Our solar system has a visitor. It’s cylindrical, dark and reddish, a quarter-mile long. The object won’t be staying. This fall, astronomers announced that the thing came blazing into our neck of the galaxy at speeds of up to 196,000 mph. It is now headed away as quickly as it came.

The object’s trajectory is so strange and its speeds are so blistering that it probably did not originate from within our solar system. Its discoverers concluded that the object is a rare interstellar traveler from beyond our solar system, the first object of its kind observed by humans. Astronomers at the University of Hawaii, who discovered the object with the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope, said the visitor was an asteroid. In October, they named the asteroid ‘Oumuamua – Hawaiian for “messenger.” ‘Oumuamua, which appears rocky or metallic, lacks the characteristics of a comet.

Some scientists, though they are swift to say ‘Oumuamua is probably natural, admit they will have to investigate the possibility that this object is, in fact, artificial.

Yet all of its features are “entirely consistent with being a natural object,” said Karen Meech, the University of Hawaii astronomer who led the research team to measure ‘Oumuamua’s physical properties. “That being said, we cannot disprove the unlikely hypothesis that it is not.”

“This is the sort of opportunity that one would hate to miss, even if the chances are extremely low for success,” Meech said. SETI researchers typically measure the distance to curious objects in light-years. ‘Oumuamua is still within light-minutes of Earth.

“If you don’t try the experiment,” she added, “you will never know.”

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