Scientists at the SETI Institute in Mountain View have already searched for signals coming from the asteroid using the Allen Telescope Array, a few hundred miles north of San Francisco. It has been named 'Oumuamua, which is Hawaiian for "first messenger". The object is speeding through space at 315,000km/h and doesn't appear to be gravitationally bound but will track a course back out of the solar system.
If 'Oumuamua is part of an enormous interstellar asteroid field, it could have been ejected from its solar system hundreds of millions or perhaps even billions of years ago. It's cylindrical, dark and reddish, a quarter-mile long.
The final possibility seems the most likely, and it also means that we will never know for sure where 'Oumuamua came from. Plus, it has an unusually "complex, convoluted shape".
"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", the group said in its announcement.
The project released a statement saying: "While a natural origin is more likely, there is now 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". But no one can come to an agreement on just what that origin might be.
Astronomers at the University of Hawaii first spotted it passing Earth at about 85 times the distance to the moon.
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'Oumuamua behaves oddly. Planets and asteroids circle the sun on the same plane, like water swirling around a basin.
"Listen is well positioned to explore the possibility that Oumuamua could be an artifact".
The team of scientists, called Breakthrough Listen, will use the world's largest directable radio telescope, at Green Bank in West Virginia, to follow it for ten hours today at 3pm ET (8pm GMT).
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. Among the supporters are famed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
"It is great to see data pouring in from observations of this novel and interesting source", Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Center in California, said in a statement.
Meech acknowledged to the Post that 'Oumuamua's characteristics are "entirely consistent with being a natural object" - but, she added, "this is the sort of opportunity that one would hate to miss, even if the chances are extremely low for success". But it's hard not to hope observations of 'Oumuamua will be what finally confirms that intelligent life exists out there among the stars, and that we are not alone.