Astronomy: A look back and a look ahead

The excitement is over — at least for the time being.

Recently, if you may recall, the astronomy world was abuzz over a tiny object swooping through our solar system.

The quarter-mile long chunk of ... something ... named Oumuamua had captured the imagination of astronomers and society, in general, because of its long, cylindrical shape. It was so oddly shaped, in fact, that astronomers believed it was possibly something else.

Something alien.

So a group of astronomers from a project called Breakthrough Listen attempted to eavesdrop on Oumuamua, to see if the object was home to any signals that could open the possibility of it being an alien vessel — or, perhaps, at the very least, a satellite.

After a week or so of analysis, no signals have turned up. So it turns out Oumuamua isn't a derelict ET ship, long dormant and tumbling through our solar system — nor is it a satellite that is eavesdropping on us Earthlings, so that the aliens can decide whether and when to invade.

Actually, as far as I know, the team hasn't completed its analysis, so I suppose there is something interesting waiting to be discovered.

The most we know right now about Oumuamua is that it may be covered in some sort or organic material, and if we were to classify it as a comet, that would be weird because it doesn't have a tail, which suggests it has little to no water and ice.

While it is a disappointment that Oumuamua doesn't seem to be anything but a dead rock, it is exciting that astronomers are "kicking the tires," so to speak, on perplexing astronomical phenomena. I feel like a significant portion of the astronomy community would have openly scoffed at Breakthrough Listen's attempts only five to 10 years ago — maybe only a few years ago, in fact. 

The universe is an unthinkably large place. It is also unthinkably old — about 13.8 billion years, at current estimate. If intelligent civilizations rose and fell during the early years of the universe, then it is not unthinkable that we may one day catch a glimpse at their technology. Also consider the sun is only about 4.6 billion years old. That leaves a lot of time between when the universe was formed and when the sun was born. 

On a completely different subject, Merry Christmas to all our readers. A special thank-you to those who read my column. May the stars continue to inspire you this week and through the coming year.

Joe Malan is astronomy writer at the Enid News & Eagle. Email him at jmalan@enidnews.com.

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