Space Cowboy Junkies

On September 9, 2017, an object, unlike anything before entered our solar system. Nobody noticed until October 19, when one observatory spotted something strange on their photographic records. 

Astronomers ascertained its speed to be approximately 90,000 kph, which meant the object was barrelling along too fast to be caught by the Sun’s gravity. Not only that, it had deviated from the expected trajectory like it had its own propulsion. What the hell was it, and what was driving it?

Further investigations suggested it was about 100 metres long, and 10 metres wide. The object also tumbled every eight hours. Even stranger, it was oddly luminous, bright as shiny metal.

Maybe a comet, some said. A weird asteroid said others. Maybe none of those things, said Avi Loeb, former Chair of Astronomy at Harvard University. The science rules those answers out, he added.

They named it Oumuamua, Hawaiian for ‘scout’. Good name, said Loeb because it’s probably part of a probing craft or a space buoy placed there by another civilisation. 

He had previously worked on a space sail project which could propel a craft up to one-fifth of the speed of light by starlight or sunlight striking a very thin light fabric. Such a craft would reach our nearest inhabitable planet in a lifetime, not the 100,000 years a rocket would take. If we can build this, then so can other, more advanced civilisations, he said. This may be a discarded sail. 

Ha ha, the astronomical establishment responded.

But as Loeb points out, Earthlings have already produced over half a million pieces of space junk circling our planet. Why would we be the only ones in our galaxy so careless with our rubbish? We have calculated that over 50 billion inhabitable planets exist in the Milky Way. There’s bound to be some messy inhabitants living on some of them.

Eventually, the International Astronomical Union declared it to be interstellar, but wouldn’t decide further on its construction.

So, there the argument lies, for now.

Isn’t it ironic that an early contact with an extraterrestrial may well be a piece of junk?

How human is that?

Avi Loeb,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021