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Image of Ikaros space-probe with solar sail propulsion. Courtesy Andrzej Mirecki/ Wiki

Ken Springer

Much ado about something

From the time Oumuamua was detected and subsequently identified as an interstellar object back in 2017, and following hundreds of observations, scientists began theorizing about its nature. And they continue to do so, as evidenced by a piece in the New York Times just last week, but more on that later.

Disparate theories have arisen as to the nature of Oumuamua, only to be abandoned in the light of new information. Some ideas did not survive the scrutiny of scientific consensus. Other speculations were deemed worth exploring, at least for a while, until a more promising hypothesis came forward.

And that is how science works. Unlike the ubiquitous conspiracy theories muddying up the internet, science-based theories must stand up to rigorous standards and critique.

All the while, Oumuamua has left our immediate vicinity and is now outbound on its return to interstellar space, leaving us without a clear picture as to its nature.

In light of a scientific methodology that encourages new and sometimes novel ideas, I want to share a few more speculations about Oumuamua. I think you will find these interesting.

The Light Sail Hypothesis:

Perhaps the most controversial suggestion about our interstellar visitor comes from Astronomer Avi Loeb and his colleagues at Harvard.

Dr. Loeb postulates that the data on Oumuamua indicating its geometry, anti-gravitational acceleration, and high reflectivity may fit the bill of a light sail. Perhaps, he suggests, Oumuamua is a derelict piece of technology from an intelligent life form outside our solar system.

Is it possible that when we do entertain the possibility of ETs, we tend to project the current level of human technology onto intelligent extraterrestrial life? In doing so we impose on them our own limitations.

It may be that, if there are advanced life forms out there, our technical abilities may be superior to theirs in some cases. Yet, in other cases, our technology may be vastly inferior.

If technologically advanced life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, they may have a jumpstart of millions, if not billions, of years on our relatively adolescent level of technology.

I am not suggesting that Oumuamua is a piece of alien technology. However, it seems reasonable to conclude that if there are advanced technologies out there, they may have sent probes out to collect information.

After all, our very own Voyager 2, launched in 1977, finally pierced the veil of interstellar space in 2018. Although Voyager’s primary mission was studying Saturn and Jupiter, we saw potential value in sending information about humans on a gold-plated record onboard.

Perhaps our little Voyager may be intercepted in the future by some form of highly advanced extraterrestrial life.  Let’s hope their reaction is favorable and, anyway, who doesn’t enjoy Chuck Berry’s song, Johnny B. Goode.

I’m having a little fun here, but maybe we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of intelligent alien life. We have yet to find them, but the universe is a big, big place.

Lacking the professional insight into what Oumuamua is or is not, I am not qualified to have a strong opinion one way or the other. However, it seems to me that science does have a responsibility to search for truths in all areas that offer even the dimmest of prospects.

Although, Occam’s Razor influences what I think Oumuamua is likely to be. Between a choice of a natural object or an artificial one, I have to go with nature.

The following are two of many ideas to explain away the peculiarities of Oumuamua. These theoretical objects fall in the category of “yet to be discovered.” Nevertheless, they are thought by some to exist outside our solar system.

The Hydrogen Iceberg Hypothesis:

The hydrogen iceberg explanation of Oumuamua was postulated by Darryl Seligman, University of Chicago, and Gregory Laughlin of Yale University.

In a June 3, 2020 article in Scientific American written by Jonathan O’ Callaghan, Seligman and Laughlin suggest that Oumuamua may be a relic of the cold, dark molecular clouds inhabiting the Milky Way.

They speculate that a hydrogen iceberg could form in a molecular cloud where temperatures are a few degrees above absolute zero. Such an object could wander for millions of years before losing all of its hydrogen. Perhaps, enough time to pass through our solar system. 

Seligman and Laughlin also posit that it would take far less sublimation of molecular hydrogen to achieve the acceleration observed in Oumuamua than it would water. And with hydrogen, there would be no visible cometary tail, another salient feature of Oumuamua.

The Cosmic Dust Bunny Hypothesis:

Don’t look under your bed for one of these dust bunnies. The kind that Amaya Moro-Martin of the Space Telescope Science Institute has Oumuamua pegged as is 100 times less dense than air.

Composed of cometary dust and called a cometary fractal, this light and porous object could easily accelerate to the velocities observed in Oumuamua with a push from solar radiation. Much in the manner of a light sail.

So, enough with the theories already.

Pocahontas County’s very own Felix J. Lockman, Principal Scientist at the Green Bank Observatory, has generously offered to provide us with a broader view of the kerfuffle generated by Oumuamua.

In his own articulate prose, here is Dr. Lockman’s assessment.

“We like to think that the solar system is an orderly place. The sun is at the center, and the planets with their moons move in regular orbits. But the solar system is also full of a swarm of debris left over from the era when the planets were formed.

“Some of this is captured every night by Earth and appears as meteors. Nearly 50 tons a night rain down on us from particles smaller than a pea. There are a lot of bigger rocks out there, as well, many billions, all kept from wandering off by the gravity of the Sun.

“The process of making a solar system like ours is messy, and besides the planets, asteroids and other construction debris, it’s certain that many billions of rocks were flung away from the Sun and now wander in the space between the stars.

“The same process happened with all of the other stars in the Milky Way. So Oumuamua is certainly one of these large interstellar rocks, originally part of another star’s planetary system, now a traveler through interstellar space.
“The problem that astronomers face is how to find a moving rock in the dark if you don’t even know where to look. Oumuamua does not give off any light of its own, so it had to come fairly close to the Sun before we could see it in reflected sunlight. Even then, it was very, very faint.

“It’s only recently that we have constructed telescopes capable of detecting objects like this, so it’s not surprising that Oumuamua seems unique.

“But in the next decade, new, powerful telescopes will begin surveying the sky looking for transient signals, and I expect that they will find many more interstellar rocks whizzing through the neighborhood. Oumuamua was the first, but certainly not the last.”

A huge thanks Jay.

This just in: While composing this column, a March 29, 2021, New York Times article by Dennis Overbye revealed a new hypothesis. And here it is in brief.

Astronomers Alan Jackson and Steven Desch of Arizona State University present what may be the most likely explanation for Oumuamua to date. They believe that our mysterious visitor is a sort of chip off the old block, a Pluto-like block to be precise.

In this scenario, Oumuamua is a chunk of rock sheared off of a Pluto-like planet by an asteroid in another star system and sent off to wander through space for a half-billion years. The original “chip” would have had a typical round shape but trimmed down by cosmic rays over millions of years.

Oumuamua is noted for its red color, and lo and behold; this also matches that of our Pluto. As well, nitrogen, found in abundance on Pluto, may have served as the fuel for Oumuamua’s observed anti-gravitational acceleration, reducing its mass in the process.

Astronomer Greg Laughlin added, “None of the theories (on Oumuamua) is a slam-dunk.” We’ll just have to live with some unknowns; such is life.

In next week’s Watoga Trail Report, we will investigate a diabolical fungus that silently waits underground for the emergence of 2021’s Brood X cicadas.

The goal of this fungus called Massospora?

To devour the butts of live cicadas for their own evil purposes. This episode promises to be a real nature-based horror show.

I promise to limit my use of anthropomorphism in regard to the fungus or any other critter in the article.

Please stay tuned.
Ken Springer

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