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Utah desert monolith
Photo courtesy Utah Department of Public Safety

Why are people freaking out about this giant monolith in the Utah desert?

It looks like it’s straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but is it alien technology or an out-of-the-way art installation?

Last week (November 18), officers from the Utah Department of Public Safety were working with wildlife officers to count sheep in the desert, when they came across a mysterious metal monolith. Standing over three metres high, the structure juts straight out of the red rock, drawing obvious comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what is it doing there?

Basically, no one knows for sure. A helicopter pilot, Bret Hutchings, who was part of the team that spotted the monolith, speculate that it’s some kind of science equipment or the work of an artist. “We were thinking, ‘Is this something NASA stuck up there or something’,” Hutchings told the local news station KSL TV, before adding: “I’m assuming it’s some new wave artist or something or, you know, somebody that was a big (2001: A Space Odyssey) fan.”

The idea that it’s the work of an artist may not be far off. Observers have pointed out that the monolith resembles the work of the minimalist artist John McCracken, who lived in the nearby state of New Mexico prior to his death in 2011. McCracken was represented by David Zwirner Gallery, and in a statement Zwirner says, “I believe this is definitely by John,” though he admits that the gallery is “divided”.

Of course, the other possibility floating around is that we have an otherworldly object on our hands (another flashpoint for alien enthusiasts?). Unfortunately though, all of the physical signs point to human, not alien, activity. Seemingly made of steel, the monolith is held together “with human-made rivets” and embedded by cutting into the rock with a power tool.

Presumably because it’s so remote, officials say that it’s difficult to date the object’s installation – apparently, it could have been decades. A statement from the Utah DPS adds that the exact location in southeastern Utah won’t be made public, due to the potential dangers of people travelling out there to see it (although that hasn’t stopped people trying to pin it down on Google Earth).

Nevertheless, we might get an update when the Bureau of Land Management decides whether to investigate further. It’s technically illegal to install structures on federally managed public lands without the proper authorisation, the statement explains, “no matter what planet you’re from”. Until then, no doubt, the guesses and conspiracy theories will keep coming.