Scientists have been watching 'Oumuamua, the first known interstellar asteroid, with fascination since it landed on their screens in October. And beginning on Wednesday, a team will be studying it in search of something that would make the object even more groundbreaking: signals indicating it is in communication with extraterrestrial intelligent life.
That decision is based in large part on its weird shape: The object looks like a cigar, about 10 times longer than it is wide. That's different from every other object scientists have ever seen in space, which has raised a lot of eyebrows in the astronomical community. "The very first one looks completely different from the asteroids we're used to," Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University who suggested (and is working on) the new observations, told Newsweek.
And it wasn't just unusual: It also bore an eerie resemblance to designs he was toying with as part of his work with Breakthrough Starshot, which wants to send a probe to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, to investigate the planet orbiting nearby—or potentially even a whole solar system.
"We were thinking about a needle-shaped configuration for this spacecraft so it minimizes interstellar friction, for example," Loeb said. So he emailed Yuri Milner, the funder behind Breakthrough Starshot and its companion project to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Breakthrough Listen, to acquire time with a radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. Those observations will let the team check 'Oumuamua for signals that would indicate aliens are communicating with the object. "Just in case," Loeb said.
He's not holding his breath the object will turn out to be our first contact with E.T. "I would say that probability must be very small that ['Oumuamua is] artificial," Loeb said. "But at the same time there's always the first, and that's why we should check without the prejudice."
If they do spot a signal, that's instant evidence for alien life. "If it's a piece of rock, like most astronomers would tend to assume, then there should be nothing," Loeb said. "Any signal would be indicative of something unusual." Although this week's observations will only last 10 hours, if scientists want to revisit the object, Loeb says it should remain within range for "potentially years." He says the Breakthrough Listen team would immediately release any information suggesting the object isn't simply rock.
And Loeb hopes scientists will be performing the exercise many times in the future. "Even if most [interstellar objects] are natural, there still could be one out of a million that is special," he said. "We should check each and every one of them."
More from Newsweek