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Harvard Astronomer Avi Loeb, Team Find Spherules of ‘Likely Extrasolar Composition’

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Harvard Astronomy professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb and his research team have found metallic spherules of “likely extrasolar composition,” according to an Aug. 29 preprint posted to the online paper repository arXiv.

The researchers discovered the spherules — which were produced when the meteor Loeb calls “IM1” collided with Earth — during a June 14 to 28 scientific expedition in the Pacific Ocean. Harvard and Papua New Guinea University of Technology researchers have a formal agreement to work together to study the spherules, per a memo obtained by The Crimson.

According to Loeb, the paper has been submitted to an undisclosed, “highly prestigious journal” for peer review.

Loeb, a cosmologist, has long been a prominent figure in the search for extraterrestrial life. In his 2021 book “Extraterrestrial,” Loeb theorized that ‘Oumuamua — the first interstellar object to pass through the solar system — was extraterrestrial technology due to observations of its trajectory and dimensions, a claim deemed unlikely by many scientists.

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In 2021, Loeb co-founded the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Galileo Project, which aims to systematically search for evidence of artifacts with extraterrestrial origin.

IM1, the meteor, was first identified in 2019 by then-undergraduate researcher Amir Siraj ’22 as having a trajectory that “seemed to come from a hyperbolic orbit coming from another star system.” It was detected in Earth’s atmosphere on Jan. 8, 2014, near Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

“There had been no confirmed detection of an interstellar meteor in history up until that point,” said Siraj, now an astrophysics Ph.D. student at Princeton and the Galileo Project’s director of interstellar object studies. “But I checked the calculations and it kept working out that this seemed to come from a hyperbolic orbit coming from another star system.”

During the expedition, Loeb and his team — aboard a ship named “Silver Star” — used a magnetic sled to survey the seafloor — a search which yielded an estimated 700 spherules concentrated along the meteor’s expected path.

After the expedition concluded, a team of researchers led by Harvard geochemistry professor Stein B. Jacobsen analyzed the spherules to determine their composition and potential origins.

Stanford professor Garry P. Nolan described Loeb’s expedition as “absolutely brilliant,” adding that Loeb “underscores how good science is done.” Nolan is known for studying Ata, the skeletal remains of a premature human fetus some speculated had extraterrestrial origins. Nolan’s analysis determined that it did not.

“You basically go out and do it yourself. You don’t wait for somebody else to give you permission to do it,” said Nolan, an immunologist.

Loeb’s research and the Galileo Project have previously faced significant skepticism from other scientists, many of whom have raised questions about its rigor and sensationalism.

“For all of the naysayers, I would say this is exactly the way science should be working,” Loeb said. “It’s not by having an opinion. It’s by following the evidence, which is exactly what we did here.”

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“I felt — I would say — a moment of connection with him when the outrage started, with not his claim that [‘Oumuamua] was an alien vehicle, but that ‘it could be,’ and just the simple statement that ‘it could be’ elicited such anger,” Nolan said.

The researchers’ preprint indicates that the IM1 spherules possess an abundance of beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium alloy and unique iron isotope ratios that differ from known materials in the solar system.

“We don’t want to jump the gun, but if [the isotopic analysis] confirms that this object is interstellar, then that’d be a huge, huge scientific discovery,” Siraj said, adding that it would enable new scientific exploration “at the intersection between geology and astrophysics.”

For next steps, Loeb said he intends to “go back to the location of the meteor site” with “new equipment that will search for bigger pieces of this meteor” by the end of the current academic year.

“Now, what we want to know is whether this object was from a technological origin or a natural origin and the best way to find out is by looking for bigger pieces,” Loeb said. “Then, you can easily tell the difference between a rock or a technological gadget.”

After the recent expedition, Loeb said that he received increased public attention and that people were “inspired by seeing how science is done” after reading his series of Medium posts about the experience.

Loeb said he has been working with playwright Joshua Ravetch — who has previously worked with stars like Carrie Fisher and Dick Van Dyke — on a play about the expedition and his research titled “A Piece of Sky.” The show, Loeb said, features a song by acclaimed lyricist Alan Bergman.

“My hope is that with these scientific results, we will not have difficulty getting the funding even if it’s more expensive,” Loeb added.

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @jasmine_palma_.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at neil.shah@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @neilhshah15.

—Staff writer Austin H. Wang can be reached at austin.wang@thecrimson.com.

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