“A Meteor is a Truck” According to The New York Times

Avi Loeb
6 min readMar 13, 2024

In the current intellectual climate of political polarization, one would hope to get solace in science, where facts rather than opinions are used to arbitrate debates. Not so, according to Matt Richtel, a health and science reporter for The New York Times. He interviewed Ben Fernando about his opinion that the localization data on the meteor CNEOS 2014–01–08 (IM1) was wrong and that a signal he analyzed was actually a truck. In the interview, Matt Richtel made fun of the scientific research associated with the meteor and stated jokingly: “So we shouldn’t worry that aliens are invading our hospitals?”

We should laugh at a joke, right? But the problem with this joke is that it makes fun of serious science that is substantiated by facts documented by NASA/JPL and derived from sensors aboard the U.S. Government satellites. This particular meteor data was actually double-checked by the U.S. Space Command. If The New York Times is allowed to make jokes without fact-checking, should we trust its reporting about anything else? Is ridiculing scientific research the new normal for Matt Richtel? To me, it sounds more like the behavior common in a kindergarten, where the child who talks about a new idea is pushed to the corner and laughed at. But unlike matters akin to kids or politics, scientific facts are not dictated by what people tell you but rather by what instruments are actually measuring. As a science reporter, your duty is to check the facts before ridiculing a research program.

Since Matt Richtel was not scientific enough to check the facts by himself, I wrote him an email in which I explained that the meteor light was detected by sensors aboard U.S. Government satellites and not by the seismic signal discussed in his interview. These sensors identified first the flash of light associated with the entry of the bolide into the Earth’s atmosphere at a latitude of 1.2 degrees South and a longitude of 147.1 degrees East. This was the detection flash mentioned in the document containing the fireball light curve. As the meteor travelled deeper into the Earth’s atmosphere on a trajectory inclined at 31 degrees relative to the Pacific Ocean surface, it showed three detonations through three prominent flares in its light curve over 0.3 seconds. The last flare was the brightest, representing where most of the debris should be located. The meteor’s “peak-brightness” location was documented on the official website of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) fireball catalog, compiled by NASA/JPL. This “peak-brightness location” is the standard entry for all meteors documented in the CNEOS catalog table. The official table documented a latitude of 1.3 degrees South and a longitude of 147.6 degrees East for the peak brightness. The line connecting the atmospheric entry flash with the peak-brightness flash is perfectly aligned with the direction of motion that was measured for the meteor.

At this point, you might wonder why would Ben Fernando claim that the meteor signal was actually a truck? Is he saying that the U.S Government satellites had mistaken a truck for the light from a fireball? No, Ben was referring to completely independent public data from stations which record seismic and acoustic data on Earth. He argues that because of the large uncertainties in that unrelated data, the meteor could have been somewhere else. He chooses to ignore the more precise CNEOS localization and claims that the signal from a seismometer in Manus Island detected a truck and not the meteor. Matt Richtel amplified this scientific misinformation by making fun of those who researched the meteor site based on the U.S. satellite data.

Why was the satellite data dismissed? Because Ben Fernando assumed that the atmospheric-entry localization and the peak-brightness localization should be the same. Since they are different, he argued that the CNEOS localization and velocity measurements cannot be trusted and so the meteor is not interstellar. And he does this exactly two years after the U.S. Space Command issued an official letter to NASA, confirming at the 99.999% confidence that the velocity measurement of this meteor implies an interstellar origin. Matt Richtel’s reply to that letter is reminiscent of a stand-up comedian: “So we shouldn’t worry that aliens are invading our hospitals?”

The peak-brightness location of IM1 was defined in the CNEOS fireball catalog to within a tenth of a degree precision in latitude and longitude, corresponding to 11.112 kilometers on the Pacific Ocean surface, centered about 90 km away from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Better localization was not meaningful since the fireball’s speed of 44.8 kilometers per second implied that the bolide traveled across a path of 13.44 kilometers over the temporal span of its prominent flares.

On June 14–28, 2023, I led an expedition of the Galileo Project to retrieve meteoritic materials from IM1’s site, which by now resulted in three papers. The surveyed region centered on the CNEOS localization box and included 26 runs across a region extending out to several tens of kilometers away from the box center, as shown in Figure 2 of our most extensive paper.

In an unrefereed preprint, Ben Fernando and colleagues used public data from infrasound stations to constrain the localization of IM1’s fireball. The analysis inferred a 90%-confidence ellipse with semi-minor and semimajor axes of 186 and 388 kilometers, respectively. This large error ellipse overlaps with the much better localization box derived by sensors aboard U.S. Government satellites which detected the fireball light. Our expedition surveyed a region of tens of kilometers around the CNEOS box center, and was not dictated by the data studied by Fernando because of its larger uncertainties.

During the planning stages of the expedition, my former student, Amir Siraj, and I considered seismometer data from Manus Island (AU.MANU) to test consistency with the CNEOS localization box, altitude and timing. However, the time delay associated with any acoustic or seismic signal detected by a single station, can only constrain the distance of the fireball from that station, implying a fireball location within a circular ring in all possible directions around the station. Consequently, the region surveyed by the expedition could not have been defined by this analysis, as suggested by Ben Fernando and highlighted by Matt Richtel. Actual localization requires multiple stations of acoustic or seismic data, but that analysis resulted in a large 90%-confidence ellipse — consistent with the better localization box derived by U.S. Government satellites and documented by NASA/JPL in the CNEOS catalog.

Matt replied to my message briefly:

“Dr. Loeb,

I’ve forwarded to my editor.

Best, Matt
Matt Richtel, New York Times, mattr@nytimes.com

Since then, no response or correction was issued by The New York Times. The editor probably chose not to confuse the readers of Matt Richtel’s article with facts. Richtel’s sloppy reporting should have been disappointing to anyone with scientific integrity. But the lack of response must mean that ignoring facts is not outside the toolkit of the chief editor on science in The New York Times.

And so, I summarized the facts myself in a new scientific paper, submitted for publication in a scientific journal.

In 1896, Adolph S. Ochs, the owner of The New York Times, crafted the famous motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, which is still featured on the masthead of the newspaper today. When “All the News That’s Fit to Print” includes opinions and not facts, all of us are in real trouble.

Sometimes the sun comes out shortly after it rains. I was just informed that the board of the Richard King Mellon Foundation approved a large grant to Harvard University to support the Galileo Project.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image credit: Chris Michel (October 2023)

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 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”, was published 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".