ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

If you’ve been reading The Daily Beast over the past few years, you probably already know this story: In 2017, a strange rock from interstellar space decided to pay our little solar system a little visit here. Just a short flyby. The object named ‘Oumuamua, believed to be a comet, was quite strange for several reasons. First, it had an elongated rod shape and lacked a tail of gas and dust typical of a comet spewing out frozen particles of matter. It was perhaps the strangest acceleration while moving through the solar system.

For most scientists, ‘Oumuamua represented an anomalous figure that we would have to study for years to explain how it could exhibit these very strange properties. For others, however, these were signs that we were being visited by an object made by intelligent aliens. And in the years that followed, that speculation hasn’t died down — in fact, it’s only fueled performances more Alien ships of similar design have visited our neck of the universe.

But here comes the cold water: a new study published in Nature on Wednesday has concluded that Oumuamua’s strange acceleration is unlikely to be due to some kind of extraterrestrial technology, but rather gas. The model suggests that hydrogen released from ice reserves simply led to outgassing, which pushed the object forward and accelerated. Its physics are somewhat unusual for a comet – but not beyond the realm of possibility.

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“Our model can reconcile the non-gravitational acceleration of ‘Oumuamua with the non-detection of typical cometary activity traces, requires no fine-tuning and is based on our understanding of objects in the Solar System and the experimentally determined behavior of amorphous ice,” study co-author Jennifer Bergner , who studies comet chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, The Daily Beast said in an email. “Our model is consistent with Oumuamua being broadly similar to icy planetesimals such as solar system comets.”

Comets are big rocks of dirty, dust-covered ice. As they get closer to the Sun, this ice becomes overheated and the comet begins to eject water, dust, and other molecules, giving comets their very notable comas (the bright halos we see in images).

‘Oumuamua confused scientists because it had no coma or tail and its trajectory was too far from the sun for it to eject water. Some experts began to speculate that gases were involved, including hydrogen. Darryl Seligman, a colleague of Bergner’s who is now at Cornell University and a co-author of the new paper, even once speculated that the object might be made entirely of hydrogen.

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Bergner and Seligman decided to see if they could develop a model of how hydrogen could explain how the object is accelerated through space. Because ‘Oumuamua was so small, outgassing from a thin hydrogen coma could actually generate enough force to cause acceleration.

The model they came up with fits. Hydrogen trapped in the ice on Oumuamua could be exposed to the sun’s heat in a way that changes the structure of the ice and is forced to blow out, releasing hydrogen gas into space with enough force to accelerate the object forward.

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The model also helps explain why ‘Oumuamua does not have a coma of dust, as the heated ice does not melt or sublimate, but simply rearranges its structure to allow outgassing. The model also fits into a broader explanation for the behavior of other “dark comets” that lack a bright coma.

“It’s unlikely that we can definitively confirm the nature of ‘Oumuamua’s non-gravitational acceleration because we have so little information about it,” Bergner said. “But our model is generic, and so this mechanism is testable when we discover small comets originating from the outer solar system in the future.”

Pour one out for all the alien enthusiasts out there.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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