But a number of things have led scientists engaged in the search for alien life to wonder whether it might actually be an "artifact" from an alien civilisation.
Researchers from the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (Seti) are now getting ready with a powerful telescope to look into Oumuamua, which is named after the Hawaiian word for "scout" or "messenger".
For about 10 hours starting Wednesday afternoon, the 2.3-acre dish of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope will be trained on 'Oumuamua, the unusual, elongated asteroid that appears to have dropped in from outside our solar system, swung around the sun and is already on its way out.
Breakthrough Listen, the global astronomical program searching for evidence of civilizations beyond Earth, announced that it is now focusing its observational efforts on 'Oumuamua, the mysterious interloper recently spotted moving rapidly through the solar system.
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Scientists initially presumed that it was an asteroid.
It is long and cigar-shaped, for instance. It's up to a quarter-mile long (400 meters).
They say they are looking for radio signals from the mysterious visitor, travelling at up to 196,000mph, which could signify an alien spaceship.
Scientists on the Breakthrough Listen project, which searches for evidence of alien civilisations, said the Green Bank telescope would monitor the object, named "Oumuamua", from Wednesday. Its first phase of observations will last a total of 10 hours, divided into four "epochs" based on the object's period of rotation.
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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. Researchers at the Breakthrough Listen initiative want to find out, and have begun observing the asteroid in an effort to determine if it's a naturally occurring object (unfortunately that's the far more likely scenario) or something else entirely.
The object is now about two astronomical units (AU) from Earth, or twice the distance between the Earth and sun. Despite the vast gulf of space separating telescope from would-be-probe, Breakthrough Listen stated in a press release that the GBT would be able to detect a signal from an omnidirectional transmitter with the power of a cellphone less than a minute after it left its source.
Even if the asteroid doesn't provide evidence of extraterrestrial life, the study could still reveal if 'Oumuamua is carrying water or ice, and whether it's surrounded by any clouds of gas. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.
So far no convincing evidence of alien life has been found by SETI, despite nearly 100 projects since the 1960s.
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