A group of Harvard researchers say they believe the mysterious, elongated space-faring object, nicknamed "'Oumuamua," could be an "alien spacecraft" or alien probe sent to spy on Earth.
NBC News reports that a team of scientists studying the odd, "reddish, stadium-sized" mass that 'tumbled past the sun" in late 2017 say they believe the item could be extraterrestrial in nature, and may not be natural. In fact, in their article, published this week in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters, they claim the object "may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization."
The Oumuamua was spotted late last year as it drifted into the solar system and passed close enough to the sun that it could be seen on observational telescopes. But unlike asteroids and other natural, space-faring objects, the Oumuamua appeared to "pick up speed" in a way that wasn't consistent with how scientists understand similar objects to move in space.
The Harvard team suggests that Oumuamua could have had a "light sail" feature that created power and energy from light "falling on its surface." The team termed the possible propulsion system a "lightsail of artificial origin."
Lightsails aren't foreign to Earthlings. NBC News reports that denizens of this planet have launched their own lightsail probes, mostly to investigate other star systems, currently unreachable by humans. One such project, Breakthrough Starshot, is aiming to send hundreds of tiny, lightsail-operated probes to a nearby solar system next year.
The technology, NBC news says, is still in its infancy on Earth, however.
If Oumuamua is evidence of an alien civilization seeking out life beyond its home solar system, we may never know. Oumuamua exited our star system late last year, and hasn't made a U-turn to come back and check on Earth's inhabitants. It's also possible Oumuamua was just designed to wander through space, collecting information, and our solar system just happened to be in its way -- its operators weren't necessarily looking to pry into the lives of humans.
It's also entirely possible -- perhaps more possible -- that the object isn't part of a far-flung alien race's attempts to investigate the (other) occupants of the Milky Way.
Despite the Harvard researchers' work, most scientists, NBC News says, are urging caution in assuming there's any other civilization beyond Earth's atmosphere -- and that it's actively seeking us out.
"It's certainly ingenious to show that an object the size of Oumuamua might be sent by aliens to another star system with nothing but a solar sail for power," a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute told NBC. "But one should not blindly accept this clever hypothesis when there is also a mundane (and a priori more likely) explanation for Oumuamua — namely that it's a comet or asteroid from afar."
Another scientist, also studying Oumuamua -- and who identified four dwarf stars that could be Oumuamua's point of origin -- says the object moved too haphazardly to collect any valuable information, even if it was a probe.
But Harvard's research team says they're not giving up hope that it's a sign of alien life: they "follow the maxim of Sherlock Holmes: When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."