Space is called the final frontier, and for good reason. Explorers used to cross treacherous oceans and vast deserts to unravel the secrets of the unknown. Not long ago, a piece of that unknown came to visit us in the form of a mysterious object from a distant star. But what is it, and where exactly did it come from? Is this enigmatic traveler a natural occurrence, or was it sent here by a distant civilization from across the stars? This strange interstellar object was first discovered by an astronomer named Rob Weryck, from the University of Hawaii on October 19th, 2017. He was looking for asteroids, and when he first detected an object zipping through space at 59,000 miles per hour, that’s what he thought he’d found. But when he went to examine recorded images from the previous nights, he noticed something unusual about his discovery. Most asteroids follow a predictable orbit around the sun, but the object he would later dub ‘Oumuamua (Oh-moo-ah moo-ah), was behaving unusually as it darted through space, not too far away from Earth. Firstly, it didn’t appear to be orbiting the Sun at all. In fact, researchers found that, based on ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory, the object had originated from somewhere beyond the solar system, and was merely passing through on its way to parts unknown. That’s where it got its name, which translates roughly to “messenger from far away” in Hawaiian. In addition to its uncommon origin, ‘Oumuamua had some very unusual dimensions. While most asteroids and comets tend to be round, or at least elliptical, the reddish, cylinder-shaped object was 1312 feet long by only about 400 feet wide. Also, ‘Oumuamua not only survived an extremely close encounter with the sun, enduring temperatures of over 570 degrees Fahrenheit, but seemed to be accelerating as it did so. If you paid attention in science class, you probably remember Newton’s first law, which says that an object in motion remains in motion until an outside force acts upon it. In space, where there’s neither gravity, friction nor wind resistance, an object in motion will continue to move at the same relative speed indefinitely, until something, usually a collision with another object, causes it to stop. However, the same principle works in reverse, a moving object shouldn’t start accelerating unless something starts pushing it along. By the way, there’s also Fig Newton’s First Law: A cookie dipped in milk, will remain in milk, unless extracted by the fingers, and then inserted into the mouth. Yum.” But I digress… Could this motion thing suggest that ‘Oumuamua was more than just an asteroid? Might our extrasolar visitor have been sent by an intelligence from beyond the stars? Perhaps it’s some sort of unmanned probe, created by a far-off civilization; an interstellar equivalent to our own Voyager program? Some think so, but scientists aren’t quite convinced that little green men are responsible for our mysterious red-hued visitor. Much more likely, it was evaporating gases, rather than burning thrusters, propelling the object through space at an ever-increasing speed. Such behavior can be expected from a comet, which sheds water vapor as it passes close to the sun, gaining momentum as it loops around our nearest star. For this reason, ‘Oumuamua was reclassified as a comet instead of an asteroid; but that explanation wasn’t without its problems either. The most noticeable was the absence of a visible tail. If the object was shedding water vapor, why weren’t scientists able to detect it? Other questions were raised due to ‘Oumuamua’s proximity to the sun as it streaked across the sky, experiencing blistering heat as it flew past at lightning speeds. A dense outer shell made from rock and hardened dust would explain its survival, but calls into question the comet hypothesis. A typical comet is made up of an outer shell of dust and ice surrounding its rocky core. ‘Oumuamua meanwhile, seemed to be the other way around. So, if it’s not a comet, what is it, and why is it behaving almost exactly like one? If it is a comet, where is its tail and why does it seem to have been turned inside-out? The most likely explanation is that ‘Oumuamua used to be a comet, and what we’re seeing is the remains of its rocky core after most of the object’s water ice had been shed away. There would still need to be some ice remaining for ‘Oumuamua to accelerate the way it did, but if the layer is thin enough, it might not be releasing enough dust and vapor for the tail to be detectable, even with the aid of Earth’s most advanced telescopes. While that solves one of ‘Oumuamua’s biggest mysteries, it raises the question of how the object formed. To answer that, we first have to take a look at where it came from. Astronomers believe that ‘Oumuamua originates from somewhere near the star Vega, in the constellation Lyra, an eagle-shaped collection of stars visible in both the northern and southern hemispheres. This makes it the first-ever interstellar object detected passing through our Solar System. These deep space travelers are probably quite frequent. NASA estimates one passes through the Solar System at least once a year, but ‘Oumuamua is the first such object large and close enough that astronomers could detect it from Earth. That alone would be enough to draw the attention of every astronomer on the planet, even without ‘Oumuamua’s other peculiar features. While it’s impossible to say for sure, astronomers believe that ‘Oumuamua is most likely just a small fragment of a planet destroyed in a cataclysmic event. Ouch! The most probable scenarios are that its creation resulted from either two planets colliding or a single planet being torn apart by gravitational forces when it passed too close to a nearby star. In the latter case, the most likely culprit is a red dwarf, an extremely dense Jupiter-sized object often found orbiting more massive stars. After its violent and relatively recent creation, ‘Oumuamua was sent tumbling end over end through the cosmos. As it progressed along its 300,000-year journey, the object was bombarded with cosmic radiation. Baked in the rays of a galaxy’s worth of stars, the outer layer of rock and dust began to harden, a bit like a giant breadstick in the universe’s largest oven. Now I’m getting hungry. This hard outer-shell is how ‘Oumuamua managed to survive its close encounter with the Sun, and continue on its journey through space. Now, for anyone disappointed that our interstellar guest isn’t definitive proof of alien life, there is some good news. While researchers are certain that ‘Oumuamua is a natural formation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t carrying alien visitors. While the interior makeup of the object is mostly unknown, it’s within the realm of possibility that extraterrestrial microbes could be residing inside it. Our planet owes its vast oceans to comets slamming into the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and some scientists believe that the first microorganisms on Earth may have arrived by hitching a ride inside those comets. It’s possible that single-celled life forms could survive frozen inside ‘Oumuamua, protected from damaging radiation by the object’s thick, rocky, outer shell. (Hmm… that outer shell thing kinda describes a M&M, doesn’t it? Yep, I definitely am hungry.) While there’s no way to know for sure if this is the case, it’s nice to believe that in a few billion years, ‘Oumuamua might be the source of an entirely new civilization somewhere among the stars. The object is currently heading away from the Sun at high speeds, and our narrow window to effectively study it has already come to a close. As of January, 2019, ‘Oumuamua had already passed beyond the orbit of Saturn, bound for the constellation Pegasus. However, it may not be the only one of its kind. If it is a piece of a destroyed planet, a single incident like that would have produced millions of similar fragments. Given the size of the galaxy, there could be trillions out there just like it, and recent technological advancements may help us locate similar objects in the future. Since 2007, work has been underway on a new observatory in the mountains of northern Chile. The centerpiece of this facility will be the brand new Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. This massive state of the art device will be able to capture images of the night sky with a higher resolution than ever before, allowing astronomers to analyze asteroids and other objects that would have been too small or too far away to be detected with earlier technology. So, keep watching the skies, because you never know what might be out there. And I’ll go raid the frig…. Now if you had fun unraveling this mystery, give this video a like and share it with your friends. Let me know in the comments if there are any other interstellar discoveries you think need more attention. But – hey! – don’t go chasing other weird space objects just yet! We have over 2,000 cool videos for you to check out. All you have to do is pick the left or right video, click on it, and enjoy! Stay on the Bright Side of life!