One of the founders of the Breakthrough Listen Project, Yuri Milner, has announced that they will be investigating the Solar System’s first recorded interstellar visitor, the asteroid ‘Oumuamua, for any potential artificial signals originating from the object. Although Milner admits that it’s unlikely that their investigation will find anything, ‘Oumuamua’s characteristics are strange enough to warrant a look.
‘Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning "scout", was initially classified as a comet when it was first spotted in October, due to its highly elliptical orbit. When no cometary coma was found, it was re-classified as an asteroid.
And then things got weird.
‘Oumuamua was found to be cigar-shaped, at 400-meters (1,300-feet) long with a diameter of only 40 meters (130 feet) across. It is a deep red color, typical for objects bombarded with cosmic rays beyond the Kuiper belt. ‘Oumuamua is completely devoid of any trace of water, and rotates rapidly — once every seven hours — in a tumbling fashion, due to its elongated shape. But the object has remained intact despite this rapid tumbling, a motion that would be expected to shatter an object of ‘Oumuamua’s shape and size, especially with the added stresses it would have experienced during its close pass to the Sun last September. Currently, ‘Oumuamua is speeding away from us at 38.3 m/s (125.7 feet/s).
"I’m not saying that any of that is necessarily a smoking gun or super exciting," Milner says, referring to the potential for an artificial origin for ‘Oumuamua’s unusual properties. "But I think it warrants thorough investigation from a SETI standpoint."
Breakthrough Listen, founded by Russian billionaire Milner and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, will be making use of the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia to listen for potential signals from ‘Oumuamua. Green Bank’s radio telescope is sensitive enough to pick up the meager signal of a mobile phone from the asteroid’s current position in less then a minute, so if ‘Oumuamua is transmitting anything, they’ll find it. The investigation will be conducted on the afternoon of December 13, and their results are expected to be released a few days later.