In 2014, the first documented meteorite from outside our solar system struck Earth with a spectacular splash.
First detected by a satellite network designed to spot dangerous asteroids, the interstellar space rock exploded into a fireball above the Pacific Ocean.
Shards ranging in size from basketballs to marbles shattered as they plunged into the water at 1,680 miles per minute generating a massive steam cloud, and the subsequent shockwave buffeted an island 62 miles away.
The meteorite’s extreme speed — much faster than a near-Earth asteroid or comet — exposed its journey from somewhere potentially light years distant.
Some scientists, having perhaps watched “Contact” or “Arrival” one too many times, speculated that the interstellar visitor named CNEOS 2014-01-08 might have been an unmanned craft from another planet.
But the debris still rests on the ocean floor, too remote to retrieve, too costly to analyze.
Until two weeks ago.
That’s when Harvard University astronomer and astrophysicist Avi Loeb got a $1.5 million donation from a young multimillionaire to fund an expedition to find the fragments.
Loeb and his team are slated to travel to Papua New Guinea in late May. There, aboard a research vessel painted powder blue, they plan to scrape an area of the ocean floor a bit smaller than Central Park.
Billionaire Elon Musk once told reporters he dreamed on the rust-red soil of Mars.
"I'll feel that exhilaration when I stand on the ship with the interstellar fragments in my hands," Loeb told Raw Story.
Like the late astronomer and TV host Carl Sagan, Loeb advocates for the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. His passion for frontier-pushing research thrills his students and fans of his best-selling books, and his latest book, “Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars,” is due to drop in August.
Harvard University professor Avi LoebCourtesy Avi Loeb
Loeb’s boldness has at once inspired tech millionaires to fund his blue-sky projects while nettling critics who argue his projects are too fanciful.
Loeb offers a candid assessment of how many academics stigmatized the study of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), or as some military types prefer, unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs).
"The establishment's power is built on old knowledge; the establishment defends the status quo to protect its place in the ruling order,” Loeb said. “Groupthink is encouraged. Often, senior experts suppress new knowledge because adapting to change might alter their status or influence.”
Loeb says he believes he survives stigmas because he is himself “very firmly in the establishment” as a Harvard department chair who helps lead various scientific boards and initiatives.
ISSUE OF NATIONAL SECURITY?
Even the Navy pilots who chased and filmed the Tic Tac-shaped UAPs near California's coast in 2004 worried their careers would be damaged if they discussed what they had seen.
But Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York sees UAP research as a national security imperative. She introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which became law in 2022. Her legislation created a new government office that made it easier for the public and the military to report UAPs. It also named a group of experts to advise the government’s UAP investigators.
Loeb is one of the experts along with others from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the National Academies of Sciences experts. Gillibrand’s legislation expresses the hope that the experts panel could share UAP research with each other and NASA, although the legislation doesn’t detail how that would happen. In practice, Loeb says that sharing of research hasn’t yet happened and the organizations named don’t meet formally.
Gillibrand’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, although the senator told Politico in 2021 about UAPs: “If it is technology possessed by adversaries or any other entity, we need to know … burying our heads in the sand is neither a strategy nor an acceptable approach.”
But as director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center's Galileo Project, devoted to UAP research, he hasn’t got time to brood. Loeb obtained private donations to build a specially designed now-operational Galileo observatory with infrared, optical radio and audio sensors feeding data to a computer system with Artificial Intelligence algorithms for analysis. The project won’t simply search the skies. Galileo also seeks physical objects associated with extraterrestrial technological equipment.
Has he found any artifact that might be made on another planet?
Would he tell us if he did?
"Of course! I believe in transparency."
ASTRONOMY'S INDIANA JONES HAS CRITICS
Loeb's adventures prompted one entrepreneur to propose making non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of Loeb wearing a fedora and dressed as the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” hero.
Like Indiana Jones, much of his work is academic: data analysis, calculations, formulas. Loeb and undergrad student Amir Siraj toiled for weeks narrowing down the site where the interstellar fragments lay to an area smaller than Central Park. They submitted their work to the U.S. military then waited weeks for various agencies to review and compare it with classified data. U.S. Space Command verified on March 1, 2022, that Loeb and Siraj’s calculations were accurate.
But Arizona State University astrophysics professor Steve Desch is wary of this approach. He told NPR that because much of the data about the meteorite’s speed and path come from classified military satellites and sensors, and it's been "sanitized" or stripped of information that could reveal U.S. defense capabilities. Deleting any data makes precise measurement of the meteorite’s velocity and origin harder. Desch told NPR that currents might send fragments "swirling around the ocean floor," making Loeb’s search futile.
Desch did not respond to Raw Story's interview requests.
The Milky Way galaxy’s entirety is the laboratory of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute astrophysics professor Heidi Newberg, who searches for habitable planets. RPI scientists in Troy, N.Y. have worked on decades of NASA missions which may have seemed like high-risk, low-reward quests to answer cosmic questions, and Newberg appreciates what Loeb’s adventure could potentially mean for science.
“Almost everything we know about our universe comes from light streaming in our direction that’s caught by astronomers' telescopes," astronomer Newberg told Raw Story. "The very few physical specimens we can examine come from NASA return missions and small rocks that fall through the atmosphere and land on our Earth, like the one Avi Loeb aims to collect from the bottom of the ocean. If the rock he is looking for is really from outside of our Solar System, it will be the first object of its kind that anyone will have ever been able to examine in a laboratory, and would allow us to learn about the minerals and compounds that exist out between the stars.
"Do I think this mission is risky in the sense that we might not end up learning anything? Yes," added Newberg, who’s developing a telescope that unfolds itself in outer space. "However, scientists must sometimes take these kinds of risks to ultimately make discoveries that no one previously thought were possible. And sure, why not dream of finding alien tech?"
Harvard University professor Avi Loeb (second from right) appears with cosmologist Stephen Hawking (seated) and other space exploration advocates at the announcement of the "Breakthrough Starshot" announcement on April 12, 2016, at the the One World Observatory in New York City.Gary Gershoff/WireImage/Getty Images
Loeb's team is designing a magnetic sled to collect the meteorite fragments he seeks deep in the sea. Loeb says most meteorites are rich in iron ore so the outer space crumbs should cling to the magnets.
Could the rocks contain substances not found in our solar system? Loeb says it’s a possibility. Scientists have never physically examined an interstellar object before so no one knows yet.
NASA isn’t involved in Loeb’s quest, but the space agency is nevertheless interested in learning about whatever Loeb recovers.
“NASA continues to study asteroids and comets both for their inherent scientific value and because some may pose a hazard to the Earth,” NASA spokesperson Karen Fox told Raw Story. “While comets and asteroids provide spatial context for solar system formation and evolution, meteorites that fall to Earth provide the hands-on samples for laboratory analyses. The recognition that some small bodies we observe may have originated outside our solar system, may provide some idea of how other planetary systems compare with our own.”
Earth has witnessed at least one other interstellar visitor since the 2014 meteorite hit the Pacific Ocean: In 2017, Hawaiian astronomers spotted a cigar-shaped object, up to 3,000 feet long and about 500 feet wide, somersaulting through our solar system. They gave it a Hawaiian name — Oumuamua — meaning "scout" or "messenger."
Loeb and Harvard student Amir Siraj studied Oumuamua from afar — the object never got closer than 15 million miles from Earth — and noted its odd movements, trajectory, speed and shape, which led some observers to muse that it might be an unmanned probe of some sort.
Loeb is fascinated with the possibility that some other civilization could send unmanned probes toward Earth. He theorized to Raw Story that an interstellar journey would be too long and too boring for any intelligent life form to embrace. And he’s actively working on a way to send laser-propelled probes from the Earth far into the cosmos.
"We should get on the cosmic street and see who's out there,” he said.
In the meantime, Loeb’s search for the existence of life far beyond planet Earth will take him to the bottom of the ocean to discover whether contact from far, far away has already been made.