In 2014, an object crashed into the ocean just off Papua New Guinea. Data collected at the time indicated that the meteorite may well be an interstellar object, and if true, then it is only the third known such object (after ‘Oumuamua and Borisov), and the first known to exist on Earth.
Launching an underwater expedition to find it would be a long shot, but the scientific payoff could be enormous.
Dubbed CNEOS 2014-01-08, the candidate interstellar object would have been about half a meter across, and its potentially interstellar origins were first recognized by then-graduate student Amir Siraj and Harvard professor Avi Loeb. .
Using catalog data regarding the object’s trajectory, Siraj and Loeb concluded that it may have come from beyond our solar system due to its unusually high heliocentric velocity – in other words, it is was moving at speeds that suggest it might not be tied to the Sun’s gravity well. .
There is a catch, however. The data used to measure the object’s impact with Earth came from a US Department of Defense spy satellite, designed to monitor military activities on Earth.
As such, the exact error values of the measurement are a closely guarded secret – the US military is reluctant to let their satellite’s precise capabilities become public domain information.
But without these details, much of the scientific community remains understandably reluctant to officially classify CNEOS 2014-01-08 as an interstellar object. Siraj and Loeb’s article therefore remains unpublished, having not yet passed peer review.
Their claim, however, was bolstered in April 2022, when US Space Force Space Operations Command Chief Scientist Joel Mozer reviewed the classified data in question and “confirmed that the reported velocity estimate at NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory”. .
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memo with @ussfspocChief Scientist Dr. Mozer to confirm that a previously detected interstellar object was indeed an interstellar object, a confirmation that has helped the wider astronomical community.” pic.twitter.com/PGlIOnCSrW
— US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 7, 2022
While the official CNEOS 2014-01-08 scientific classification seems destined to remain in limbo for now, the US Space Force statement was enough to convince Siraj and Loeb of its interstellar origin, and they have now moved on. to suggest possible ways to find the object and study it closely.
Much of the meteorite would have burned up on its descent through Earth’s atmosphere, likely leaving only fragments, strewn across the ocean floor.
However, not all hope is lost, as satellite tracking data, combined with wind and ocean current data, can provide a reasonable search area of just 10 km by 10 km.
More importantly, the fragments should be magnetic, so a ship trawling with a large magnet could potentially pick up the tiny meteorite fragments from the ocean floor.
Siraj and Loeb propose to do just that and have teamed up with an ocean technology consultancy to make it happen.
In an interview with Universe Today last year, Loeb explained that such a search could offer us “the opportunity to get our hands on the relic and determine if it is natural, if it is a rock or if , you know, a small fraction of those [interstellar objects] could be artificial.”
Loeb has spoken in recent years about the potential for interstellar objects like CNEOS 2014-01-08, ‘Oumuamua and Borisov to be man-made objects created by extraterrestrial intelligence. As head of the Galileo Projectthe search for evidence of intelligent life in the Universe is one of his main areas of research.
But his more outlandish claims drew criticism from some of his peers in the astronomical community. In the case of CNEOS 2014-01-08, however, Loeb stops short of suggesting that it is an extraterrestrial artifact.
“This result does not imply that the first interstellar meteor was artificially made by a technological civilization and not of natural origin,” they and Siraj write in their most recent paper describing the ocean expedition. But clearly Loeb thinks it wouldn’t hurt to go get the object and take a look.
Even if it’s just a rock – which is by far the most likely explanation – it will tell us a lot about the composition of rock material beyond our own solar system, and that would constitute valuable new data in itself.