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What to do if the 'Oumuamua space "probe" comes around again

Time to build a Corellian shipyard?

  • Two Harvard researchers recently speculated that an object that entered into our solar system was an interstellar probe.
  • The odds that this is what happened are quite literally astronomical.
  • If humans are to build spaceships to chase after the probe, we'll need to come to a greater understanding of how to manipulate dark energy that exists in the universe.

Near the end of last year, an asteroid-like object entered our solar system, said hello to our surrounding stardust, and left. It was given the name 'Oumuamua, which is the Hawaiian word for 'scout.' What made the arrival of an object like 'Oumuamua noteworthy were three things: the angle at which it entered the solar system, the unusual speed with which it left, and the shape it would have to be for it to follow the path in which it entered into our solar system and then left. To put it more plainly: A comet doesn't bounce off our solar system like a stone skipping across a lake.

So what happened? What was it? The headline-grabbing thing was this: Two Harvard researchers speculated that the object could have been a satellite sent from an alien civilization and that the reason why the object sped up as it made its way past the Sun was that the object was using a lightsail of some kind.

Rather than follow the path of some speculation that the object was a comet—and since, as science writer Paul Gilster noted over at Centauri Dreams, "we did not have observations sensitive enough to produce a resolved image of the object"—they opted to build their speculation on the fact that the acceleration of the object observed is "naturally produced by radiation pressure."

There's a reason to be cautious here: The two researchers from Harvard put the probability of their research at 20 sigma. Sigma is a reflection of certainty. For comparison's sake, the results obtained from the Large Hadron Collider ran at 2 sigma, meaning that there was a 5% chance the results observed were a statistical error. To therefore claim that an observed event is 20 sigma either means that the math was wrong, something else went wrong, or that something extraordinary occurred.

But if we're to assume that something extraordinary occurred—which is quite the leap in and of itself—it's worth speculating on what we should do if the asteroid space probe comes around again.

One suggestion—as flagged by Gilster once again—is to send a craft after the asteroid probe:

The challenge is formidable: 1I/'Oumuamua has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 26 km/s, which translates to a velocity of 5.5 AU/year. It will be beyond Saturn's orbit within two years. This is much faster than any object humanity has ever launched into space. Compare this to Voyager 1, the fastest object humanity has ever built, which has a hyperbolic excess velocity of 16.6 km/s.

So what sort of craft would it need to be? How far afield from practicable physics is that mission? Do we board the ship in space or do we use fuel to leave the gravity of Earth and then get ready to travel through space?

And what should be the method by which we travel through space? Solar sails? A wormhole? (There are three problems with floating the idea of wormhole: they collapse before someone has the chance to go through them; the wormhole is connected to a different universe, not a distant part of our universe; and we don't know how to make a wormhole.) Through growing plants in the asteroid belt to seek to grow an eventual launch pad out on that perimeter, as Freeman Dyson once proposed? An Alcubierre drive?

What would we need to consider if we tried to make an Alcubierre drive?

The effect of an Alcubierre drive would be akin to standing on a conveyor at an airport that moved you from one place to the next. This would be achieved through something called a warp bubble. The warp bubble happens when the space behind you on the figurative conveyor at the airport expands, pushing you forward, and the space in front of you contracts towards you. This happens because spacetime is flat inside and outside the bubble but curved at the edge; the bubble almost looks like it's been pinched.

"Please don't fall for the hype," Alcubierre implored a gathered audience in 2017 as he gestured at a mockup of a spaceship behind him. "We have no idea how to build this at all. We have no idea how to build a warp engine."

One of the many reasons why people have no idea how to build a warp engine is that a warp bubble requires negative mass. You need to produce the mass equivalent of Jupiter to push a spaceship the size of a car. And while something in the universe is generating negative mass, the nature of our role in unlocking its potential remains yet to be seen.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health
Videos
  • When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
  • "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
  • Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.
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