On October 19th, 2017, astronomers made the first-ever detection of an interstellar object (ISO) in our Solar System. This body, named 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua), was spotted shortly after it flew by Earth on its way to the outer Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still hypothesizing what this object could have been (an interstellar “dust bunny,” hydrogen iceberg, nitrogen icebergs), with Harvard Prof. Abraham Loeb going as far as to suggest that it might have been an extraterrestrial solar sail.
Roughly three years later, interest in extraterrestrial visitors has not subsided, in part because of the release of the Pentagon report on the existence of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” This prompted Loeb and several of his fellow scientists to form the Galileo Project, a multi-national, multi-institutional research team dedicated to bringing the search for Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETC) into the mainstream.
On Monday, July 26th, the Project was officially announced via a live stream presentation that kicked off at 12:00 PM EST (09:00 AM PST). The event was hosted by Michael Wall, a senior writer at Space.com and the author of “Out There” (2018), which deals with humanity’s ongoing search for alien life. Co-hosting the event and leading its Q&A session was Faye Flam, a journalist and science writer with Science Magazine.
Throughout the conference, Loeb and Project co-founder Dr. Frank Laukien explained the purpose and inspiration behind this new project. Consistent with the approach of Galileo Galilee, Loeb and Laukien state that their Project will conduct a scientific and “agnostic” search for indications of ETCs by (as they describe it) “Daring to Look Through New Telescopes” (more on that below).
In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Loeb is also the Director of Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), the Founding Director of the Black Hole Initiative (BHI), and the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. In 2018, he and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Shmuel Bialy released a study titled “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?“ which detailed their controversial theory.
In it, Bialy and Loeb argued that ‘Oumuamua’s profile, orbital behavior, and sudden acceleration away from our Sun was not consistent with any known natural object. Instead, they showed that all of these parameters could be explained if ‘Oumuamua was actually a lightsail, a spacecraft that relies on a highly reflective surface and radiation pressure for propulsion (similar in concept to a solar sail).
This was followed by numerous papers that further investigated the possibility and showed that ‘Oumuamua’s behavior was consistent with that of a lightsail. In his 2020 book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb further detailed the research he and his colleagues performed that led them to this theory and his ongoing attempts to get the scientific community to take this possibility seriously.
As Loeb summarized in a press statement released concurrently with the conference:
“In 2017, the world for the first time observed an interstellar object, called ‘Oumuamua, that was briefly visiting our solar system. Based on astronomical observations, ‘Oumuamua turned out to have highly anomalous properties that defy well-understood natural explanations.
“We can only speculate whether ‘Oumuamua may be explained by never seen before natural explanations, or by stretching our imagination to ‘Oumuamua perhaps being an extraterrestrial technological object, similar to a very thin light-sail or communications dish, which would fit the astronomical data rather well.”
Throughout it all, one possibility that Loeb kept coming back to was the potential to send missions to intercept such objects in the future. The mere fact that ‘Oumuamua was detected showed considerable promise, even though it was spotted on its way out of the Solar System. The observation of the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov about a year later further bolstered the case for an intercept mission.
As Loeb himself has indicated in a series of studies, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) and similar survey telescopes will be able to do that very thing when they become operational. In particular, it is anticipated that when the VRO commences its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), it will be able to detect ISOs entering our Solar System at a rate of a few per month.