10 min read
The Visitor From Outer Space

by William Thomas

On September 6, 2017, while you were making other plans, an object approaching from the direction of Vega, 25 light-years distant, entered this solar system. Traffic cops in Hawaii clocked the interloper at 50,000 miles-per-hour. The “cops”, of course, were astronomers manning and womanning the world’s highest definition camera-telescope perched atop Haleakala’s hopefully dormant volcano. 

     When the observatory’s sharp-eyed Robert Wyrk discovered the thing on October 19 in a stack of digital imagery, it was a distinct speck of light the size of a pinprick surrounded by stars smeared like time-lapsed turnpike headlights. Back on September 9, our guest had already reached perihelion – the point where its trajectory took it closest to the sun. Worldwide militarists could only envy its extreme hyperbolic velocity. For all their fancy-dancy Deep Space Surveillance gadgets, they hadn’t known it was there.

     Even Hawaii’s Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System — recently completed to detect approaching “planet killers” (Near Earth Objects) — nearly missed this distant object. By the time it was spotted, it was already more than 20 million miles from Maui’s beaches. Or 85-times more distant than the moon. And moving way too fast to be captured by the Sun it had finally gotten close enough to reflect.     

     Pan-STARRS1 had already raised astronomical eyebrows in 2015, when Canada’s Paul Wiegert tracked an asteroid orbiting Jupiter in the wrong direction. The other 6,000 asteroids within Jupiter’s orbital path were obeying celestial traffic laws. But 2015 BZ509 was flying against the orbits of 99.9% of all known planets and asteroids — and risked colliding with that giant planet.     

     “Perfectly explainable,” its discover said. Without explaining the anomaly.      

     Now the same asteroid-hunting telescope had spotted another bizarre  object. The announcement was made on October 26: Something from deep space had come calling and was already departing our neighborhood.      

     When the first texts and emails from Haleakala started coming in, astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, news managers, bishops and bloggers around the planet jumped up, spilling their coffee. As astrophysicist Avi Loeb later wrote in extraterrestrial, “We had never seen an object that originated outside our solar system pass through it.”     

     Eventually issued a twice-revised visa #1I/2017 UI (“I” for “Interstellar”), the International Astronomical Union tagged the object, “Messenger from afar arriving first.”      

     Native Hawaiians dubbed the visitor, Oumaumua (oh-moo-ah-moo-ah), “the scout”.  Did the descendants of exquisitely attuned Sennit Age  seafarers who had settled a Pacific realm vast as space sense something the scientists had missed?     

      Whatever it was, this object was looking and acting “extremely weird,” Loeb later remarked. Other astronomers he spoke with agreed that the object was “very peculiar.”      

     It seemed a weird and peculiar designation for such common celestial bodies. In fact, among many thousands of catalogued asteroids, the track, shape, speed, reflectivity and flight characteristics of this space rock were unprecedented.


If it was a rock. Estimated to measure one-hundred to two-hundred yards in length and just tens of meters in width, like the hulls of a Polynesian double-canoe ‘Oumaumua’s aspect ratio was extremely narrow. No known asteroid has a length five to 10-times its width.      

     Even worse for astronomers anxiously fanning catalogue pages, the thing was oscillating in brightness by a factor of 10 every eight hours! No one who had devoted their careers to obsessing over asteroids had ever seen anything like it.      

     Around the world and in near space, telescopes, radio telescopes, spectrographs, magnetometers and ultra-sensitive infrared thermometers locked onto the anomaly. As it slowly lurched and rotated, revealing more of its dimensions, the scientific consensus also shifted. This was not another space cigar like those old fuzzy black-and-white UFO photos. It was a slowly rotating disc the size of one or two football fields. And crazy thin for its mass. Less than one mm thick!     

     Then the folks checking their data really freaked out. When “the messenger” reached perihelion, it had sped up to 58,900 mph. And changed course!      

     When an asteroid defies the laws of astrophysics, it’s a very Big Deal indeed.     

     The blogosphere suffered a collective aneurysm. “Toldja it was a spaceship under intelligent control! The Nibirunians are back and about to invade Earth again! When will the same governments that covered up those glass spires on the moon and the face on Mars come clean?”      

     “Take it easy already,” soothed the scientists. “OK, so the object is obviously not a non-reflective, ballistics-predictive space rock. It must be a comet.”      

     This is an improvement? Comets have long been seen as Heralds of Death.      

     Thing is, everyone knows that when one of those iceballs approaches the Sun, it starts to seriously sublime, or “melt”. As it sheds ice crystals and gasses in a long silvery plume, the comet speeds up. And once its flight path has been tugged into a curving parabola by the Sun, any change in velocity will alter its trajectory. “Learn some Newtonian physics, why doncha?”     

     But the supposedly outgassing “comet” had no tail. Taking a multi-spectrum squint, the Spitzer Space Telescope was able to detect no heat, carbon gas molecules or exhaust at all!      Even worse for the comet advocates, as it closed with the Sun, ‘Oumaumaua had lost no mass.     

     “OK,” the scientists backpaddled. “It’s not a comet. And it’s not an asteroid.”     

     This admission calmed everybody down. For about a nanosecond. Until someone raised their hand and demanded, “Then what the heck is it?”


Never fear. An astro-archeaologist and Professor of Science was on the case. After much pondering and cross-checking,” Avi Loeb further risked his reputation when he declared that the only hypothesis fitting all the data was – wait for it – derelict technology sent from a star civilization so advanced they had likely long since wiped themselves out.  Just like we are so busily doing.         

     Of course, realized the world’s leading space boffins. Why didn’t I think of that? Could my deliberate oversight possibly have anything to do with losing my tenure and funding and being burned at the stake?     

     Just what sort of space junk might he be referring to?     

     It looks like a giant sail, said the Chair of Harvard’s Astronomy Department. “A detached lightsail.” That scattered the chickens! Social media and the Big Networks went more hyperbolic than ‘Oumaumaua. So did mainstream science. “Avi is hallucinating again.” “Avi has lightsails on the brain.”     

     Well, even Avi Loeb himself couldn’t argue the latter. Since 2007, the Russian-Israeli astrophysicist had been convinced by the sheer preponderance of scientific evidence that there must be advanced intelligent life in a universe teeming with a trillion-billion suns. With an estimated one-in-four of those stars hosting an Earthlike planet in the habitable “Goldilocks” zone, that did not imply a benign and breathable atmosphere, but did permit life-giving liquid water.      

     Instead of just looking for microbes like the hitchhikers that had arrived in Antarctica from Mars, why not redirect our biggest spyglasses and spectrometers to look for the glow of seriously distant cities? Or alien atmospheres altered by pollution?


Yuri Milner had called up Avi four years before.  “I want to put together a team to build and launch a spacecraft to reach the closest star system,” said the Silicon Valley venture capitalist.      

     Fabled Alpha Centuri lay “just” 4.27 light years from Earth. The cofounders of Facebook, Google and 23andme were already supporting the annual million-dollar prizes Milner and his wife were awarding to leading scientists in the life sciences, physics and mathematics. Maybe these whales would come onboard.      

     “We’re calling it the Breakthrough Starshot initiative,” Yuri added.       

     The billionaire’s request was a cosmic stretch. Even if it could carry enough fuel, it would take a chemical rocket at least 70,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri b. With an Earth-size mass, Proxima b, is the closest planet with a habitable zone in Alpha Centuri’s triple-star system.

     “One more thing,” Yuri Milner stipulated. “The spacecraft must reach Proxima b within my lifetime.”      

     Actually, two more things.      

     Milner wasn’t getting any younger. Avi Loeb and his team had six months to come up with a design and workable plan.


Lightsails, Avi figured.     

     It wasn’t a new notion. As Jake Parks relates on astronomy.com, in 1610 astronomer Johannes Kepler predicted, “With ships or sails built for heavenly winds, some will venture into that great vastness.”     

     In 1924, Soviet rocket pioneers Sander and Tsiolkovsky suggested using the pressure of sunlight to propel a reflective sail through space. Like sailing ships of yore harnessing ocean Tradewinds, a lightsail could be attached to a payload and voyage as far and for as long as everything hung together.      

     Sixty years later, Robert Forward’s paper proposed a “Roundtrip Interstellar Travel Using Laser-Pushed Lightsails.” NASA joined his Starwisp project. But it never flew.      

     By 2003, after 27 years on passage, Voyager 1 was coasting only 13 light hours from Earth.    

     In 2010, five years after the Cosmos-1 solar sail failed to reach orbit, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency piggybacked IKAROS on a rocket to Venus. The Interplanetary Kitecraft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun then unfurled a 46-foot-wide sail one-third the thickness of a human hair. Within a month, photons from the Sun had boosted the 4.4-pound solar sailing craft to a sedate but steady 890 mph.     

     So how to travel light years beyond the solar system when depending on a Sun grown dim at that distance? Why not, Hungarian astrophysicist György Marx had suggested half-a-century before, use a directed beam of energy to propel such a spacecraft?      

     Avi Loeb’s team took a look. Under constant acceleration,  riding an Earth-based laser beam 60-times brighter than the Sun, by the time it was five-times further than the moon their spacecraft would achieve a velocity one-fifth the speed of light — allowing it to cover the 40 trillion kilometers to Proxima b within two or three decades.     

     If it didn’t break.     

     At this pokey speed of 100 million miles-per-hour, the mass of the spacecraft would not increase. But a solar sailing ship the size of a Volksie bus plastered with peace signs and daisy stickers would require a lightsail at least 2,000 meters across.


Why not, Avi Loeb decided, shrink the attached probe – including gyro, magnetometer, solar cells, microcontroller, antenna, imager and radio transmitter – to the size of a two-centimeter microchip?  Weighing less than a gram, the attached 32-square-meter sail would have to withstand colliding with stray atoms of hydrogen, helium or other gasses, which would cause its membrane to heat up and erode. Getting smacked by a 15 micron dust particle would be catastrophic.     

     A $100-million study dismissed these concerns as unlikely. Especially if a swarm of low cost StarChips were launched. Goosed by a ground-based laser requiring 100-gigawatts of power, each Breakthrough Starshot nanocraft would soon be traveling at 20% of the speed of light.

     The roster of luminaries endorsing the Breakthrough Starshot project included Ann Druyan (who had worked on Voyager), SETI’s Frank Drake, Professor Stephen Hawking (before he died), Nobel Prize Laureate James Watson, Astronaut Mark Kelly, Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, and Freeman Dyson (before he, too, departed the Earth plane at age 96.) 

     Proceeding with their proof-of-concept, in 2017 Breakthrough Starshot sent six tiny craft — each weighing about 0.14 ounce — into low Earth orbit. Each Sprite carried solar panels, computers, sensors and communication equipment on a frame 1.4-inches wide. One managed to phone back to its nearby makers.     

     That $100 million bought the project team important insights. Sub-gram microprocessors, 4 sub-gram rotating cameras (with built-in tracking), and a 150mg plutonium-238 battery were all doable and affordable. And Moore’s Law predicted that all components would  double their power and shrink by half every year.        

     Happily, the MIL Lincoln Labs and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had demonstrated that it’s possible to detect single photons emitted by lasers from very large distances. But how to refocus that tight beam situated on a rotating ball onto a postage stamp moving at 100 million miles-per-hour, four light-years away?     

     How to correct the course of a StarChip knocked awry by a few stray atoms? And what about signal loss when trying to transmit information-dense photos back to Earth across that spooky abyss with a 1Watt laser?

     The Breakthrough engineers are sure those technical matters could eventually be dealt with. That’s how their minds work. But they haven’t considered a more likely deal breaker.


As Arthur Majoor opined on quora.com: “No private entity is going to be allowed access to that much laser energy in free space; too much critical infrastructure exists already, so accidental or malicious damage to satellites is far too much of a risk for the nations of the world to accept.” Ditto any state entity, which could “rule the Earth” which such a powerful beam weapon redirected by orbital mirrors onto any terrestrial or space target.     

     But what nation dared obstruct sacrosanct “private enterprise” by a consortia of billionaires, who consider themselves exempt from all constraints?      

     Elon Musk’s Starlink venture is already defying an outraged astronomical community. After launching more than 2,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, the reflective little sputniks are disrupting sensitive observations from telescopes built at enormous cost. Others are warning of the known risks of irradiating Earth with 5G millimeter waves. But hey, $99/month single connection fees by billions of “users”!     

     After helping to officially kill and maim more than three-million people — so far — with his obscenely profitable investments in useless Covid-19 nano-tracking “vaccines”, Bill Gates’ seawater cloud seeding project is attempting to loft enough sea salt into the sky to form permanent Pacific cloud cover and lower greenhouse temperatures — at the risk of altering the monsoons on which more than one-billion Southeast Asians depend And who knows what else.           

     Let’s not even talk about chemtrails — a story I broke for Environment News Service in January 1999 and spent the next eight years documenting, before writing Chemtrails Confirmed. Just as today’s derided “anti-vaxxers” are now being vindicated, no one hesitates to discuss geoengineering today.


Whether or not a swarm of StarChips ever relays the first images of a New Earth back to the Original a half-century from now, an ever bigger implication of this exercise is already inescapable: If humans are working to send photon-propelled microchips sailing into the Void, surely a far more advanced star civilization could have arranged to check out our intriguing solar system with a probe coupled to a lightsail 10- to 20-times bigger.      

     Until on its interminable journey from who knows where, the connecting struts finally disintegrate, turning that thin mirrored alien disk into a Flying Dutchman gathering light from countless suns as it soundlessly crosses that endless Expanse.     

     Riiiight, you’re probably thinking. If the supposed capsule allegedly attached to that possible lightsail really had finally separated and tumbled away — like Oumaumaua is doing now — why haven’t centuries of micrometeor impacts shredded that shielded disc, as well?     

     Short answer: There it is.     

     Or was.     

     I will leave you, gentle reader, to contemplate what might have been the most significant event in human history.  After nearly everyone else on today’s thoroughly-distracted planet was making other thinking about dinner. 


Employing an innovative “radio velocity technique”, which allows it to pick up “tiny wobbles in the motion of a star created by an orbiting planet’s gravitational pull,” the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile found the ever nearer Proxima d in February 2022. “The discovery shows that our closest stellar neighbor seems to be packed with interesting new worlds, within reach of further study and future exploration,” said lead study author, João Faria.      


     Oumaumua's return in 2024 didn't calm anybody down.

Photo Captions:

Oumuamua - "Si j'ai raison, c'est l'une des plus grandes découvertes de l'Histoire" -parismatch.com

Oumaumua slingshotted back into nevernever land