By Ken Layne
If this were all a science-fiction story, something about alien contact by Ursula K. Le Guin or Arthur C. Clarke, by now it would be apparent to the reader, if not yet to the protagonists.
The mysterious object was discovered in October 2017, by Canadian astronomer Robert Weryk at Hawaii’s Haleakala Observatory. It was named Oumuamua, “a messenger from afar arriving first.”
Oumuamua is the first interstellar object we’ve ever noticed, and we noticed it a biblical 40 days after its closest approach to our Sun, after which it had passed within 15 million miles of Earth before speeding off towards Jupiter. When Mars hung red and heavy in the summer sky—Mars with its nine active missions in active communication with Earth—it was 36 million miles away, its closest point in years.
The trajectory of the visitor, confirmed with 222 observations including the last sightings by the Hubble space telescope a year ago, proved that it could only have come from above.
It was neither comet nor asteroid, but a cylinder, with a soft red glow, mostly made of iron. The artist’s impression attached to a hundred news articles showed something imperfectly carved, like a Clovis Point arrowhead, or a Stone Age phallus.
The European Southern Observatory artist who created the image tried to make it look reasonable, but the utter strangeness of its shape could not be disguised. Whether it really looks like an early stone tool or neolithic idol is unknown; it might be a perfectly formed rectangle, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Besides its elongated nature, scientists do not know what kinds of features Oumuamua has on its surface, if any,” says NASA. “An elongated shape would explain its rotation behavior, but its exact appearance is unknown.”
We don’t know if it’s a mile long or the length of a football field; it’s probably somewhere in between. Only the cylindrical shape is fairly certain: an axis ratio between 5:1 and 10:1, with a length 5 to 10 times its width. The ratio was computed by decoding Oumuamua’s peculiar end-over-end mode of travel, twirling like a baton. But this tumbling motion is hypothetical, too. Even our closest views of Oumuamua show no more than a speck of light, racing away at 196,000 mph. But the dramatic variations in that light—there’s a brilliant pulse every 7.3 hours—demand an explanation.
The implications were not lost on astronomers. Before settling on the equally ominous Hawaiian name—if it’s a scout, then for what army?—they considered calling this first-known interstellar object “Rama.”
In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama, set in the year 2131, a warning system for near-Earth asteroids detects a strange, cigar-shaped object the humans name after the Hindu god Rama. It is a perfect and featureless cylinder, and astronauts aboard a research ship are sent to investigate this craft. By its speed and trajectory, they know it has come from outside the solar system, this first alien ship known to humanity. There is only a short time to investigate before it uses the Sun’s gravity for a slingshot maneuver to send it back to interstellar space.
Clarke called this near-Earth warning system “Spaceguard,” which a few years later became the name of the real asteroid-warning system it inspired. The Pan-STARRS observatory atop Hawaii’s Mt. Haleakalā that discovered Oumuamua—the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System—is the latest incarnation of Spaceguard.
The SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen project aimed all available radio antennas at the receding speck of light, including California’s Allen Telescope Array at Mt. Lassen and West Virginia’s Green Bank Telescope, and have found no obvious extraterrestrial radio signals. But, as Mr. Spock told Dr. McCoy when the USS Enterprise couldn’t get a signal from the mysterious cylinder threatening Earth in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: “There are other forms on intelligence on Earth, Doctor. Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man.”
Philip K. Dick, both in his 1981 novel VALIS and the gnostic experiences that inspired it, wondered if a Vast Active Living Intelligence System was encased in an alien satellite that occasionally nudged humanity.
An unexplained “dark satellite” in polar orbit made the news in 1960, and the paranormal journalist John Keel later connected this “Black Knight” to a string of odd transmissions received by HAM radio operators and radio astronomers around the world. By 1973, when Dick was receiving a stream of information from VALIS, similar experiences were plaguing conspiracy author Robert Anton Wilson (Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of The Illuminati) and creating a space-god mythology called “The Nine” that lured in everybody from Gene Roddenberry to Uri Geller. Those counterculture figures lucky enough to channel these nine ancient extraterrestrials had regular bookings at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, creating a psychic power struggle that dragged on for decades. The Council of Nine said they were a disembodied intelligence that broadcast from an alien satellite. They were ancient Egyptian gods, too.
For all these reasons—cultural, conspiratorial—the appearance of Oumuamua is heavy with symbolism. It is a long-prophesied omen. And humanity could very much use a nudge in the right direction.
Near the end of 2018, a peculiar scientific paper was published by Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicists Avi Loeb and Shmuel Bialy. Along with several pages of equations and computations were the words we were waiting for: “A more exotic scenario is that Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”
Should anything happen—should the aliens arrive, very soon now—these dullards will be remembered like the native Americans who brushed off the threat of strange ships surveilling the Atlantic coastline in the late 15th Century.
Many people believe extraterrestrial intelligence has been interacting with the creatures of Earth for a very long time, and that this contact has been either deliberately hidden (by a government that is otherwise utterly dysfunctional) or historically misconstrued (ancient aliens). These are matters of faith rather than fact.
Yet there were enough bizarre occurrences in late 2018 to fill the first act of an Alien Invasion movie: sightings by pilots, the bold young scientist being scoffed at for his alien theory, clumsy cover-ups by the Feds, public panics and high anxiety. As in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which portrayed the UFO panic of the 1970s with historical precision, a series of seemingly mundane oddities builds up to a realization that it’s really happening. If 2019 is the year that a technologically advanced culture makes official contact, we will mostly be ready for it.
Why, for instance, was the National Solar Observatory in New Mexico suddenly evacuated and shut down by the federal government in early September? Why did many solar-observatory webcams and public Internet pages go dark at the same time? Even the county sheriff’s department was kept in the dark.
“I think it’s chicken shit the way the FBI handled it,” Otero County Sheriff Benny House told ABC 7 in El Paso. I have a responsibility to protect my citizens. I think it’s paramount that we know what the threat is so we can provide safety.”
After staff and their families were allowed to return to the observatory, visitor center and U.S. post office, the FBI put out a vague and bizarre statement that the shutdown and frenzied evacuation of the solar observatory was due to a … child pornography investigation, which resulted in no charges and no prosecution and no attempt at a satisfactory excuse for a bizarre news story that had gone international and inspired a real panic.
And then began the busiest season for mainstream-media UFO reports in decades, with the tone set by the New York Times’ coverage of the Pentagon’s secret UFO study program on December 17, 2017: Glowing Auras and and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious UFO Program. Yes, Navy pilots had chased featureless and acrobatic aircraft off the coast of San Diego and Florida, and Harry Reid had authorized a secret Defense Department study of the phenomena. DIA investigators had spent time on a haunted cattle ranch in northeastern Utah as part of their study. And there were mentions of recovered “alloys” kept in a secret Nevada warehouse, materials of an unknown toxicity that sickened researchers. Right there on the front page of the New York Times.
The crews of three commercial flights over the east coast of Ireland reported strange craft early on November 9, 2018.
“It was moving so fast,” a British Airways pilot told air traffic control. “It appeared on our left hand side and rapidly veered to the north. We saw a bright light and it then just disappeared at a very high speed. We were just wondering what it might be.”
A Virgin Airways pilot reported “two bright lights that seemed to bank over to the right and climb away at speed.”
“Glad it wasn’t just me,” radioed a pilot on a third commercial airliner.
Next was Gatwick: a baffling travel nightmare at Christmastime, with hundreds of flights grounded due to mysterious “drones” that no-one managed to photograph or catch or shoot down, despite U.K. police and military swarming the airport. Drone hobbyists complained to the media that it was impossible for a consumer drone to fly all night with blinding lights, like the Gatwick craft. Suspects were taken in, and quickly released without charge. Patsies.
If you were watching for such things in the last days of 2018, you had much to choose from. There were the “transformer explosions” that accompanied bizarre sights in the sky, not just over New York but also Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, and the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, Louisiana. Then there was the dark pyramid rotating slowly over the Pentagon, with witnesses in Northern Virginia capturing the strange sight from different angles.
Minus Oumuamua, these are the usual panics and mysteries of daily life, the mix of intentional hostility (Russian attacks on power plants and air-traffic towers?) and hoaxes and ignorance of airplane lights or fireworks displays. But the addition of this possibly alien scout ship at least leaves the possibility that 2019 will be the strangest year yet.