A Harvard professor believes the meteorite that crashed into the Pacific Ocean in 2014 may have been made of material that people would expect to feature in their favorite science fiction movies. Avi Loeb — the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s astronomy department — is convinced the object may be alien technology or a meteorite with unprecedented material strength. None of this can be confirmed without actually studying the object, so the professor plans an expedition to retrieve it, which will cost private donors more than a million dollars.
“This will be the first time humans have put their hands on a material for making an object from another star.”
While the data now confirms that the object is of interstellar origin – the route to confirming this is not immediate. Using data from government review agencies primarily used in national security as part of our missile defense system, Loeb and his students studied multiple meteors to see if any stood out.
“I found a government catalog of meteorites that were detected by government sensors in our missile warning system. I asked my students to check if any meteors (the fastest moving ones) might have reached Earth from outside the solar system ‘ he explained.
One in particular intrigued Loeb and his student Amir Siraj. Based on the speed of the meteor and how much the object burned as it entered, Loeb determined that it must be made of a material tougher than iron.
“So it’s an outlier in terms of its composition. It’s also an outlier in terms of its speed outside the solar system. It’s moving at least twice as fast as the nearby stars orbiting the sun.”
Although the government released limited data out of national security concerns, he found something groundbreaking. A paper he wrote with his students lists what he believes to be true. But three years after writing his discovery, a major development confirmed what he had always known.
“A few years later, the U.S. Department of Defense Space Command issued a letter specifying that the meteor with a 99.999 percent confidence came from outside the solar system.”
Armed with new evidence to corroborate his findings, Loeb decided to take action and acted to retrieve the object. His mission now is to find an object most likely to break apart on impact, leaving behind fragments perhaps the size of a few cents coins, tossed on the ocean floor. In the vast Pacific Ocean, it’s a seemingly insurmountable challenge. But Loeb believes they’ll get back what they’re looking for.
“It’s literally a fishing expedition. What we can do is basically push the trail of this meteor all the way to the surface.”
While narrowing its location was an obstacle, Loeb still needed to physically retrieve it.
“We plan to get on the boat and build a sleigh and a magnet attached to it that will dig out of the ocean floor. We’ll go back and forth like mowing a 10-kilometer lawn in the area and collect the magnets, All the pieces that are attracted to it, then brush them off and study their composition in the lab.”
While Loeb has raised $500,000, he is still seeking an additional $100,000 to transport a ship to the site of the meteor blast off the coast of Papua New Guinea to retrieve the interstellar object. While raising funds and planning the trips he hopes to start in the coming months will not be easy – Loeb believes his discoveries will be like never before seen by humans.
“This is going to be the most important scientific discovery ever made by humanity? Because if you think about it, it’s going to change the way we think about our place in the universe.”
There is science in his corner. The professor wasn’t intimidated by his critics.
“It’s not a philosophical question whether we live in an environment where an object is flawed. Surrounding it represents alien technology. We just have to use our telescopes and find out. In fact, we’re not even the first to do so. Whoever said it. Galileo Galilei said he was under house arrest four centuries ago and doesn’t need a like on Twitter. I just want to know what it is.”