The researchers who located the first-ever object from another solar system to reach Earth are now setting their sights on a new goal: scooping the meteor’s remnants up from the bottom of the ocean using magnets.
After identifying a fireball that exploded and landed in the South Pacific Ocean in January of 2014 as an object from another solar system using classified government tracking data, Dr. Avi Loeb, professor of science at Harvard University and author of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, is now hoping to locate remnants of the meteor. If successful, it would be the first time scientists can, quite literally, get their hands on material from another solar system.
“It's very exciting, this new window to look for interstellar objects,” Loeb told Motherboard over the phone.
But Loeb’s interest in the object, as his book’s title suggests, is not relegated to merely learning more about rocks from space—although that would not be an unhappy outcome. Rather, Loeb has become a loud voice espousing a belief in aliens, and he believes there’s a chance that the interstellar object may be a piece of key evidence for their existence.
“Discoveries are made when you let nature educate us,” Loeb said. “In this case, the reason I'm very interested in interstellar objects is because some of them may represent technological equipment.”
The window to grab this material was thrust open at the beginning of the month when a 2019 finding by Loeb and his student Amir Siraj—who is Director of Interstellar Object Studies at Harvard’s Galileo Project, which Loeb directs—was confirmed by the U.S. Space Command at the Department of Defense, which tracks objects in space using classified sensors.
They published the initial finding with 99.999 percent confidence, based primarily on the velocity at which it entered Earth’s atmosphere and the location within the atmosphere at which it began to burn up. This meteor, which landed off the coast of Papua New Guinea at 17:05 UTC, moved at a velocity high enough to have traveled from another solar system, and burned up at an altitude of around 18.7 kilometers above Earth, low enough that the object “was able to penetrate through most of the atmosphere before it exploded,” Loeb told Motherboard. The astrophysicist looked at the meteor’s light curves—a graph showing an object’s brightness over time—to determine this, and the two data points together indicated that it was not from within our solar system.
But they quickly encountered roadblocks in getting the paper published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, primarily because the government kept the certainty around the object’s velocity classified. Those concerns were effectively rendered null in March, when John Shaw, Lieutenant General of the U.S. Space Force, authored a memo to NASA confirming Loeb and Siraj’s findings and the certainty with which they published them.
“The paper reported the meteor as originating from an unbound hyperbolic orbit,” the memo reads. “The velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory.”
The confirmation has allowed Loeb and Siraj to pursue additional lines of research with what they now understand to be the first recorded piece of interstellar material on Earth. They’ve also resubmitted their 2019 draft for publication.
Loeb sees the opportunity to locate fragments of the 2014 meteor as a unique one: An object has landed on Earth and is now within grasp for far less time, money, and effort than what it would require to send a vessel into space to collect samples of interstellar material.
His plan is to spend a week or so digging around for remnants of the meteor, which likely split into many tiny pieces and has dispersed over around six miles in the Pacific Ocean, from a ship. Though he’s still figuring out exactly what a magnetized deep sea retrieval device would look like, Loeb is in early conversations with funders and a ship operator. He suspects the final design will need to be slightly different from existing devices designed to locate objects from within our solar system, but those offer a starting point.
“All we can imagine are things that we've seen before,” Loeb said. “Usually what you get from meteors like that, that end up impacting the ocean, is a lot of fragments the size of the head of a needle. They're really small, a millimeter or less, and there’s lots of them and you can scoop them up because they're magnetized. So if you use a magnet and sort of go over the ocean surface, you can collect them.”
Having the material in hand would allow Loeb and his team to trace the metals within it, which he notes could be of a variety scientists have never seen before, given their interstellar origin. That remains unknown, but what Loeb is relatively certain of is the object’s strength: The distance it traveled through the atmosphere is indication that it was made of “very tough material,” Loeb says. He added in a post to his personal blog last week that it was likely composed of a material stronger than iron.
“Of course, this result does not imply that the first interstellar meteor was artificially made by a technological civilization and not natural in origin,” he wrote, because an interstellar meteor could naturally contain “exotic” abundances of heavy elements determined by its place of origin.
He also anticipates being able to track the direction from which the object entered the atmosphere by doing calculations using audio and visual records of the meteor’s trajectory and its velocity. That could point them toward the object’s origin point, an otherwise daunting task.
“Telling where it started, like which star in the sky it came from, that's very difficult,” Loeb says.
The object’s landing predates a perhaps better known interstellar object called ‘Oumuamua, first spotted in 2017 hurtling through the solar system. Loeb famously published a book in 2021 elaborating on his speculation that the blunt-shaped object, estimated to be about the size of a football field, was a piece of technology from life in another solar system—or, in plain terms, an alien spaceship. This theory has been controversial, and not all astronomers are on board.
Loeb is careful to note that the interstellar meteor may well have a natural explanation, but he isn’t ruling out that the 2014 object is a sign of life in other star systems, either, nor that it’s a piece of technology from civilizations on other planets.
“You will never discover wonderful things if you don't allow them to be discovered,” Loeb said. “If you're not open minded.”
“My tendency is to assume that we are not unique or special,” he added. “Others [created spacefaring technology] a billion years ago, and by now those pieces of equipment may have reached our shore. We can just check if they are out there.”