Harvard researchers suggested that a strangely shaped interstellar object observed passing through our solar system earlier this year might have been an alien probe.
While the article suggesting that the cigar-shaped object was sent from an alien civilization has yet to be published, a draft shared by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researchers Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb is already causing controversy.
In the paper, the two scientists attempt to explain why the object accelerated as it moved through our solar system. The object, named 'Oumuamua,' is the first known interstellar object to be observed in our solar system that originated from somewhere else. And Bialy and Loeb float the possibility in their paper that its course was no accident.
"'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they wrote, before theorizing that the oblong object might be a sail meant to harness solar radiation. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment."
As evidence for their claim, they point to similar objects that have been built on Earth.
"Light-sails with similar dimensions have been designed and constructed by our own civilization, including the IKAROS project and the Starshot Initiative. The light-sail technology might be abundantly used for transportation of cargos between planets or between stars," they wrote.
The researchers add that their alien hypothesis would account for some of the strangeness of the object, including "the unusual geometry inferred from its light-curve, its low thermal emission, suggesting high reflectivity, and its deviation from a Keplerian orbit without any sign of a cometary tail or spin-up torques."
While the researchers admit that there isn't a ton of evidence to support their idea, they are still excited by the prospect of possibly uncovering alien artifacts.
"It is exciting to live at a time when we have the scientific technology to search for evidence of alien civilizations," Loeb wrote in an email to CNN. "The evidence about 'Oumuamua is not conclusive but interesting. I will be truly excited once we have conclusive evidence."
Many of their fellow researchers in the field are unconvinced by Loeb and Bialy's work, pointing out that the paper seems to be wildly speculative.
"I am distinctly unconvinced and honestly think the study is rather flawed," Alan Jackson of the Centre for Planetary Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough told the news network. "Carl Sagan once said, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' and this paper is distinctly lacking in evidence nevermind extraordinary evidence."
He added a bit of speculation of his own to the rebuttal, pointing out that alien spacecraft would likely retract their light sails while traveling in between star systems, as there is no solar energy to be collected.
"Any functional spacecraft would almost certainly retract its solar sail once in interstellar space to prevent damage," Jackson said. "The sail is useless once away from a star so there would be no reason to leave it deployed."