(Originally Published in Strange City Digest; Fall 2021)
On October 19, 2017, Robert Weryk, a physicist at the Pan STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) spotted what would be recognized as the first officially observed interstellar object to pass through our solar system, ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for ’Scout’).
The object is largely believed to have entered our solar system from the direction of the star Vega, which is in the constellation Lyra. At its maximum speed, ‘Oumuamua was traveling at 87.71 kilometers per second, according to NASA records. After entering our solar system, its trajectory took a sharp hook once it came close enough to the sun’s gravitational pull. This brought it within 38,100,000 kilometers to the Sun at its perihelion. For context, that is seventeen percent closer than even Mercury reaches. It is now headed away from the sun toward the constellation Pegasus.
The irregularly shaped object, around one hundred meters long by, at most, thirty meters deep, was 24,200,000 million kilometers away from Earth when it was at its closest. That’s roughly eighty-four times the length from here to the moon. Not exactly a new next-door neighbor, but certainly in the neighborhood, astronomically speaking.
Because objects in a solar system revolve around their central sun, ‘Oumuamua has entered, and will exit, in a similarly circling manner. As it makes it outgoing passes, its route expands further and further away from that closer-than-Mercury perihelion. The object passed beyond Jupiter’s orbit in 2017, Saturn’s the following year, and in 2022 it will pass beyond the far reaches of Neptune’s orbit.
While ‘Oumuamua’s proximity may be drifting from us, its influence only grows heavier by the day. Physicists and astronomers across the world remain divided on an officially accepted theory regarding its origin and the force capable of delivering it this far. Astrophysicist and author of the new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Avi Loeb finds hope in the uncertainty and is hesitant to dismiss the celestial phenomena too easily.
“I was intrigued by the fact that it was detected by the Pan STARR survey at all,” Loeb explains. “I wrote a paper a decade earlier (with Amaya Moro-Martín and Ed Turner) saying that no [interstellar] rock from another star’s solar system should be observed with Pan STARR based on calculations and what we know about our own solar system.”
He expanded on this in a recent article he penned for Scientific American, “The population of objects required to explain the discovery of ‘Oumuamua exceeds the expected number of interstellar rocks per unit volume by orders of magnitude. In fact, there should be a quadrillion ‘Oumuamua-like objects within the solar system at any given time, if they are distributed on random trajectories with equal probability of moving in all directions.”
When talking with Strange City, Loeb expressed doubt in several potential explanations for ‘Oumuamua’s existence as presented by his peers. “There is a theory that it is a cloud of dust particles very loosely bound to a cloud one hundred times less dense than air and being pushed by sunlight. We’ve never seen anything like that and its hard to see how the cloud would maintain its material strength and integrity that close to the sun under such heat. Others say it is a hydrogen iceberg. Such a structure would evaporate within a few million years after being exposed to starlight in interstellar space, so it wouldn’t be able to travel large distances, and it is unlikely for ‘Oumuamua to have developed near to us. I’ve heard a nitrogen iceberg, but that one is a matter of resources. There simply isn’t enough nitrogen for an object this large.”
It’s lack of classification only presented more questions the deeper Loeb pressed. “As it tumbled through space, the amount of light it was reflecting from the sun increased by a factor of ten. This meant a very extreme shape. It is approximately ten times longer than it is wide. That implies a flat shape, like a pancake, not cigar-shaped. It exhibited a strange push away from the sun. Strange, because there were no signs of outgassing, no rocket effect. No cometary tail.”
“So, the question is, what is pushing it?” He posits, “I suggest that it must be reflection of sunlight. For that to be effective the object has to be thin, and nature doesn’t make thin objects that are that flat. Therefore, it must be artificial in origin.”
Loeb references recently discovered space object 2020-SO. When observed, the object displayed momentum without a visible cometary tail. This resulted from a push of solar radiation energy owed to its thin mass and flat, reflective dimensions; much like ‘Oumuamua. 2020-SO was proven to be a piece of manmade debris from a rocket booster jettisoned in 1966. Loeb uses this as probable precedence for another parallel between 2020-SO and ‘Oumuamua, one of artificial construction.
“Because all natural explanations require something we’ve never considered before, we should just as well be considering artificial explanations.” he says.
Loeb is no stranger to unconventional theories in astrophysics and astronomy. Not without his detractors, he is one of the more reputable advocates for research into extraterrestrial existence and contact.
“A lot of people are worried about their image, and they maximize their chances of getting awards and recognition. That is less important to me. We are doing science as an extension of our childhood curiosity. That is a privilege that science gives us. We can ask questions about the world and admit that we don’t always know the answer. That’s part of the learning experience. It’s not about our image, it’s not about getting pride. It’s about figuring out the world we live in.”
“My journey was quite different than a typical scientist,” he admits. “I grew up on a farm in Israel and was mostly interested in philosophy at a young age. At eighteen, I had to serve in the military. Within there, I was able to be part of a group that studied physics and mathematics. I preferred to do that over running in the fields.”
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Loeb went on to earn a PhD in physics at the age of twenty-four. It was not long before he was working on projects proposed by the US Strategic Defense Initiative and meeting with then-President Reagan in Washington D.C. While in the U.S. he was offered a position at Princeton University on the provision he shift his career and studies exclusively to astrophysics. It was a proposition he accepted.
“While it ended up being an arranged marriage, it was also one of true love because there are important philosophical questions we can address using the scientific method. One of them is: are we the smartest kids on the block? That’s what I’ve been working on for the past five years. Before that, I worked on how the first light was produced in the universe, the scientific version of the story of Genesis. I also worked on black holes and gravitational waves.”
He reflects on his difference of approach, “Because I was interested in philosophy at an early age it gave me a different perspective. I’m not a technical nerd that decided to focus on a very a narrow niche. I prefer to see the bigger picture. That makes me quite different from a lot of the colleagues I have. I see a broader range of possibilities than what other people are working on. I always worked on things that were not popular when I was working on them but got quite fashionable afterward. I realized, after a while, that I shouldn’t pay attention to what other people are saying. On several occasions when I proposed something it was dismissed early and then it became the hottest thing in the field.
“At some point, I realized I should just follow the evidence and what I feel is right and not pay too much attention to how many likes I get on Twitter, or how others view it.”
Regardless, his sentiments must be catching on. Loeb was recently able to secure approximately $2 million in private funding for his Galileo Project, an ambitious foray to search out evidence, artifacts, or technology of extraterrestrial origin.
“Its purpose is twofold,” Loeb explains of the project, “to find more objects like ‘Oumuamua and study them in greater detail. The second part is to look at unidentified aerial phenomena, the kind that the US Government alluded to in the recent papers from the Department of Defense. The goal is to have telescope systems that we build on Earth to monitor the sky and look for objects of interest. Since the sky is not classified, this data is open and available.”
A significant aspect of the Galileo Project will be its disciplined approach. Loeb stresses the importance of following a rigorous, testable, and empirical approach toward data gathering and observation when it comes to the sometimes-dubious field of UAP phenomena. He seeks to instill legitimacy to the search for extraterrestrial life.
Some of his peers, like Harvard-Smithsonian Center astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, have expressed considerable skepticism to the project. McDowell was quoted in a separate Scientific American article, “It’s really hard to see how you establish a search strategy that would have a chance of seeing [a UAP].” He added, “I suspect there are more well-motivated SETI projects, or even UFO-search projects, that could be funded for less money.” At the risk of being seen hunting for white whales, Loeb remains committed to the cause. “It’s not like I’m hoping for someone else to do it. We will do it.”
Loeb voices similarly strong sentiments in his book, Extraterrestrial. “I think [the search for extraterrestrial life] is the most important question that science can address. It would fundamentally change everything we know, and yet, it is pushed to the sidelines which is very strange to me. That is what I’m trying to change. I wrote the book especially for the young generation with the hope of attracting more young people to science and fields of research. Science can be exciting.”
For Loeb, there is no other discovery more significant in the course of humanity. “I think it will have a huge impact. If you look at human history, there is this thing you see over and over again, these negative outcomes, driven by people trying to feel superior to other people. The worst example of this is the Second World War where the Nazi regime triggered the killing over 75 million people.
“If we do find relics from past civilizations, all the genetic differences that the Nazis made such a fuss about, they would seem laughable, completely negligible when compared to the other civilizations and us. I hope that would convince us all to treat each other with more respect and as equal members of the human species. It could change human history because of that.
“It will also give us a better view of our place in the universe. A lot of people think we are the smartest and there is nothing like us. Meeting extraterrestrials could address a lot of existential questions, like the meaning of life. Our documented histories only go back around ten thousand years. That’s a small fraction of the age of the age of the universe, or the sun, or the earth. If we meet another civilization that predates us, they may have a much better perspective to the meaning of life that we can learn from. Our long-term goals as a people, what we want to accomplish, may change completely if we recognize that there is something far more advanced than we are out there.”
Following his line of thought, it doesn’t take long to see Loeb is only scratching the surface when he shifts the lens to spirituality and religion. The proof, let alone actual contact, of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would utterly upend the world’s strongest institutions overnight.
“If we mean by that, an entity that can create life and can create universes as portrayed in religious texts, very advanced technological civilizations could be able to do that. We, after one century of scientific advances, are already, in some laboratories, at a point where we can create synthetic life ourselves. A much more advanced civilization could easily have the qualities of a god. Its technology would appear magical to us.”
He adds, “What happens after death may lose relevancy if they know how to extend life much longer. If they have the recipe to extend life to millions, even billions of years, this question loses relevancy. There are also more scientific questions like what came before the Big Bang, what is dark matter, what is inside a black hole? If they have science far more advanced than ours, then they may already have the answer.”
Professor Avi Loeb is not a man afraid to ask the big questions. He sums up our discussion with the same philosophic insight he brought to the world of astrophysics. “In order for our civilization to mature, we need to find others.”