First alien object to visit solar system is protected by strange shield
In a Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, Calvin looks at a tree stump and says, "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." It's a funny observation, and I've often wondered if it might be true. We humans are pretty rough on the environment, plus we love to pick stupid fights with each other. Maybe from a cosmic perspective, Earth is like that sketchy part of town aliens prefer to avoid.
But now, after imagining aliens in countless books and movies, we have the closest thing to an extraterrestrial meet-and-greet. In October, scientists in Hawaii spotted a long, strange, cigar-shaped "alien rock." It measures 100 ft by 100ft by 600 ft, and is the first foreign object to enter our galaxy from another system. It has an unusual shape, unlike anything we've even seen before, leading some to suggest it may come from an alien civilization. (Cue X-Files music.)
"For decades we’ve theorized that such interstellar objects are out there and now – for the first time – we have direct evidence they exist," said Thomas Zurbuchen, an administrator at NASA. "This history-making discovery is opening a new window to study formation of solar systems beyond our own."
The asteroid was named Oumuamua, which is a Hawaiian word meaning "messenger from afar." (Also, "Oumuamua" is probably the terrified gibberish you would mutter if you actually saw an alien.) It party-crashed our solar system at the incredibly high speed of 300,000 km/h, fascinating scientists all over the world.
Astronomer Jayadev Rajagopal said, "It’s exciting to point the Arizona telescope at such a tiny object which, for all we know, has been traveling through the vast emptiness of space for millions of years and then by luck, passes close enough for me to be able to see it that night!"
Since the object was moving so quickly, there was not much time to study it, but scientists have learned a few intriguing new details.
Previously, they expected an alien rock to look like a comet - an icy body leaving a blazing stream behind it as it flies by the sun. But there's no such activity on Oumuamua.
“It has been a puzzle that this thing looked like a big lump of rock," said Alan Fitzsimmons, the author of new study on Oumuamua. "Our study says that this object could well be icy in nature but we didn’t detect that ice due to the fact it's been baked by energetic radiation between the stars for hundreds of millions of years, or even billions of years.”
According to the new research, it's probably still an icy body, but seems to be wrapped in an organic coat that protects the frozen water inside from being hit by the sun. That means it's protected by a shield! Hopefully there aren't any hostile aliens hiding inside of the rock, or we're totally screwed.
“Looking at it, we realized it had been predicted that icier objects exposed to interstellar space should naturally form a thick crust around themselves," explained Fitzsimmons. “When we crunched the numbers we found that this crust should insulate the interior of the object so that if there were any ices inside it, it wouldn’t change the form.”
We're still waiting to learn more, but it sounds pretty cool so far. Maybe one day aliens will attempt to contact us, proving Calvin's dim view of human nature wrong. Hey, we're not so bad. Stop by, and give us a good Yelp review.