Oumuamua asteroid breakthrough listen

It’s probably just a chunk of space rock, but the Breakthrough Listen program is going to give ‘Oumuamua a listen. First discovered by the Pan-STAARS telescope in Hawaii back in October, ‘Oumuamua is special because of where it came from. It’s the first interstellar object seen in our solar system.

Right now, the asteroid is about two astronomical units way. That’s twice the distance between Earth and the Sun. And it’s cruising at speeds up to 196,000 miles per hour.

‘Oumuamua doesn’t look like your typical asteroid either. It has a long, cigar-like shape measuring several hundred meters in length but with a width and height only one-tenth that size.

The shape is interesting because researchers looking into long-distance space transportation suggest “a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft,” according to the Breakthrough Listen press release. Why that shape? It helps lessen a spacecraft’s footprint and could help it avoid collisions with small rocks and specks of dust. At least, that’s the idea.

On Wednesday (Dec 13), the Breakthrough Listen program will begin its observation campaign. Using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, astronomers will observe the cigar-shaped asteroid in four radio bands. The observation will kick off at 3:00 pm ET and should wrap up by 1:00 am ET.

Green Bank Telescope

The Green Bank Telescope

More than likely, the observations will come back showing ‘Oumuamua is just an asteroid. “Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen,” says Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center.

And even if the observation doesn’t find any extraterrestrial technology, it will still have scientific benefits. This week’s radio observations will cover parts of the radio spectrum the asteroid hasn’t been observed in yet. We could learn more about the potential water/ice (if any) makeup of ‘Oumuamua.

Plus, time isn’t on astronomers’ side with this asteroid. Remember, it’s an interstellar object. This chunk of rock isn’t swinging back our way again. By next year, ‘Oumuamua will be passing the orbit of Jupiter. In the 2020s, it’ll rip past Pluto as it continues its journey outside our solar system and onto the next.

The more astronomers observe the strange asteroid, the more they can hopefully learn about it. The initial observations revealed a red rock with no traces of water ice. That suggests the asteroid is made up of rock or maybe metal. Its odd shape also leads to a tumbling motion as it rotates once every seven hours.

SETI’s goal is to look for answers to the ultimate question. Are we alone?

Sure, ‘Oumuamua is probably just a funny looking asteroid. But we don’t know for sure until we look.


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