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West Virginia’s Green Bank scope tracks object for signs of alien design


Charleston Gazette-Mail

GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Could a mysterious, cigar-shaped object believed to have come from another star system and now streaking toward Jupiter at speeds approaching 200,000 miles per hour be a probe from a distant civilization?

This artist’s rendering shows the unique object known as “Oumuamua,” which is Hawaiian for “first messenger,” which passed by the Earth in October. The Green Bank Observatory, in Pocahontas County, will spend several hours this week examining the object.
(European Southern Observatory illustration)

Probably not, according to scientists with Breakthrough Listen, the global astronomical program searching for evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But the object’s unique profile and interstellar trajectory, along with the fact that it is the first object discovered in our solar system that appears to have originated from another star system, make it worthy of closer examination.

Starting at 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County will set its sights on the object for 10 hours in an initial phase of observations for Breakthrough Listen researchers.
The object was discovered in October, during its nearest proximity to Earth, by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Observations from Pan-STARRS, which discovers more than half of the asteroids and comets passing in the vicinity of Earth, indicated that the object was up to 800 meters long and about 80 meters wide, and traveling at speeds of up to 196,000 miles per hour.

Named “Oumuamua,” Hawaiian for “first messenger,” the object passed Earth at a distance about 85 times the distance to the moon, “a stone’s throw, in astronomical terms,” according to a release from Breakthrough Listen.

Its high speed suggests that Oumuamua is not gravitationally bound to the sun and will continue its interstellar journey after exiting the solar system.

“Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust,” according to the Breakthrough Listen release. “While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that Oumuamua could be an artifact.”

Oumuamua is now about 180 million miles from Earth, yet closer by a factor of more than 50 to the most distant human artifact, the Voyager I spacecraft.

“At this distance, it would take under a minute for the Green Bank instrument to detect an omnidirectional transmitter with the power of a cellphone,” according to the Breakthrough Listen release.

“Oumuamua’s presence within our solar system affords Breakthrogh Listen an opportunity to reach unprecedented sensitivities to possible artificial transmitters and demonstrate our ability to track nearby, fast-moving objects,” said Breakthrough Listen’s Andrew Siemion.

“Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen,” said Siemion, who also serves as director of the University of California at Berkeley’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Center.

If no evidence of extraterrestrial technology is observed during the Green Bank scans, the Oumuamua observations could still provide data about the possible presence of water or ice or the chemistry of a gaseous envelope that may surround the object.

Breakthrough Listen has already turned up several non-SETI astronomical discoveries, including several dozen repeating fast radio bursts from a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light years from Earth.

Breakthrough Listen is a 10-year, $100 million project funded by billionaire Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner. It targets the nearest 1 million stars to Earth, plus stars in 100 galaxies other than our Milky Way, for signs of alien life or technology.

The Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radio-telescope, is one of two primary instruments used in the search. About 20 percent of the GBT’s observation time is dedicated to Breakthrough Listen targets, producing more than $2 million in revenue annually for the West Virginia observatory.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at [email protected], 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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