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‘Alien probe’ asteroid is dead quiet, but is that good news or bad news?

Published Dec 15th, 2017 1:51PM EST
oumuamua aliens
Image: ESO

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A couple of months back, a really, really weird asteroid flew through our Solar System. It looked nothing like any object humanity had ever spotted in space, and was moving might fast. First it was identified as a comet, then an asteroid, and most recently scientists have been wondering if maybe it was actually an alien spacecraft. Now, after spending hours listening to the strange visitor with powerful radio telescopes, scientists say they haven’t heard a peep.

The object, named Oumuamua, is shaped like a cigar. If it’s really an asteroid it would be the very first interstellar asteroid — that is, a rock that originated outside of our Solar System — to be observed by humans, but its bizarre form and speedy entry and exit gave alien hunters reason to believe it might actually be otherworldly technology. Now, it seems, that question will have to wait a little longer to be answered.

Earlier this week scientists from the Breakthrough Listen project pointed their ears towards Oumuamua in the hopes of hearing something, anything, that couldn’t be explained by some natural process. After a preliminary review of the data, they haven’t found anything that would suggest the object is actually an alien probe, but whether or not we should be happy about that is up for debate.

Humanity has been hastily attempting to make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations for decades now. We’ve sent spacecraft out of our Solar System with directions on where to find us, and shot radio wave messages to distant stars in the hopes that someone is listening. If we’re going to meet aliens, these are probably our best shots at making first contact, but should we even be trying?

Every scientist with an itch to find alien life has a counterpart who fears what that meeting may bring. Many astronomers and physicists, including Stephen Hawking, have warned that contact aliens could result in the utter destruction of mankind. We simply don’t know whether intelligent beings living elsewhere in the universe will see us as a friendly neighbor, a threat, or simply a nuisance that should be wiped out simply because we’re annoying them.

“Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach,” Hawking famously said. “If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?”

For now, it appears that the strange object that just visited us isn’t relaying messages with alien handlers on a distant star system, and maybe that’s for the best.