There’s no good reason for you to have retained any information about the Star Wars prequels, but on the off chance that you have: remember Count Dooku‘s goofy-ass spaceship from Attack of the Clones? It travelled in a conventual enough manner while inside the atmosphere of a planet, but once it got into space, it deployed something that looked like a massive parachute, which the ship was seemingly being towed by. That parachute is a solar sail.
While Star Wars is, obviously, not real, the concept of solar sails have been floated in the real world since the mid-1800s, when scientists theorised that, because the light radiating from stars can exert pressure, it could be used to propel an object – like wind pushing a sail.
While NASA has been running very early tests of a solar sail for use on a satellite designed to check out near-Earth asteroids, we’re not particularly close to using one as a conventional propulsion method. Aliens might be, though.
In a paper due to be published later this month in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb (who is Harvard‘s astronomy chair) of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have suggested that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua could well be a probe powered by a solar sail.
‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for ‘scout’) is an elongated mass somewhere from 300 metres to 1km long and is the first object ever detected passing through our solar system to come from outside it. It was first classified as a comet, a classification it later lost due to the absence of a coma (the haze of dust and ice found around comets). It didn’t last long as an asteroid either, due to its interstellar nature.
In a draft of the paper (titled Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?), Bialy and Loeb put forth that solar radiation could be the explanation for ‘Oumuamua’s “observed non-gravitational acceleration“. The non-gravitational acceleration being referred to is the object’s surprise speed-up, first reported back in June.
While the bulk of the paper is a bunch of equations explaining how an object of that size could feasibly be constructed to act as a solar sail, in the summary, the researchers have a few suggestions for why the object would be like that. One is that it’s “a new class of thin interstellar material, either produced naturally, through a yet unknown process . . . or of an artificial origin“. Further exploring the idea that it’s artificial, they suggest that it could be either “a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment” or, even cooler, a “more exotic scenario” where it is a “fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization“.
The paper concludes in a bit of a downer, saying that because it is too late to view it with any of our existing telescopes or chase it down with rockets, we can’t investigate it any further, and will just have to wait for another thing of its kind to pass through our solar system. Boo.
Obviously, the universal consensus is not that aliens are definitely behind ‘Oumuamua, with several critics voicing their objects, but we know, in our hearts: it’s aliens.
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