The astronomer and Israeli partner identify the first interstellar meteor to hit Earth
An Israeli astronomer and his research partner have identified the first interstellar meteor known to have hit Earth, the US military confirmed.
Space rock crashed into our atmosphere off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2014 and is the third known object to have visited our solar system from outside of solar orbit.
Avi Loeb, an Israeli astronomer at Harvard, and his research partner Amir Siraj determined that it came from outside our solar system in 2019, but have not been able to confirm the discovery until this month.
Loeb is a well-known and controversial astronomer who claims that another interstellar visitor, an object called Oumuamua that sped past the sun in 2017, may have been created by an alien civilization.
Scientists also identified a comet that came into our vicinity from another solar system, making the 2014 meteor the third known interstellar object and the first to hit Earth. Meteors are relatively small celestial objects made of rock and metal that enter the Earth’s atmosphere.
Loeb and Siraj were met with skepticism when they announced the discovery, until the US military confirmed their findings.
The US Space Command, part of the US Department of Defense, said its deputy commander, John E. Shaw, and chief scientist, Joel Mozer, confirmed that “the previously detected interstellar object was indeed a interstellar object “.
The data “confirmed that the speed estimate reported to NASA is accurate enough to indicate an interstellar trajectory.”
Space Command scientists analyzed additional data to confirm Loeb and Siraj’s discovery and presented the results to NASA and the European Space Agency. Space Command is responsible for US military operations in space and monitors space objects that could threaten Earth.
6 / “I had the pleasure of signing a note with @ussfspocThe chief scientist, Dr. Mozer, to confirm that a previously detected interstellar object was indeed an interstellar object, a confirmation that has helped the wider astronomical community. pic.twitter.com/PGlIOnCSrW
– US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 7, 2022
NASA disputed the space command’s confirmation of the meteorite, stating that “the short duration of the data collected, less than five seconds, makes it difficult to definitively determine whether the object’s origin was indeed interstellar.”
The meteor, known as CNEOS 2014-01-08, was about the size of a dishwasher and on January 8, 2014 it entered our atmosphere near Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Siraj wrote in Scientific American this week that US government satellites designed to detect missile launches have collected data on the meteor.
Siraj was a college student at Harvard at the time of the discovery, with Loeb serving as his advisor. The two were studying Oumuamua when they started looking for other interstellar objects and soon stumbled upon the meteor data.
Siraj said that dozens of similar meteors hit Earth every year, but it was traveling exceptionally fast and came from an unusual direction, indicating that it came from outside our solar system.
The meteor was traveling in a “free orbit”, while other meteors were traveling in closed orbits as they circled the sun. Before hitting Earth, the meter was traveling at a speed of about 60 kilometers (37 miles) per second, much faster than other meteors.
Loeb and Siraj drafted a paper on their discovery and submitted it for peer-reviewed publication, but the journals rejected the research, citing his reliance on confidential information. Some of the US government data is kept secret for security reasons. The couple said they were 99.999% confident in their conclusions at the time.
They were later approached by a defense official who was able to obtain official confirmation of the find from the Department of Defense.
The meteor is the third interstellar object ever seen in our solar system, after Oumuamua and a comet sighted in 2019 called Birosov, neither of which hit Earth. Comets are smaller objects made of ice, dust and rock particles; asteroids are much larger bodies made of rock and metal.
Siraj said his and Loeb’s findings on the interstellar meteor imply there are many other similar objects. He said its he speed suggests it could come from “deep within another planetary system”, near that system’s star, as opposed to the edge of another system, which was seen as more likely.
Researchers are examining whether fragments of the meteor can be recovered from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, calling a physical sample “the holy grail of interstellar object studies.” The meteor broke when it entered our atmosphere.
Loeb was the longest serving president of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, a position he held from 2011 to 2020, and is currently a tenured professor at the university.
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It became famous after claiming that Oumuamua, an anomalous object from outside the solar system observed falling beyond the sun in 2017, may have been an extraterrestrial artifact.
Astronomers in Hawaii only glimpsed the object they called Oumuamua, which means “explorer” in Hawaiian, as it moved away from the sun, moving erratically. The oddly shaped body was the first known interstellar object seen in our solar system. It appeared to be small, less than a kilometer long, dark red and shaped like a cigar or pancake.
Loeb said Oumuamua may have been an extraterrestrial artifact, such as a solar powered light sail or a communication dish. Most astronomers believe it was of natural origin, but they differ in opinion as to what it was or where it came from.
Last year he launched the Galileo Project, an initiative that will systematically search for physical artifacts produced by “extraterrestrial technological civilizations”. Previous programs, such as the SETI Institute, scoured the cosmos for electromagnetic signals, not objects.
The Galileo Project aims to identify unidentified aerial phenomena and “interstellar objects similar to Oumuamua” through the scientific analysis of data collected with state-of-the-art tools. The data and analytical process will be transparent and open to the public, the group said.
Siraj is now the director of interstellar object studies for the Galileo Project and said this week that the group has received funding to research a possible “spacecraft rendezvous” with an interstellar object to extract a physical sample.
Loeb comes from the Beit Hanan moshav in central Israel, served in the prestigious Talpiot program of the Israel Defense Forces and earned his first degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.