You may have heard about Oumuamua, a mysterious object spotted traveling through space. It's the first intersteller object spotted in our solar system, which would already be mysterious by itself. But the real mystery has to do with the object's speed: it's going 70,000 miles per hour, much faster than an asteroid should. In fact, when it slingshotted around the sun, it sped up.
“There was something affecting its motion other than the gravitational forces of the Sun and planets,” said Marco Micheli, a European Space Agency scientist, in a press statement.
The scientists didn't have a good explanation for why Oumuamua is moving the way it is, but one possible explanation is getting the Internet pretty excited. Enter Dr. Avi Loeb, the Harvard astronomer who is REALLY into aliens.
Loeb thinks this object could be an alien spaceship. According to his theory, the object is moving so fast because intelligent life is propelling it with, say, rockets.
“Alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that ‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," write Loeb and his coauthor in a paper. "This discrepancy is readily solved if ‘Oumuamua does not follow a random trajectory but is rather a targeted probe."
I've written about Loeb a good deal over the years, and he's pretty much always proposing the possibility of aliens. He's suggested that aliens have star-powered spaceships and mused about how aliens could survive apocalypses.
"It seems like aliens are a theme for you," I told him once. "Something new happens, and you’re the guy who’s like, 'But wait, what if it’s aliens.' Why is that?" His response really made me think at the time. Now that Oumuamua is being talked about so much, I think it's worth reprinting:
I’m not afraid to consider possibilities, to be open-minded. Most scientists, especially people at my stature, are worried about their reputation. They are worried about their image, and they prefer to maintain a conservative approach. Throughout their career, most of the time, they just repeat things that are accepted by others and are considered mainstream.
My approach is quite different. I’m really interested in the truth. In seeking the truth, you explore all possibilities, and you rule out some.
To me, it’s clear that it’s possible – it’s quite likely – that primitive life exists out there, and I would say intelligent as well. For me, it sounds completely legitimate for scientists to explore the options, and, whenever there is something really strange, to consider the possibility that it might be a signal ...
To me, it’s a very dangerous development, to think that authority establishes the truth. There is a truth out there, and the number of people that believe in it is irrelevant.
Many times, life is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. You tell yourself, 'No, I don’t want to pursue that because chances are small that it will be a successful path.' But then, obviously, if you don’t follow that path, it’ll never be successful. In many of those instances, you put up barriers, and you never break out of the path that everyone else takes. But if you allow yourself to take some side paths, then you might discover new things every now and then. And that’s the fun.