Last fall, an ancient visitor wandered through our solar system, setting the astronomy world aflutter with excitement. Headlines read something like “First Interstellar Asteroid visits…” which of course is wrong. Since our system is billions of years old, I think it is safe to say that Oumuamua isn’t the first to fly through. It is only the first that we’ve actually noticed.
Ice or rock?
Still this starry visitor engages the imagination. We’re used to comets whizzing through from beyond Pluto but they’re pretty easy to spot because of the elongated tail and fuzzy coma. Not so Oumuamua. Its orbit originally looked like that of a comet, but its lack of cometary characteristics soon marked it as an asteroid or meteor. A closer look at its path through the solar system left astronomers scratching their heads. Asteroids follow closed loops around the Sun, traversing the same path over and over again. Oumuamua is on a one-time trip through out system, zooming in and back out again on its way to the interstellar depths.
The shape of this rocky traveler is surprising as well, elongated and relatively smooth, at least according to the artist’s rendition. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the spaceship nature in these photos since asteroid-skinned ships have been theorized in science fiction for years.
A visitor just passing through?
But consider this. What if Oumuamua really was an alien spacecraft? Some scout ship or alien ark passing through our small system on its way to a new home? What if they noticed our intelligent presence, which would be easily seen from our thousands of satellites and space trash orbiting around the Earth? Would they say, “look! another space-faring species”? Or would it be more like, “Hey, change directions just a little and don’t slow down”?
I imagine that visiting our planet might seem like a socialite driving near a filthy mobile home at the end of a run-down trailer park. You know what I’m talking about. The one where empty beer cans decorate the yard and an old refrigerator sits outside the door not far from an overstuffed chair with rips in the seat.
And like the socialite, the extraterrestrial would be, “Don’t look. Don’t answer if they call out.” We are still so primitive compared to what we could be, and the trash around our planet reflects that. One day we’ll have to clean up all the floating debris, which will only increase as we continue to push away from our Earthly ties. Yes, most of it can burn up on reentry but some items are too large to do so. Some have made it to the ground and caused damage. In addition, such massive amounts of space trash endanger our other satellites.
Economics of Space Trash
In addition, a great deal of money is spent every year monitoring the trash. Many organizations are looking at ways to clean up all of this debris, but the efforts are not cheap or simple when considering the physics of objects travelling at high speeds in orbit. However, since many of these old vehicles and defunct satellites include rare metals, the recycling rewards could be well worth the efforts.
So it is easy to imagine a space-faring future where ships of all kinds, from pleasure crafts and shuttles to independent family units and huge shippers, could fill the system. When interstellar visitors like Oumuamua come through again, we’ll be ready to explore or mine them for their resources. And if they are an alien space ship out for jaunt, we don’t want them to think we are the trashy, diseased-filled neighbors. We must clean up our world as we go forward.
Therefore, as humanity spreads to Mars and beyond, so will the space trash unless we find ways to clean it up. “Rag and bone men,” small entrepreneurs living aboard their own ships, could make a living gathering and recycling old garbage back into precious metals before delivering them to one of the many space ports. After all, we have organizations now that strip down old technology for the gold, platinum, silver and more. Not everyone in the space faring age is going to be a Captain Kirk or Zapp Brannigan. Some will be miners or shippers, merchants or corporate management, and many will have never seen Earth’s blue skies. Some will live on the edges with antiquated technology, trying to make a living the best they can on the scraps scattered across the vastness.
And they will all have stories worthy of telling.
“Space Debris FAQs” Aerospace, http://www.aerospace.org/cords/all-about-debris-and-reentry/space-debris-faq/ March 22, 2018.
Bennett, Jay “Interstellar Asteroid ‘Oumuamua Likely Ejected From a Binary Star” Popular Mechanics, https://www.popularmechanics.com/space/deep-space/a19494278/interstellar-asteroid-oumuamua-likely-ejected-from-a-binary-star-system/ March 22, 2018 (photo from the same source).