A Blind Date with Interstellar Matter

Avi Loeb
5 min readApr 27, 2023

Humanity has made a lot of progress since its early beginnings as a hunter-gatherer culture. Nevertheless, I still get a kick out of gathering.

Today, I made arrangements for storing the interstellar materials that we hope to gather in a forthcoming expedition. The responses from administrators at the Harvard College Observatory ranged from “This is a reasonable request” to “This is the most exciting thing that happened here in recent history.” I adopted the sober middle ground and replied: “My hope is that we will gather a few grams of millimeter-sized spherules, but it is also possible that we will return from the expedition empty-handed.”

The Galileo Project expedition aims to retrieve fragments from the interstellar meteor, which exploded over the Pacific Ocean on January 8, 2014. This first interstellar object withstood a ram-pressure larger by an order of magnitude than those withstood by all other 272 other meteors in the CNEOS fireball catalog of NASA. Irrespective of whether experts might argue that it has been an iron meteorite, this object — first ever identified as coming from outside the solar system based on its exceptional speed — was tougher than all documented meteors. It is an outlier in material composition, rarer than a third of a percent of the recorded solar system rocks. Its anomalous strength and the fact that it moved at a speed of 60 kilometers per second outside the solar system — faster than 95% of all nearby stars relative to the Sun, raises the possibility that it was artificial in origin, containing a hardened alloy manufactured by an extraterrestrial technological civilization.

To find out, we plan to gather some of the meteor’s material and analyze its composition. Our magnetic sled and sluicing device were constructed and tested. We have an exceptional expedition team, coordinated by Rob McCallum and funded by Charles Hoskinson. A week ago, I was approached by nearly thirty film directors and producers who asked to document the expedition.

We plan to conduct a preliminary study of material composition as we gather the meteor’s fragments on the boat, using a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer donated by the Bruker Corporation thanks to Dr. Frank Laukien. This morning, I have asked Professor Stein Jacobsen — a local expert on isotope geochemistry from Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, to help us with the detailed analysis of the sample upon our return from the expedition. We plan to engage other scientists from around the world in the subsequent analysis.

The interstellar sample has no commercial value and will be solely dedicated to scientific research. We plan to store and label the sample at the Harvard College Observatory and record partial loans of it to other scientific teams. The one exception would be in case we recover a technological gadget, in which case I promised to display it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I was advised by a fan: “In that case, please do not press any button, because it could affect all of us.”

By now, the scientific background for the expedition was documented in four papers, including a discovery paper, a material strength paper, a fragment size-distribution paper, and a localization paper.

The expedition arrangements followed on my routine morning jog at sunrise. Subsequently, the day continued with my back-to-back duties as the director of Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation, including attending a colloquium, leading a weekly luncheon in an auditorium full of a hundred astronomers and chairing a senior faculty meeting. When the day ended, I had the privilege of taking part in a Collective Intelligence zoom meeting with the remarkable artist, Lisa Loeb. This was an unexpected cherry on top of my daily cake.

As I opened my conversation with Lisa, who shares my last name without a known family relation, I confessed that I always loved her songs. She asked for my latest book titles and I mentioned Extraterrestrial from January 2021 and Interstellar — to appear in August 2023.

I explained that my day job as head of the Galileo Project is about looking for objects manufactured by extraterrestrial technological civilizations. I then challenged her with the question: “What would you include on a Golden record that humanity might send to aliens in interstellar space on a future spacecraft?”

Lisa noted that this is a very difficult question, and that it would depend on what we expect them to be.

I advised: “Think of it as a blind date. Better not to imagine anything about them but rather do our best to appear humble and honest in engaging with them.”

She replied: “In that case, we might want to portray a realistic portrait of humanity, including its complex past and problems.”

I suggested: “It would be far better to portray what we aspire to be rather than disclose our problematic past. Steven Weinberg noted that the Universe “seems pointless”, but I hold the view that this will change as soon as we find a partner to share our aspirations with.”

In response, Lisa sang her song “Shine”, which includes the lyrics:

“Go be a star
Love who you are
Once you know
You have everything then
You’ll have everything
That you need inside
To shine”

I promised to promote this song for the next Golden Record to be sent to interstellar space, with the hope that extraterrestrial astronomers will discover it as an interstellar meteor in their sky and gather its fragments from their ocean. Here’s hoping that once they hear Lisa’s words, they will choose to come closer and sing her song with us.

Ever since my experience as the longest-serving chair of the Harvard Astronomy department between 2011–2020, I find it fascinating to practice the art of herding cats, irrespective of whether they are members of academia or extraterrestrials in interstellar space.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".