An object unlike one ever found before has appeared in our solar system--and it's not here to stay. This fall, the long, cylindrical body came careening into our solar system at breakneck speed -- in fact, the asteroid (or UFO, or whatever it is) entered our part of the galaxy at a remarkable 196,000 mph (that's quite a bit faster than Elon Musk's cherry-red Tesla is going to fly as it wings its way to Mars next year).
Scientists gathered from the object's high speed and unusual appearance that it probably wasn't from our own solar system. Rather, it was a "rare interstellar traveler" and the first of its kind observed by humans so far. The object was discovered by astronomers at the University of Hawaii, who named it 'Oumuamua, meaning "messenger" in Hawaiian.
Despite the fact that the object's origins are thought to be natural -- that's to say, not of a synthetic object like a spaceship or satellite -- 'Oumuamua has certain odd characteristics that prove to be outside of the realm of normal asteroid behavior and appearance. 'Oumuamua, for example, has a cylindrical shape -- a stark difference to the normally spherical shape of asteroids of this size. It's clear that the asteroid also behaves oddly. Typically, planets and asteroids would orbit the sun on the same plane. This asteroid, however, appeared to dip in from an outside plane altogether.
As scientist Stephen Hawking and his colleagues at Breakthrough Listen point out,
"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."
Due to its various abnormalities, astronomers are incredibly interested in the prospect of 'Oumuamua potentially emitting electromagnetic radiation. Andrew Siemion, a leader in the field of extraterrestrial intelligence, has also confirmed his group's intent of probing 'Oumuamua with a radio telescope to search for evidence of technology in the otherworldly asteroid. Scientists from the SETI Institute have installed electromagnetic detectors on the most capable radio telescope in the world, Green Bank, in order to see if it's possible to detect any such electromagnetic activity.
The work in analyzing 'Oumuamua, as well as the implementation of electromagnetic detectors, is primarily being led by the SETI institute. Founded in 1984, the institute now employs over 130 people in various fields and locations.
Overall, 'Oumuamua could prove to be an incredibly interesting starting point for looking at signs of extraterrestrial life -- even if the oblong asteroid really is nothing more than dead rock.