Scientists to investigate if cigar-shaped asteroid could be an alien spacecraft

A team of researchers, including Stephen Hawking, is investigating whether the first known object from outside the solar system contains the first sign of life beyond our planet.

Using the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, scientists with the 100 million dollar research project Breakthrough Listen will observe an asteroid named 'Oumuamua for 10 hours on Wednesday.

According to the project's website, 'Oumuamua, the mysterious interloper recently spotted moving rapidly through the solar system, was discovered by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii in October 2017 when it passed by Earth at about 85 times the distance to the Moon -- a stone's throw away in astronomical terms.

'Oumuamua, formally known as 1I/2017 U1, is the first object discovered in the solar system that appears to originate from another star system. Its high speed – 196,000 mph at its peak – suggests it is not gravitationally bound to the Sun and that it will continue its voyage back into interstellar space.

The object sparked interest because it has a "highly unusual structure" for an asteroid, which tend to be round rather than long and thin. 'Oumuamua's shape is described as "an elongated cigar shape, hundreds of meters in length but with width and height perhaps only one tenth as long."

Image: ESO/M. Kornmesser

According to a statement released by Breakthrough Listen, "Researchers working on long-distance space transportation have previously suggested that a cigar or needle shape is the most likely architecture for an interstellar spacecraft, since this would minimize friction and damage from interstellar gas and dust. While a natural origin is more likely, there is currently no consensus on what that origin might have been, and Breakthrough Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that 'Oumuamua could be an artifact."

Breakthrough Listen’s observation campaign will begin on Wednesday, December 13 at 3:00 p.m. EST and will continue across four radio bands, from 1 to 12 GHz, for a total of 10 hours.

Whether the object is an alien craft remains to be seen, but scientists have seemingly offered a glimpse into their excitement and optimism with its name -- 'Oumuamua is a Hawaiian term meaning roughly 'a messenger reaching out in advance.'