The world’s top alien hunter is about to embark on his most ambitious—and potentially history-making—mission yet. Harvard physicist Avi Loeb is organizing a $1.5-million expedition to Papua New Guinea to search for fragments of a very strange meteorite that impacted just off the coast of the Pacific nation in 2014.
There’s compelling evidence that the half-meter-wide meteorite, called CNEOS1 2014-01-08, traveled from outside our solar system. And that it’s made of extremely hard rock or metal—a material that’s hard and tough enough to prove the meteorite isn’t a meteorite at all. Maybe it’s an alien probe.
It’s a long-shot effort. After years of work, Loeb and his team have, with a big assist from the U.S. military, narrowed down CNEOS1 2014-01-08’s likely impact zone to a square kilometer of the ocean floor, nearly two kilometers underwater. But the fragments themselves are probably just a few millimeters in size. It’s worse than looking for a needle in a haystack. Loeb is basically preparing to look for big sand in a square-kilometer patch of small sand.
It’s worth the risk, Loeb told The Daily Beast. Any fragments the team recovers could turn out to be “technological”—that is, clearly manufactured and thus strong evidence of the existence of aliens. Or maybe they’re not artificial, but are made of some super-strong material that we’ve never observed until now. A rare metal forged in the hearts of neutron stars, for example.
In any event, “we will learn something new,” Loeb said.
The expedition is almost ready to depart for Papua New Guinea. “We have a boat,” Loeb wrote in on a post on Medium on Jan. 27. “We have a dream team, including some of the most experienced and qualified professionals in ocean expeditions. We have complete design and manufacturing plans for the required sled, magnets, collection nets and mass spectrometer.
“And most importantly,” he wrote, “today we received the green light to go ahead,” referring to the approval of Papua New Guinea’s for the mission.
The plan, Loeb said, is to deploy a variety of custom sand-sifters—some with magnets, others like huge sieves—and methodically search the seafloor for two weeks. The main reason it’s taken eight years to organize the mission is that, first, Loeb and his team had to figure out where the meteorite’s fragments came down to Earth.
It was easier said than done, since no single instrument precisely captured CNEOS1 2014-01-08’s journey to the seafloor. But if anyone was motivated to try, it was Loeb. While these days more and more scientists are coming around to the idea that we’re probably not alone in the universe, Loeb was banging that drum even when it was unpopular.
When a very odd, shiny, football-field-size object streaked across then out of the solar system in 2017, Loeb was among the first scientists to say out loud what others may only have been thinking: This object, which scientists later named ’Oumuamua ( Hawaiian for “scout”), might be an alien probe.
And Loeb isn’t afraid to put his money—well, his donors’ money—where his mouth is. In addition to studying strange interstellar objects such as ’Oumuamua, Loeb through his Galileo Project is painstakingly building humanity’s first global network of small telescopes whose main purpose is to scan the sky for alien craft, or at least the remains of alien craft.
To narrow down CNEOS1 2014-01-08’s impact zone, Loeb needed data from two sets of instruments. The first set was from U.S. military missile-warning satellites that, thanks to their sensitive infrared sensors, tend to also detect meteorites while scanning for missile-launches.
“We will learn something new.”
— Avi Loeb, Harvard University
These satellites can not only provide at least a vague indication of where a meteorite is heading, they also capture images of the fireball that results from a meteorite’s fast, hot trip through Earth’s atmosphere. The timing and intensity of a fireball can tell us a lot about a meteorite’s composition. Basically, the longer it takes for the atmosphere to ignite a meteor, the tougher the meteor is.
After much wheedling, Loeb convinced the Pentagon to release the full fireball data for CNEOS1 2014-01-08. They indicated the 2014 meteorite might be the hardest meteorite on record.
The second set of data Loeb needed was much more precise telemetry for the meteorite’s path than the military could provide. So he checked on nearby earthquake sensors. “We found that the blast wave from the meteor explosion generated a high-quality signal in a seismometer located at Manus Island,” which is part of Papua New Guinea, Loeb wrote at Medium.
Armed with the two data sets, Loeb and his team were able to narrow the likely impact zone from 100 square kilometers to just one square kilometer. “This reduction in the geographic uncertainty of the… fireball improves the search efficiency in the forthcoming ocean expedition to recover its fragments,” Loeb and company wrote in a study, not yet peer-reviewed, that appeared online on March 13.
After having arranged funding and manpower, narrowing the search zone, and getting the Papua New Guinean government’s approval, Loeb and his team are now putting the finishing touches on their special sand-sifting equipment for recovering magnetic meteoritic debris from the seafloor.
One of the most important pieces of gear is a wide metal sled with rows of magnets. It’s based on a device called the Cosmic Muck Rack that University of Washington, Seattle astronomer Don Brownlee designed in 2009. A boat tows the sled across the seafloor. The magnets attract metallic fragments.
Once it’s all ready, hopefully this summer, Loeb and his team will set sail.
Expectations are running high. But Loeb said he’s bracing for disappointment. “There is a chance it will fail,” he said of his expedition. Even success could be something of a letdown, if the team recovers fragments, but those fragments turn out to be natural in origin rather than artificial.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
— Avi Loeb, Harvard University
It’s important to frame even that secondary discovery as a major advancement, Ravi Kopparapu, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, told The Daily Beast. “This could give us more confidence on the nature of the interstellar meteor, and could point to whether this meteor is unique or a new class of meteorites.”
Maybe Loeb and his team go to all that trouble to find the remains of CNEOS1 2014-01-08, only to confirm it isn’t an alien probe. But don’t expect a setback like that to cause Loeb to give up his search for evidence of extraterrestrials. He said he understands how convincing the proof needs to be, and how hard it might be to find it. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” he said.
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