Meteors have been showering Earth since time immemorial, but we’re only just beginning to understand that some of them have very exotic origins. In 2014, a small space rock hit the atmosphere and broke up like many others, but after investigating this phenomenon, astronomers realized that it came from outside our solar system. Now, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is launching a privately funded expedition to find fragments of the mysterious object under the sea. He even hopes that the object may show evidence of alien intelligence.
Loeb’s interest in this object traces back to a different interstellar interloper. In 2017, telescopes around the world began peering towards a pancake-shaped object known as ‘Omuamua’. It was the first interstellar visitor to be detected, and its peculiar characteristics made its brief transit through the solar system all the more fascinating. ‘Omuamua exhibited a small change in trajectory as it rolled past, possibly due to outgassing or some other natural force. We’re not even sure what it is – perhaps something more unusual, like an asteroid, a comet, or a fragment of an icy dwarf planet. Avi Loeb advances the hypothesis that ‘Omuamua was so difficult to classify because it was not at all natural. Perhaps, instead, it was a piece of alien technology like a solar sail, which would explain why it must have drifted.
The astronomical community regarded Loeb’s suggestions with skepticism, as you would expect from a profession that thrives on evidence. Confirmation that CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from another solar system gave Loeb something new to focus on. In 2019, Loeb and colleague Amir Siraj published a paper suggesting that the 2014 asteroid was interstellar, but they could not confirm that until earlier this year when the US government released classified data from a sensor network used to monitor for nuclear explosions. This information confirmed that CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from another star.
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memo @ussfspocIts chief scientist. Moser, 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) April 7, 2022
A fragment of another solar system could bring untold scientific discoveries, but this fragment lies at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean. That’s why Loeb raised $1.5 million in funding to go find it. Loeb plans to focus on an area 40 square miles in size. The team will use a sled with a powerful magnet to scrape a thin layer of muck from the ocean floor. By examining the composition of what they find, it should be possible to detect anything that doesn’t match the small corner of our galaxy. He also thinks about the possibility of finding something made up of an artificial shaft, which implies extraterrestrial intelligence. “If it had any buttons, I’d love to press them,” Loeb joked to NPR.
Still, some astronomers are hesitant to even admit that CNEOS 2014-01-08 is extrasolar in origin. Before the object flew into the atmosphere, it was only a few feet across. Accurate data on something so small is difficult to obtain, and the classified nature of sensor systems means potentially important data may be missing. Others don’t believe it’s possible to find an eight-year-old impact fragment on the ocean floor. It may be a long shot, but Loeb sees it as an opportunity to make a world-changing discovery, and he’s not passing it up.