Eight years ago, a meteor believed to be 2 feet tall penetrated Earth’s atmosphere at more than 100,000 miles per hour before exploding into small, hot fragments and falling into the South Pacific.
Some scientists believe it came from another galaxy, making it the first known interstellar object of its size to collide with Earth.
Now Professor Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is planning an expedition to retrieve fragments of the meteor from the ocean floor. By analyzing the debris, he hopes to determine the object’s origin — going so far as to make the extraordinary suggestion that it could be a technological object created by aliens.
Still, astronomers are wary of his claims, citing a lack of data on the object and insufficient evidence to support his bold suspicions about extraterrestrial life.
What is he looking for?
The object Loeb is looking for, called CNEOS 2014-01-08, was detected in 2014 by a network of satellites used to monitor the skies for potentially dangerous asteroids. Using data published by NASA, Loeb and Amir Siraj, then a Harvard University student studying astrophysics, they first suggested the object came from outside our solar system in 2019.
“It was moving very fast, about 40 kilometers per second when it exploded in the lower atmosphere,” Loeb said. “And from that, we can deduce that it was moving way too fast to be sun-bound.”
Loeb and Siraj submitted a paper defending their case to a peer-reviewed astronomical journal. The paper was rejected because their records were incomplete. Some of the data was based on observations from classified missile-detection systems, making Loeb and Siraj’s estimates of the object’s speed impossible to verify by reviewers.
But in April, a US Space Command memo seemed to confirm that the object came from another galaxy.
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memo with @ussfspoc‘s Chief Scientist, Dr. Mozer, to confirm that a previously detected interstellar object was indeed an interstellar object, a confirmation that helped the wider astronomical community.” pic.twitter.com/PGlIONCSrW
— US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) Apr 7, 2022
Now Loeb is launching a $1.5 million expedition to retrieve pieces of the meteor from the ocean floor. Based on Department of Defense data, Loeb has focused his search on an area of nearly 40 square miles.
“It’s like mowing the grass,” Loeb said. “We plan to use a sled with a magnet that will scoop a very thin layer off the top of the mud.”
He says testing the composition of the object could determine if it resembles the one in our solar system.
“There’s also the possibility that it will be made from an alloy that nature doesn’t put together, and that would imply that the object is technological,” Loeb said. “If you ask what my wish is, whether it is indeed of artificial origin, and there was some part of the object that survived, and if there are buttons on it, I’d be happy to press them.”
Other astronomers are very skeptical
Many astronomers reject the idea that the object is technological, saying that there are much simpler and much more likely natural explanations. And some are hesitant to conclude that the meteor even came from outside our solar system.
The biggest problem is the data itself. It is difficult to observe small, fast objects in the atmosphere.
“If you’re a satellite and you’re looking at a meteor … you can get the movement from side to side, but it’s hard to tell if it’s coming towards you or moving away from you,” said Steve Desch, a professor in astrophysics from Arizona State University. He said this would make estimates of the object’s velocity prone to error, making it difficult to confirm whether it is interstellar.
The data has also been “cleaned,” Desch said. Because some data comes from a network that includes classified military satellites, the available data is stripped of information that could reveal U.S. defense capabilities, such as error bars indicating the precision of measurements.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Astronomer Robert Weryk studies near-Earth objects detected by the Pan-STARRS telescope, and he said the Space Command memo wasn’t enough to draw definitive conclusions about the object’s origin.
“I have to take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I understand why they aren’t releasing more information, but I think that would be essential… to actually come to a conclusion that this object is interstellar.”
“I think a case needs to be made that this could be interstellar in origin,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University. “[But I would] add the caveat that none of the work to date on this is in the peer-reviewed literature. … The science hasn’t really been vetted to the extent that I’d like to see it.”
Finally, Loeb’s critics point to problems with the expedition itself.
“This is what I would generously call a dubious plan,” said Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist and science communicator who vocally criticized Loeb’s previous claims about aliens.
Siegel and Desch agree that there are too many variables — atmospheric winds and ocean currents, for example — to determine a search location with confidence. The search team would be looking for “just grams of material” after it “floated on the ocean floor for years,” Desch said.
“If you want to invest in renting a submarine and get to the bottom of the ocean on … a wild chase, you can,” Siegel said. “If you want to take all your money and dump it in the middle of the ocean, you can do that too.”
Loeb is fearless. For him, the expedition is an opportunity to make history. If Loeb finds pieces of the meteor and they are of interstellar origin, it could be the first time humans get their hands on an interstellar object of its size.
In response to his critics, Loeb describes his work as “interstellar archaeology.”
“My point is that if a caveman found a cell phone, the caveman would argue that the cell phone is a rock of a type we’ve never seen before,” he said.
“And the only way to find out is to push a few buttons on this cell phone and realize it’s recording your voice, your image. Then it’ll be obvious it’s not rock.”