Pushing the Frontiers of Science with Government Data
In the late 1960s, the United States Government (USG) launched the Vela satellites to detect high-energy radiation, also known as gamma-rays, emitted by nuclear weapons tested in space. The USG was concerned that the Soviet Union might attempt to conduct secret nuclear tests after signing the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. On July 2, 1967, the Vela 3 and 4 satellites detected a flash of gamma-radiation unlike that expected from any known nuclear weapon. One can only imagine the alarm bells that sounded in Washington D.C. shortly after this detection. Uncertain of the implications, a research team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory led by Ray Klebesadel, filed the data for further analysis.
It would have been natural for USG officials to initially regard the unexpected gamma-ray flashes as a matter of national security. But as additional Vela satellites were launched with better instruments, the Los Alamos team continued to identify gamma-ray bursts in their data. By analyzing the different arrival times of the bursts to different satellites, the team was able to rule out a terrestrial or even Solar-system origin. The data was not classified and the discovery was openly published in 1973 as an article in The Astrophysical Journal entitled “Observations of Gamma-Ray Bursts of Cosmic Origin”. It took a couple of decades before the cosmological distance scale of the bursts was established through X-ray localization of GRB 970228 by the Italian satellite Beppo-SAX. The detection of afterglows at longer wavelengths indicated that the bursts originate from jets moving near the speed of light, which are generated either by the collapse of a massive star to a black hole, or during the merger of a neutron star with a black hole or another neutron star.
Next week, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives of the United States is scheduled to hold the first open congressional hearing on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) in more than half a century. Based on the lesson learned from the history of gamma-ray bursts, my sincere hope is that the following question will be asked: “can we get the highest quality UAP data to scientists who will analyze it methodically and quantitatively?”
Personally, I would be delighted to engage my research team at Harvard University in a detailed analysis of such data, should the government be interested in sharing it openly. Science is guided by evidence. As for gamma-ray bursts, if the knowledge involves an extraterrestrial origin, then it should not be classified as a matter of national security but rather shared openly with the scientific community.
Last month, the USG demonstrated again that it is willing to advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge as in the case of gamma-ray bursts. On April 6, 2022, the United States Space Command tweeted a formal letter to NASA confirming that a meteor identified in the CNEOS catalog by my student Amir Siraj and me in 2019 as originating from outside the Solar system based on its high speed, is indeed interstellar. The meteor detection on January 8, 2014 predated the first reported interstellar object, `Oumuamua, by almost four years and should be recognized as the first massive interstellar object ever discovered. The meteor paper was initially doubted because the uncertainties in the velocity measurements were classified. With the release of the confirmation letter, the government advances scientific knowledge by confirming the interstellar origin of this so-called CNEOS-2014–01–08 meteor at the 99.999% confidence. We are currently planning an expedition to scoop the ocean floor for the fragments of this first interstellar meteor, which predated the discovery `Oumuamua on October 19, 2017 by almost four years. From the fact that it disintegrated only in the lower atmosphere, we infer that it was made of material tougher than iron.
The USG is naturally focused on terrestrial concerns involving adversarial nations. But when USG data of extraterrestrial nature is not shared openly, scientists like myself feel like the kid who realized that “the emperor has no clothes” in the folktale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Responding to anecdotal USG data about unexpected phenomena is as awkward as knitting clothes in real time when the emperor walks down the street.
As noted in the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on June 25, 2021, UAP data is rarely discussed openly because “Sociocultural stigmas and sensor limitations remain obstacles to collecting data on UAP… reputational risk may keep many observers silent, complicating scientific pursuit of the topic.”
The responsible approach of scientists should be to attend to new evidence as unusual as it might be, and adapt to its implications irrespective of how challenging they are. It is common practice for experts to raise dust and claim that they cannot see anything. After all, they are being rewarded for mastering knowledge from past data and not for their willingness to admit ignorance on new facts.
What we regard as “ordinary” are things we are used to seeing. Such things include birds in the sky. But digging deeper into the nature of ordinary matters suggests that they are rather extraordinary. Humans were only able to imitate birds with the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. Similarly, what we regard as “extraordinary claims” is often based on societal conventions. We invest major funds in the search for the nature of dark matter that has minimal impact on our society, but minimal funds on the scientific study of UAP which could be much more impactful. As a result, the lack of “extraordinary evidence” is often self-inflicted ignorance. We might figure out the nature of UAP before we understand dark matter, if we would only be brave enough to collect and analyze UAP data publicly, based on the scientific method.
The common goal of all humans, including the USG and the scientific community, should be to eliminate the term “unidentified” from our lexicon. Much of the history of physics is about the pursuit of knowledge about items that initially appear “extraordinary” and later become “ordinary”. Quantum entanglement appeared to Albert Einstein as extraordinary, but is now part of the daily vocabulary of engineers designing quantum computers. The notion of non-universal space and time in Einstein’s General Relativity was initially disruptive to the mainstream view of the physics community, but is now employed for precise navigation by taxi-drivers who routinely use Global Positioning Systems.
We should seek evidence-based knowledge without being boxed by our egos, emotions or national security traps. This is my wish for the Congressional hearing next week.
Here’s hoping that the USG will continue to advance the scientific frontiers of our knowledge. Future cooperation between government and science will help us understand the unknown. And exploring the unknown is the spiritual light that illuminates our journey in search for knowledge on destinations far away from the familiar rock we call Earth.
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.