Meteorites have been raining down on Earth since time immemorial, but we are only beginning to understand that some of them have very exotic origins. In 2014, a small space rock hit the atmosphere and broke apart like so many others, but investigating this event, astronomers realized that it came from beyond our solar system. Now, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb is organizing a privately funded expedition to search for pieces of the mysterious object on the ocean floor. He is even hopeful that the object could show evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Loeb’s interest in this object dates back to a different interstellar interloper. In 2017, telescopes around the world turned to observe a pancake-shaped object known as ʻOumuamua. This was the first interstellar visitor ever detected, and its strange properties made its brief transit through the solar system all the more fascinating. ʻOumuamua exhibited a small change in course as it passed, possibly due to off-gassing or some other natural force. We’re not even sure what it is: an asteroid, a comet, or perhaps something more unusual, like a fragment of an icy dwarf planet. Avi Loeb has advanced the hypothesis that ʻOumuamua was so difficult to categorize because it was not natural at all. Perhaps instead it was a piece of alien technology like a solar sail, which would explain why it was blown off course.
The astronomical community has treated Loeb’s suggestions with skepticism, as would be expected of those in a profession that thrives on evidence. Confirmation that CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from another solar system has given Loeb something new to focus on. In 2019, Loeb and his collaborator Amir Siraj published a paper speculating that the 2014 asteroid was interstellar, but were unable to confirm until earlier this year, when the US government released classified data from a sensor network used to monitor nuclear detonations. This data confirmed that CNEOS 2014-01-08 came from another star.
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memorandum 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 astronomical community at large.” pic.twitter.com/PGlIOnCSrW
— US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 7, 2022
A part of another solar system could yield untold scientific discoveries, but it’s at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean in pieces. That’s why Loeb has raised $1.5 million in funding to search for him. Loeb plans to focus on an area of about 40 square miles. The team will use a sled with a powerful magnet to scrape a thin layer of mud from the ocean floor. By testing the composition of whatever they find, it should be possible to identify something that doesn’t match our little corner of the galaxy. He also ponders the possibility that they find something made of an artificial alloy, implying extraterrestrial intelligence. “If there’s a button on it, I’d love to push it,” Loeb joked to NPR.
Still, some astronomers are hesitant to even accept that CNEOS 2014-01-08 is of extrasolar origin. Before the object blew apart in the atmosphere, it was only a few feet wide. Accurate data on something so small is hard to come by, and the classified nature of the sensor system means potentially important data could be missing. Others don’t think it’s possible to find eight-year-old impact fragments 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 won’t let it go.