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By far, one of the most unsettling and surprising space objects to ever zoom through our solar system was 2017's odd-shaped 'Oumuamua asteroid, prompting claims that this long, flat ice-rock was actually an interstellar spacecraft or some type of advanced alien technology blasting into our neighborhood and back out in a big hurry.
While cooler heads (including our own expert stargazer Phil Plait) prevailed in not jumping to controversial conclusions and identifying the cosmic cruiser as a galactic battleship or doomsday device loaded with an Expanse-like protomolecule, some scientists took a more provocative approach and postulated that it was of extraterrestrial origin due to its weird oblong shape, accelerating speed, and unconventional hyperbolic orbit.
Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb was one of the more outspoken members of the scientific community and he was very vocal in his radical opinions labeling 'Oumuamua as possibly being a machine created by some advanced civilization... and now he's got an upcoming book detailing more of his findings.
Loeb, the chair of Harvard's Astronomy Department, was the co-author of a 2018 research paper on the topic which hinted toward the bizarre asteroid being an alien starship shaped like a flattened sheet and having the properties of what we know as a solar sail or a light sail. This might explain one element of the big mystery by theorizing that pressure from the Sun was causing its non-gravitational acceleration as it zipped around our home star as the first interstellar object to ever pass through our solar system.
While all this is still pure conjecture, Loeb's insistence that this was not a natural object and instead its genesis could be alien in nature attracted the attention of editors at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where they will be publishing his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, to back up his beliefs on Jan. 26.
In the upcoming release, Loeb explains how he came to conclusions that rubbed against the like-minded cries of the majority of his colleagues, and why data accumulated from the distant dot traveling at 16 miles per second describes something extremely unnatural rather than the more pedestrian explanations.
Was our solar system the temporary host to a shiny alien light sail considered techno-trash by some highly-evolved alien civilization? The author is adamant about his unpopular position that has received its fair amount of professional ridicule and is an avid defender of his theories despite evidence to the contrary.
According to Loeb, the device might not have been shot out into the solar system deliberately, and instead was some sort of cast-off machine of unknown purpose or destination. Hypothetically, what could it be? Loeb is not shy about offering myriad suggestions of why 'Oumuamua was not some weird comet.
"A buoy. A grid of pods for communication," he writes. "Signposts that an extraterrestrial civilization could navigate by. Launch bases for probes. Other intelligent living organisms' defunct technology or discarded technological trash These all are plausible explanations for the ‘Oumuamua mystery — plausible because here on Earth, humanity is already doing these things, albeit on a far more limited scale, and we would certainly consider replicating them if and when we explore out into interstellar space."
"No one is similarly mocked for studying higher dimensions or string theory — both "esoteric" ideas never observed in the real world," Loeb points out. "Instead they get prizes or honors, while young researchers are warned away from studying advanced alien civilizations in favor of less "taboo" fields that won't harm their careers."
Still on the fence about exactly what 'Oumuamua might have been? Keep an open mind and consider checking out Avi Loeb's Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth when it arrives in bookstores on Jan. 26.