In October of last year, an oddly-shaped and singularly unique astronomical object entered our solar system and our hearts. Discovered by Robert Weryk at the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii and dubbed 'Oumuamua, the object caught the attention of astronomers for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its peculiar cigar-like shape.
It evokes images of the Silver Surfer waking early in the cosmic morning to catch the perfect gravitational wave only to get caught in the curl and knocked aside, leaving his board to float forever, end over end, through empty space.
It’s relatively small, shows no apparent signs of a cometary tail, and is absolutely cruising.
It’s moving so fast, in fact, that it couldn’t possibly have come from within our own solar system, making it the first confirmed interstellar object ever observed.
All of this was enough to make 'Oumuamua the celestial talk of the season last fall. Now, a new paper from Abraham Loeb and Shmuel Bialy, professor and chair of astronomy and a postdoctoral scholar, respectively, at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has the internet all a-twitter with talk of alien probes and non-human solar sails.
"'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," Loeb and Bialy wrote in their paper. "This would account for the various anomalies of 'Oumuamua, such as the unusual geometry inferred from its light-curve, its low thermal emission, suggesting high reflectivity, and its deviation from a Keplerian orbit without any sign of a cometary tail or spin-up torques."
To be clear, many in the scientific community have taken issue with Loeb and Shmuel, stating in no uncertain terms that there is no good evidence to support the notion of 'Oumuamua being a piece of alien technology.
It’s impossible to talk about examples of interstellar alien tech visiting Earth without mentioning the character who would serve as the template for modern popular comics.
Kal-El’s origin story is well known, though it’s been reworked and retold numerous times. The most well-known version goes like this: in the fleeting, final moments of Krypton’s existence, his parents sent their only son on a one way trip to someplace safer. Safer being relative, considering their planet was about to explode.
Kal-El, then a baby, landed in the fictional town of Smallville, in the United States, where he was found and taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent.
While the ship itself had little impact on the future fate of humanity in the DC universe, what it brought with it was a shining beacon of hope and an example of untainted goodness in an increasingly dark world.
The Iron Giant
Brad Bird would eventually find incredible success with his films at Pixar, but before all that, he was the director of a movie about a child-like robot who fell to Earth.
The Iron Giant, based on the novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, failed at the box office, bringing in only a fraction of its $70 million budget, but would later go on to be recognized for the modern classic that it is.
Shortly after the launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 an object makes contact with Earth of the coast of Maine and is discovered by nine-year-old boy Hogarth Hughes.
The origin of the Giant is left intentionally ambiguous in the film. Audiences are left to fill in his origin story on their own, knowing only that he comes from space and that he’s equipped with impressive combat abilities but chooses not to use them. He famously says, “I am not a gun.” But in a deleted scene, we get a potential glimpse at the Giant’s origin.
In a dream sequence, we see a planet-destroying army of giant robots, implying the Iron Giant was a member of this extraterrestrial military force. In an unusual turn of events, The Iron Giant offers an example of humanity being the impetus for a change of heart in another species, instead of the other way around. Still, the Giant has lessons to teach all of us about self-sacrifice and doing what’s right, no matter the cost.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The fourth installment of the Star Trek cinematic franchise is unique in that it relies heavily on an environmental message rather than a well-defined and punchable villain.
After the events of The Search for Spock, the Enterprise crew returns to Earth to face charges. On the way they discover Earth has is being accosted by a massive alien probe broadcasting an indecipherable message and laying waste to the planet.
Spock realizes the probe is calling out to humpback whales which have previously gone extinct due to the impact of humanity on the planet in previous years.
What follows is a wacky time travel adventure to retrieve whales from the past. In the end, everything works out. The probe returns from whence it came, charges are dropped against the crew, and what little punishment they do receive serves only to return Kirk to command of the Enterprise.
But the message of the film is clear, the selfishness and short-sightedness of humanity can have unknown future consequences, even after we’ve attempted to course correct.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In Stanley Kubrick’s beloved 1968 film, and Arthur C. Clarke’s concurrent novel of the same name, mysterious black monoliths move the plot forward and all of human history along with it.
Its first appearance happens in an African desert where it causes the rapid evolution of a group of near-humans, ultimately resulting in the rise of our species.
An identical monolith is found millions of years later on the Moon, sending humanity on a journey to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel) and ultimately to the next stage of evolution as Dr. David Bowman is transformed into a cosmic fetus called a Star Child as a result of interaction with these alien artifacts. Kubrick was a weird dude.
An interesting pattern emerges when examining examples of Earth-bound alien artifacts in fiction. When aliens make the trip themselves, in our stories, they almost always come in search of conquest. But when alien tech finds its way into our hands, either by accident or by design, it almost always means progress and a brighter future for humanity.
Whether we realize it or not, maybe that’s why the prospect of ‘Oumuamua being more than just a natural, if unusual, cosmic object is so enticing.
In these uncertain times, we could use a little help from the stars. Whatever ‘Oumuamua is, it’s interesting enough without draping it in a cape and it reminds us there’s a big universe out there waiting to be explored, when we’re ready for it.