Message in an Interstellar Bottle

Wonderful news! We just received full funding for the Galileo Project expedition to scoop the fragments of the first interstellar meteor (IM1), CNEOS 2014–01–08, that landed on the Pacific Ocean floor near Papua New Guinea (PNG). The funds are donated by individuals who approached me out of the blue after being inspired by the exciting science behind the expedition. Their generous support is not taking away funding from any other scientific endeavor. It demonstrates once again that research is an infinite-sum game, not a zero-sum game as some self-defined “experts” view science. Gladly, our funders have the wisdom to realize that humanity will prosper by letting many flowers bloom, in contrast to critics who enjoy stepping on any flower that rises above the grass level.

Given how unusual the first interstellar meteor was relative to known space rocks, dissecting its composition is likely to reveal a new astrophysical origin for it, very different from planetary environments like the Solar system. As shown in our discovery paper (now accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal) with my student, Amir Siraj, IM1 was faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun. In a second published paper, we also demonstrated that IM1 possessed material strength tougher than all 273 meteors in the CNEOS catalog. This makes it a true outlier, rarer than the product of 5% and 1/273, which is 0.0002. What was it? To answer this question, we plan to collect fragments of IM1 and examine their composition and structure. Our exceptional research team is currently making detailed plans for the related machinery to be employed in the expedition.

There are two general possibilities. Either IM1 is of new natural origin, or it is artificial, produced by an extraterrestrial technological civilization. Regarding the first possibility, X-ray imaging of the Vela supernova remnant revealed bow shocks from bullets flying out of the explosion site, a discovery I attempted to explain three decades ago. It is possible that IM1 was a small bullet tougher than conventional iron meteorites, shot out of an exploding star. But it is also possible that it was a spacecraft, a billion-year old equivalent of our interstellar probes. Just imagine a spacecraft like Voyager 1 & 2, Pioneer 10 & 11 or New Horizons, crashing onto a habitable exo-planet and burning up in its atmosphere. The exo-scientists on this exo-planet would regard the resulting exo-meteor as space trash. However, if they are curious enough to examine the composition of its fragments, they would realize that it was artificial in origin.

Earlier this week, I described the vision of the expedition in a Fireside Chat with Alex Klokus at the SALT conference at the Javits Center in New York City. Afterwards, Kevin Conrad, a member of the PNG expedition, hosted me for dinner at his restaurant. Kevin was born to parents living in PNG and told me the fascinating fact that there are nearly 850 languages spoken in a country with merely 7.6 million people, making it the most linguistically diverse place on earth. I suggested to Kevin that with the aid of Artificial Intelligence (AI), it should be possible to construct an efficient translating machine that will help the diverse PNG population communicate.

Consider now the possibility that our expedition will discover that IM1 carried a message in a technological bottle lying on the ocean floor. This message would bring yet another new language to PNG, this time from an interstellar origin.

After being trained on the 850 local languages, the challenge of the AI translator would be to figure out the content of the interstellar message carried by IM1.

At a recent World.Minds forum, I promised Paola Antonelli, the curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, that our PNG expedition will deliver the biggest piece that it retrieves from IM1 for exhibit at the museum. The journey of IM1 over millions of years through interstellar space to the exhibit hall would represent modernity for us, even if it reflects ancient history for its senders in our cosmic neighborhood.

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.

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

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