A Gift from a Silver Star
On January 8, 2014, a watermelon-sized object was the first package to be detected by humans from interstellar space. Outside the Solar system, it was moving at a speed of 60 kilometers per second, twice faster than most stars in the vicinity of the Sun. It was too small to be noticed by telescopes through its reflection of sunlight, but its collision with Earth generated a bright fireball that was recorded by US government sensors after releasing a few percent of the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb within a fraction of a second. The interstellar origin was pointed out in a paper that I wrote with my student Amir Siraj in 2019, and confirmed three years later at the 99.999% confidence in a letter from the US Space Command to NASA. We labeled it “Interstellar Meteor 1”, abbreviated as IM1.
The discovery of IM1 predated by 3.8 years the finding of the flat, football-field sized object, `Oumuamua, which never collided with Earth but was big enough to be noticed through its reflection of sunlight. As much as `Oumuamua was anomalous in its extreme shape and excess motion away from the Sun — qualitatively similar to NASA’s rocket booster 2020 SO, IM1 was anomalous in its composition. Its material was tougher by at least an order of magnitude than all other 272 space rocks from the solar system in the CNEOS catalog of fireballs compiled by NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. This raises the question of whether IM1 was made of an artificial alloy that allowed it to survive down to the lower atmosphere despite its exceptional speed. There is one way to find out: scoop the fragments left over from the explosion on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
Yesterday, Charles Hoskinson, a brilliant technology entrepreneur and mathematician, sent me an email confirming his funding at 1.5 million dollars for an ocean expedition to do just that. The expedition will take place under my leadership within the umbrella of the Galileo Project — in search for extraterrestrial technological objects near Earth, which was previously funded by generous donations from the visionary Frank Laukien, Eugene Jhong, Adnan Sen, Bill Linton, Eric Keto, Joerg Laukien, Vinney Jain and Teddy Jones.
The two-week ocean expedition is coordinated by the exceptional explorer, Rob McCallum, founder of EYOS. The team includes highly experienced experts, such as Art Wright, Mike Williamson, Kevin Conrad and Rob Millsap, who designed a sled with magnets as well as a sluicing device to collect spherules left over from IM1’s explosion irrespective of their magnetic properties. Ryan Weed will bring an X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer on the boat, to analyze the composition of any meteor fragments we find. Our findings will be compared to a control region far from the meteor site.
The expected spatial and size distribution of IM1’s fragments was calculated in a recent paper I wrote with summer-intern Amory Tillinghast-Raby and Amir Siraj. Small fragments are expected to be found just under the explosion site because their large area to mass ratio slowed them down quickly in air. Larger fragments should be distributed in a strip a few kilometers long, along the meteor’s direction of motion.
But where exactly was the explosion? The original report from the Department of Defense in 2014 localized IM1’s fireball to an area of 100 square kilometers. In a new paper that I wrote with Amir, we shrink the uncertainty box area by a factor of a hundred using seismometer data from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Our paper considers the geometry of the different paths of sound waves from the meteor fireball to the seismometer, going through air, water and ground. By summing over the different paths, we are able to fit the recorded sound signal for particular values of the horizontal distance and altitude above sea level of IM1’s fireball, and narrow down the fireball site to within a kilometer squared region.
The improved localization and predicted fragment strip enhance considerably the expedition efficiency. To those who doubt the success of the mission, I say: without searching we will definitely not find anything. Life is worth living in pursuit of making possible what appears impossible at first sight.
We will send updates through the internet as soon as we start the two-week expedition. I asked Rob McCallum to bring a bottle of Champagne to the boat but not to put it on ice until we found something. Our findings might give a whole new meaning to the name of our boat, Silver Star.
In case we recover something exciting, I promised the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, Paula Antonelli, that I will bring it for display in New York City. An interstellar relic from long ago might represent modernity for us, just because the senders developed their advanced technologies near a star that formed billions of years before the Sun. The finding could be of interest not only to art enthusiasts but also to entrepreneurs, who could make a profit out of technological packages arriving at our doorstep from interstellar space.
For the first time in human history, there lies a new opportunity for the commercialization of interstellar trading.
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.