JP Fosterson

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Life imitates art, sci-fi edition — Oumuamua a solar sail?


In early November this year a flurry of news articles erupted speculating that the mysterious interstellar object 1I/2017 U1 (aka, ’Oumuamua), that buzzed through the solar system in 2017 might in fact be an extraterestrial technology, maybe a discarded solar sail?

artists rendering of ’Oumuamua

The evidence supporting this hypothesis is the fact that the object seemed to accelerate in ways that seemed inconsistent with a passive trajectory, speeding up as it moved away from the sun. This acceleration could be explained by outgassing from the object, as comets do as the approach the sun. But there was no evidence of such outgassing, leading the researchers to speculate that the acceleration was caused by radiation pressure on a solar sail.

While this news is inherently interesting, even if probably untrue, I found it especially fun because of its connection to my fictional story The Shade.

In the story — near-future speculative fiction set in the years 2019 to 2022 — ’Oumuamua was followed by a series of similar objects, the last of which, 8I/2019 K1, “Whiro”, moves in a way that clearly indicates a form of propulsion, is obviously an extraterrestrial technology, and may, in fact, be a solar sail. Whiro visits Earth with disastrous consequences.

It’s worth pointing out that The Shade was published July 3, 2018, and I began writing the story in December 2017, only a few weeks after the announcement of ’Oumuamua, and many months before the solar sail announcement. It’s too much to think that the scientists who came up with the solar sail idea might have seen my little story and been inspired by it to form a new hypothesis, but it’s a fun coincidence.