange objects should absolutely pique our interests, we shouldn’t focus on the answer being aliens. There is plenty we have yet to learn about the universe around us, and yes, intelligent life elsewhere in the universe might be part of that elusive knowledge. We can get just as excited about learning more about the mechanics of the universe which can help us gain important insight on just how we got here, and on a cosmic scale, where we are headed.

And that’s where we should be focused: on learning more about the universe. Not in imagining rocks are alien space ships, UFOs are watching us, aliens are abducting people or Bigfoot stomps around our woods.

Oumuamua is an intriguing object, but when all is said and done, it isn’t a derelict spaceship, it isn’t a sign of the apocalypse, it isn’t full of aliens and it’s not the herald of your deity: it’s just a piece of rock.

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3 Replies to “Oumuamua: just a piece of rock”

  1. http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2017/12/initial_scans_of_interstellar.html

    An initial search for artificial signals coming from ‘Oumuamua, the reddish, cigar-shaped object now passing through our solar system, have come up empty.


    Yesterday (Dec. 14), researchers from Breakthrough Listen, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking’s $100-million project to search for extraterrestrial life—announced that their search had failed to find any evidence of life so far. Initial observations conducted on Dec. 13 from the 330-foot (100 m) Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia didn’t detect any radio signals out of the ordinary.


    No evidence of artificial signals emanating from the object so far detected by the Green Bank Telescope, but monitoring and analysis continue. Initial data are available for public inspection in the Breakthrough Listen archive.