The astronomical community was abuzz in 2017 with the discovery of ‘Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever detected. Although, it turns out this mysterious object wasn’t technically the first. Following the release of previously classified data by the US government, scientists are almost certain that an object from another solar system crashed into Earth’s atmosphere way back in 2014, vice reports. This suggests that we might find many more of these visitors from afar if we look hard enough.
Harvard University astronomers Amir Siraj and Avi Loeb embarked on this work in the wake of ‘Oumuamua’s discovery. Loeb, who has famously contended that ‘Oumuamua could be a piece of alien technology, suggested that Siraj hunt through the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) database to see if any of the impacts could be attributed to an interstellar object. This database contains more than 1,000 impact and fireball records, but one from near Manus Island in 2014 stuck out. The object was tiny, just a few feet across, but the CNEOS data showed it was traveling at least 130,000 miles per hour when it broke up over the South Pacific Ocean. Nothing from our neck of the woods should be moving that fast.
A paper on the Manus event hit the preprint arXiv server in 2019, but it was never peer-reviewed or published officially because of some missing government data. Some of the sensors in the CNEOS network that detect atmospheric fireballs are operated by the US Department of Defense, with the intention of detecting nuclear detonations. Data from these sensors is considered classified, which prevented Siraj from verifying the margin of error for the Manus fireball’s velocity.
6/ “I had the pleasure of signing a memo with @ussfspoc‘s Chief Scientist, Dr. Mozer, to confirm that a previously-detected interstellar object was indeed an interstellar object, a confirmation that assisted the broader astronomical community.” pic.twitter.com/PGlIOnCSrW
— US Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 7, 2022
The work sat unconfirmed until just a few weeks ago when US Space Command issued a statement confirming the velocity estimate, saying that it is “sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory.” Siraj, who now heads up Interstellar Object Studies at Harvard’s Galileo Project, is now working to get the study published.
We don’t know much about the object, except that it disintegrated in the atmosphere after drifting many light years in deep space. That’s what sets it apart from ‘Oumuamua and the more recently discovered Comet Borisov — it’s already here on Earth. Granted, it’s fractured into tiny pieces and scattered on the ocean floor off the coast of New Guinea, but Siraj is already discussing the possibility of searching for it.
The odds of recovering any of the meteorite are remote, but the scientific value of such a find would be hard to overstate. This could also point to a future in which more interstellar objects are discovered because they happened to light up in the Earth’s atmosphere. If we go looking, these foreign fragments might not be as rare as we have assumed.