Breakthrough Listen to Observe Interstellar Object ‘Oumuamua
Green Bank Telescope turns its sights on cigar-shaped object moving rapidly through solar system.
San Francisco – December 11, 2017 – Breakthrough Listen, the global astronomical program searching for evidence of civilizations beyond Earth, announced that it is currently focusing its observational efforts on ‘Oumuamua, the mysterious interloper recently spotted moving rapidly through the solar system.
‘Oumuamua was discovered by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii in October 2017, passing Earth at about 85 times the distance to the Moon – a stone’s throw, in astronomical terms. It is the first object discovered in the solar system that appears to originate from another star system. Its high speed – 196,000 mph at its peak – suggests it is not gravitationally bound to the Sun, but will continue its voyage back into interstellar space. It has a highly unusual structure for an asteroid – an elongated cigar shape, hundreds of meters in length but with width and height perhaps only one tenth as long.
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. 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.
Listen’s observation campaign will begin on Wednesday, December 13 at 3:00 pm ET. Using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, it will continue to observe ‘Oumuamua across four radio bands, from 1 to 12 GHz. Its first phase of observations will last a total of 10 hours, divided into four “epochs” based on the object’s period of rotation.
‘Oumuamua is now about 2 astronomical units (AU) away, or twice the distance between Earth and the Sun. This is closer by a factor of 50-70 than 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.
“‘Oumuamua’s presence within our solar system affords Breakthrough Listen an opportunity to reach unprecedented sensitivities to possible artificial transmitters and demonstrate our ability to track nearby, fast-moving objects,” said Listen’s Andrew Siemion, Director of Berkeley SETI Research Center. “Whether this object turns out to be artificial or natural, it’s a great target for Listen.”
Even if no signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial technology is heard, Listen observations will cover portions of the radio spectrum in which the object has not yet been observed, and could provide important information about the possibility of water/ice, or the chemistry of a coma (gaseous envelope), neither of which have yet been identified. Listen has already proved its value for traditional, non-SETI astronomy: in August 2017 it detected several dozen repeating fast radio bursts (FRBs) from a distant dwarf galaxy – for details see www.astronomerstelegram.org/?read=10675.
Breakthrough Listen is a scientific program in search for evidence of technological life in the Universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.
The Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific and technological programs exploring the Universe, seeking scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encouraging public debate from a planetary perspective.