Do Aliens Have Hair? Our Initial Sample from the Pacific Ocean Site of the First Interstellar Meteor
Diary of an Interstellar Voyage: Part 6 (June 16, 2023)
For six hours straight, Silver Star has been surveying an 8-kilometer line through the most likely path of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1. Around midnight, the magnetic sled was brought back on deck. This was a historic moment.
It took us nearly a decade to come back to where IM1’s fireball lit the sky over the Pacific Ocean on January 8, 2014, in a burst of energy totaling a few percent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb energy and lasting a third of a second. For the first half of that decade, IM1 was ignored by astronomers until I discovered its interstellar origin with my student, Amir Siraj. The circumstances that led to the discovery were serendipitous. In January 2019, I had a radio interview about another meteor that released 30 times more energy over the Bering Sea in December 2018. In the process of preparing for the interview, I came across NASA’s CNEOS catalog of meteors. Since I was intrigued by the unusual properties of the interstellar object `Oumuamua, discovered on October 19, 2017, I asked Amir to check whether the CNEOS catalog has any object moving faster than the escape speed from the solar system. We found IM1 and wrote a detailed paper about it. Our paper was accepted for publication only three years later, after the US Space Command issued a formal letter supporting IM1’s interstellar origin at the 99.999% confidence. They also released the triple-peaked light curve of the fireball, which allowed us to conclude that IM1 sustained a ram pressure larger than all 272 meteors in the catalog and it was moving faster than 95% of all the stars in the vicinity of the Sun. Its unusual material composition and high speed suggest that IM1, the first large, near-Earth object to be recognized from outside the solar system, could have been a spacecraft manufactured by an extraterrestrial technological civilization.
After a year of planning, we finally got to the business of testing this notion tonight. Indeed, when entering Papua New Guinea, the Galileo Project team members declared their purpose for the visit as `business.’
The location of IM1’s fireball has uncertainties and its three fireball flares were each separated from each other by 5-10 kilometers when projected to the ocean floor. In a recent paper with Amir, I localized the fireball path to within a sub-kilometer width, based on seismometer data from Manus Island which is located 84 kilometers away from IM1’s explosion. Given the kilometer-scale uncertainties and the meter-scale of the sled, our first survey may not hit the target. We plan to continue the search along multiple lines in the coming ten days.
Nevertheless, the remote possibility that we might recover IM1’s fragments brought me on deck between 3–5 PM local time on June 15, 2023. As the sled was lowered into the ocean, it felt like we were finally coming back to salvage a lost package on an interstellar journey. I was asked by my wife whether I am excited and replied that it feels like my first sexual experience. In other words, I do not know what to expect from a first contact with IM1.
In the control region visited yesterday, we found microscopic ashes from volcanic activity, with particles smaller than a tenth of a millimeter. The biggest particle was identified by our team geologist, Jeff Wynn, as made of 80% silica froth with entrained magnetite. Jeff identified it as a volcano air-fall product, `Scoria.’
After midnight, we were ready to compare the findings from our first contact with IM1’s site to those from the control region. The sled was lifted up by the winch in a majestic move as I rushed with a small brush to check out whether there are any particles on its magnets.
Most particles appeared to be tiny, consistent with volcanic ashes as found in the control region. The only exception came in the form of a few thin wires and one oddly shaped fragment of unknown origin. Tomorrow we plan to analyze their composition. It is 3AM now and most people went to bed. This is perfect timing for my morning jog on the empty boat deck.
The chance for an interstellar origin of these wires is very small. But New-York residents can easily follow the news as it happens. The Galileo Project video on display at Times Square will be updated only if these wires are not human-made.
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.