Diary of an Interstellar Voyage, Report 39
(July 16, 2023)
During the interstellar expedition to the Pacific Ocean, it occurred to me that all team members are in the same boat. I enjoyed the company of all crew members because each contributed selflessly to the success of our mission. The boat is a metaphor for Earth moving through space. All earthlings share the same boat and we better work together.
A psychologist told me that most people ask for help when they feel that they are stuck. From an interstellar vantage point, humanity is stuck to Earth. Physically, gravity is at fault but there is more to that posture. Psychologically, we focus our attention “down to Earth” namely on the boat, rather than on our destination in the ocean of interstellar space.
Many scientists regard an encounter with a relic from another technological civilization as extraordinarily unlikely. But I find it common sense to search for space trash of the type that we produce since there are billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky-Way galaxy.
Only over the past decade, we started detecting interstellar objects. First was the meter-size interstellar meteor, IM1, whose high velocity was detected with high confidence by US Government sensors on January 8, 2014.
That a meter-size interstellar meteor impacts the Earth once per decade implies that there are a million such objects right now within the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. Yet, we only noticed one of them, IM1, over the past decade. This is the reason I led an ocean expedition to retrieve materials from IM1 and infer its nature.
In ten thousand years, the five spacecraft we launched: Voyager 1 &2, Pioneer 10 & 11 and New Horizons, will exit the Oort cloud at the outskirts of the solar system and turn into technological trash in interstellar space. They will remain bound by gravity to the Milky Way disk.
Over the past ten billion years, other technological civilizations could have littered the volume of the Milky Way disk with numerous dysfunctional devices. This trash may have accumulated in interstellar space like plastics in the ocean. Whether any of the IM1-like objects is technological trash remains to be seen by a composition analysis as we are planning to do with the spherules we recovered from the crash site of IM1 in the Pacific Ocean.
Interestingly, extrapolating the IM1 statistics implies that there are more IM1-like objects than solar-system rocks of the same size in the Oort cloud of the Solar system. In other words, there might be more “plastic pieces” from the ocean of interstellar space than “familiar fish” swimming through the outskirts of the solar system.
The discovery of interstellar trash from our cosmic neighbors would change the future of humanity. Extraterrestrial trash is our gold. Science fiction stories often suggest a first encounter with alien creatures or functional gadgets, but we are more likely to encounter dysfunctional debris. My membrane-model for `Oumuamua could represent a surface layer of a bigger technological object or a piece of a broken Dyson sphere, affected by radiation pressure in addition to gravity, just like our own space debris 2020 SO — which was discovered in 2020 by the same Pan-STARRS telescope that discovered `Oumuamua.
Identifying interstellar technological debris would reveal the nature of our cosmic neighbors, even if they are not around anymore — because the journey of their packages took longer than their lifespan. The intelligent design of extraterrestrial devices can bring a sense of religious awe to mainstream science. We can learn from the past experiences of our cosmic neighbors and be inspired to do better than they did. Finding their relics would change what it means to be human together with what it means to be an interstellar species.
In my new book, Interstellar, to be published in a month and available now for pre-orders, I discuss the implications of finding interstellar objects of technological origin. Most significantly, finding them will free our mind from its frustrating focus on being stuck to Earth.
With a grander view, we could change our priorities from those of a crow pecking on the neck of eagles to becoming an eagle that rises to heights where no crows survive. Here’s hoping that we move away from the crow-mentality on social media to the eagle-mentality of intelligent civilizations in interstellar space.
We are all in the same boat. Lets collaborate as a team in our truly interstellar expedition.
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.