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Space Archaeology — How About Cellular Archaeology?

Michael Egnor

Archaeology

From Abraham Loeb, chairman of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Scientific American:

How to Search for Dead Cosmic Civilizations

If they’re short-lived, we might be able to detect the relics and artifacts they left behind

The possibility [is intriguing] that we will find technological relics flying through our solar system with no detectable functionality, such as pieces of equipment that lost power over the millions of years of their travel and have turned into space junk.

How much debris exist in interstellar space would depend on the abundance of technological civilizations and the scope of their aspirations for space exploration… there might be plenty of relics out there in the Milky Way for us to explore.

Wow. Arthur C. Clark has a great novel — Rendezvous with Rama — about a similar scenario. Loved it. 

This opportunity establishes a potential foundation for a new frontier of space archaeology, namely the study of relics from past civilizations in space. Instead of using shovels to dig into the ground, this new frontier will be explored by using telescopes to survey the sky and dig into space.

In Search of Intelligent Design

Space archaeology — a  fascinating and important approach to space exploration. It’s a careful analysis of objects to search for evidence for intelligent origin, and it need not be archeological, in the sense that the designing intelligence(s) may still be at work. Yet space archeology is a great name for it. It may seem a bit like fiction, but there apparently is an actual potential artifact for study and a practical approach to actually doing space archeology:

[I]nterestingly, the first artificial relic might have just been discovered over the past year when the Pan STARRS sky survey identified the first interstellar object in the solar system, ‘Oumuamua. The abundance of interstellar asteroids with ‘Oumuamua’s kilometer-scale length was estimated a decade to be vanishingly small, making this discovery a complete surprise.

In addition, ‘Oumuamua is more elongated than any known asteroid in the solar system. But most intriguing is the fact that ‘Oumuamua deviated from the orbit one would have expected based on the sun’s gravitational field. Although such deviations could be associated with the rocket effect associated by outgassing due to heating of water ice by the sun, there was no sign of any cometary tail behind ‘Oumuamua, and calculations imply, contrary to observations, that its spin period should have changed significantly by any cometary torque. Might ‘Oumuamua have an artificial engine? Even if it happens to be a piece of natural rock as indicated by its lack of radio transmission, this rock appears to be very unusual by many counts.

The discovery of ‘Oumumua should motivate us to keep searching for interstellar debris in the solar system. Interstellar objects may not be strictly onetime visitors. A small fraction of them may get trapped by the gravitational “fishing net” cast by the sun and Jupiter. Objects passing close enough to Jupiter could lose orbital energy through their gravitational interaction and stay bound to the solar system subsequently. Indeed, an asteroid occupying an orbit indicative of such origin, BZ509, was identified recently in a retrograde orbit around Jupiter.

It is impossible to use existing chemical rockets to chase down ‘Oumumua because of its high speed, but one can contemplate missions to land on interstellar objects that are bound to the solar system. Although they represent a tiny minority of all the asteroids or comets in the solar system, their interstellar origin can be identified based on their unusual orbits around Jupiter or, in the case of comets, through their distinct (extrasolar) isotope abundance of oxygen, detectable by spectroscopic observations of their cometary tail.

A Fascinating Object

ʻOumuamua is a fascinating object, and certainly deserves further investigation. How could we discern design from non-design? It’s an issue central to archaeology, and obviously would be central to space archaeology. It would be great science to sort out criteria for detecting intelligent agency in an object in nature, especially in a situation in which we have no idea about the nature of the designer.

Finding evidence for space junk of artificial origin would provide an affirmative answer to the age-old question “Are we alone?” This would have a dramatic impact on our culture and add a new cosmic perspective to the significance of human activity. Finding a civilization dead due to war or climate change will hopefully convince us to get our act together and avoid a similar fate. But it would be even more remarkable if radar imaging or flyby photography near an interstellar relic within the solar system would show signs of an advanced technology that our civilization had not mastered as of yet. 

“Advanced technology that our civilization had not mastered.” Like astonishingly intricate blueprints for replication, function, and maintenance, written in an elegant code akin to a language, with specificity, punctuation, and superimposed reading frames, running exquisite nanotechnology in trillions of individual units that work in delicate harmony and even, in some objects, give rise to self-awareness. 

A Breathtaking Lack of Self-Awareness

If they found a tiny fraction of that evidence for design on ʻOumuamua, it would be the scientific discovery of the millennium. Yet we find design everywhere in living things, on an immense scale. There’s a breathtaking lack of self-awareness in the scientific community about intelligent design. Much of the most fascinating and cutting edge science in many fields is design science, but ideological blinders prevent good scientists like Dr. Loeb from acknowledging that, like space archeology, cellular archeology is science at its best. 

Image: ʻOumuamua, by ESO/M. Kornmesser. Derivative: nagualdesign [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.