Harvard professor and astrophysicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb is preparing to search the Pacific Ocean floor for fragments of an interstellar meteor and potential alien technology.
Loeb hopes to recover pieces of CNEOS 2014-01-08, a meteor of an estimated 500 kilograms originally observed off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2014. He has received full funding — $1.5 million — to finance the expedition through contributions from wealthy donors, he wrote in an email.
Loeb said in an interview that his team will be searching one centimeter into the ocean floor for small fragments of the meteor.
“This meteor actually disintegrated presumably into small fragments, so we are not looking for one big chunk,” he said. “We just need a few grams of material — that’s all, a few grams — to be able to tell the composition.”
“We are trying to localize the impact site — localizing as much as possible,” he added.
Loeb acknowledged that the fragments could have moved over the course of the eight years since the meteor’s discovery.
“We have a map of the ocean floor in that region and we also know the currents that existed back in 2014,” he said. “So we know whether it’s moving away from the site.”
CNEOS-2014-01-08 is of particular interest to Loeb because he believes the object could be artificial in origin or hold equipment from alien civilizations.
“People say ‘Oh, it’s just a space rock. We saw so many space rocks in the past. What’s new about it?’” he said. “It’s the first one that came from outside the solar system and, second, it’s tougher than 99.7 percent of everything we have seen.”
“We should be able to tell what its origin is — whether it’s an artificial alloy, for example, if it were a spacecraft of another technological civilization,” Loeb added.
Loeb’s plan has gotten attention from his peers. In an email, Martin Elvis, senior astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics, pointed out potential challenges that Loeb’s project could face.
“Pinning down the impact site to some reasonable area has to be the big challenge. Forty square miles is daunting. CNEOS 2014-01-08 was small to begin with (about 2 feet across),” Elvis wrote in an email. “It had to lose a lot of mass coming through the atmosphere, so even if it stayed intact it is a small target.”
Still, Elvis discussed the high potential upside of the project.
“I thought it was a good example of ‘high risk/high payoff’ science. Everyone professes to like such research, but they rarely do it in practice. Sure, they could well fail, but if they succeed then they will have found our first macroscopic sample of material from beyond our Solar System,” he wrote. “That’s the sort of mission NASA would spend a billion dollars on. So I was happy that they were taking the plunge.”
Loeb addressed some of his peers who doubt his work.
“Experts want to say that everything we see in the sky can be explained by their past knowledge, but if we see something new, it cannot be explained by their past knowledge,” Loeb said. “So they have a problem with that because it challenges their expertise.”
“Because this story got publicity, then people want to step on any flower that rises above the grass level,” he added.
—Staff writer Jeremiah C. Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryccurran.