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Meteor illustration by Concejalía de Cultura del Ayto

Harvard scientists are hoping to find a crashed alien space probe at the bottom of the ocean

Serious scientific searches for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence have been restricted almost solely so far to SETI, looking out across vast interstellar distances hoping to detect a signal from a faraway civilization.

But what if instead of looking out there, we looked…here? Could it be that we might find evidence of advanced alien technology on Earth itself? While the question might bring to mind dubious stories of crashed flying saucers from the mid-20th century, it does appear that at least one highly-credentialed Harvard professor believes we could find an alien space probe here on Earth – or more correctly, under the ocean – if we just go and look. And that’s exactly what he plans to do.

As might be expected, that’s not exactly what the scientific proposal says though – instead, it’s ‘officially’ a search for a meteor that fell into the Pacific Ocean north of Papua New Guinea in 2014. In a paper posted to arXiv at the end of July 2022 (“An Ocean Expedition by the Galileo Project to Retrieve Fragments of the First Large Interstellar Meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08“), Harvard astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb, and co-authors Amir Siraj and Tim Gallaudet, lay out the case for an under-sea search to find pieces of the object.

Why this meteor? Firstly, because of where it came from: it is the first to slam into Earth that has been identified as being of interstellar origin (that is, it wasn’t in an orbit around our Sun, like most comets, asteroids and meteors that we come across). After Siraj and Loeb first identified the meteor as possibly originating from outside our solar system in 2019, earlier this year the United States Department of Defense (US DoD) confirmed their theory when it released a formal letter validating the interstellar origin of CNEOS 2014-01-08 at the 99.999% confidence level.

(The Department of Defense? Yup, because the meteor’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere was picked up by a classified government satellite designed to detect foreign missile launches.)

In the paper, the researchers note that a space mission to retrieve material from an interstellar object – similar to the OSIRIS-REx2 mission that landed on the (non-interstellar) asteroid Bennu and will return material from it in late-2023 – have a cost of at least $1 billion. But finding fragments of this interstellar meteor on Earth would be far cheaper (just over $1 million). Their plan, they explain…

…is to mobilize a ship with a magnetic sled deployed using a long line winch. We will be operating approximately ∼ 300 km north of Manus Island. The team will consist of seven sled operators, plus the scientific team. The goal of the expedition is to recover ∼ 0.1 mm size fragments from the meteorite that exploded over the Bismarck sea in 2014. The recovered fragments will be carefully analyzed and will be shared with the global scientific community. We will tow a sled mounted with magnets, cameras and lights on the ocean floor inside of a 10km × 10km search box. A number of sources have been used to narrow the search site to this relatively small search box.

The paper itself is filled with dry scientific analysis and technical calculations, but those are used to bring attention to, and explain, two anomalies related to the meteor: its speed, and the strength of the material it is composed of. Because, compared to other space rocks, “CNEOS 2014-01-08 is an outlier both in terms of its LSR [Local Standard of Rest] speed (shared by less than 5% of all stars) and its composition (tougher than all 272 other bolides in the CNEOS database).”

On that latter point, the researchers note that in the range of strength of various astronomical objects including comets, and carbonaceous, stony, and iron meteorites:

The upper end…gives a yield strength of Yi ∼ 50 MPa, corresponding to the strongest known class of meteorites, iron. Iron meteorites are rare in the solar system, making up only ∼ 5% of modern falls. The CNEOS 2014-01-08 inferred yield strength of at least Yi = 113 MPa exceeds the typical yield strength of iron meteorites by a factor of ∼ 2. We computed the ram pressure of each of the 273 bolides in the CNEOS database with values for peak brightness altitude and speed. Interestingly, CNEOS 2014-01-08, with a ram pressure of 194 MPa at peak brightness, has the highest material strength of all 273 bolides. The second highest tensile strength is smaller by more than a factor of 2.

This discussion of the anomalous properties of the meteor is then followed by somewhat of an odd non sequitur, given that at no point in the paper have they suggested anything along these lines: “Of course, this result does not imply that the first interstellar meteor was artificially made by a technological civilization and not natural in origin.”

To understand why this statement was made, it’s firstly important to remember that Avi Loeb has become famous in recent years firstly for his controversial suggestion that the recently discovered interstellar body ‘Oumuamua could be an alien spaceship or probe, and secondly for his creation of the Galileo Project, an effort to look for evidence – both on Earth and in space – of ‘extraterrestrial technological civilizations’ (ETCs). And the name of the Galileo Project is explicitly named in the title of this new arXiv paper.

Avi Loeb
Harvard astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb

And so despite the paper’s calm assurance to scientists reading it that the Galileo Project team aren’t suggesting anything crazy like ‘alien tech’ as an explanation for CNEOS 2014-01-08, in other channels, Avi Loeb is…less shy about his hopes for what it might turn out to be.

In a blog posted at Medium a couple of weeks before the arXiv paper was posted, simply titled “Interstellar Artifacts“, Loeb discusses the use of ‘space archaeology’ to find evidence of alien technology:

Extraterrestrial equipment could arrive in two forms: defunct ‘space trash’, similar to the way our own spacecraft will appear in a billion years, or functional equipment, such as an autonomous craft equipped by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The latter would be a natural choice for crossing the tens of thousands of light years that span the scale of our own Milky-Way galaxy and could exist even if the senders are not alive to transmit any detectable signals at this time. Hence, space archaeology for extraterrestrial equipment is a new observational frontier, not represented in the past history of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which focused on electromagnetic signals and not physical objects. The Galileo Project is engaged in this scientific frontier.

As in the paper, Loeb discusses how ‘space archaeology’ could be done out in space, or here on Earth: we could either prepare a rocket to chase another ‘Oumuamua-type object when it is detected (which Loeb says is certainly a plan the Galileo Project is serious about: “The Galileo Project aims to design a space mission that will rendezvous with the next ‘Oumuamua and get high quality data that would allow it to decipher its nature”), or we could look here on Earth at much less cost by mounting a search to recover debris from an interstellar object that hit Earth.

The first interstellar meteor, CNEOS 2014–01–08, detected on January 8, 2014 by US Government sensors near Papua New Guinea. It was half a meter in size and exhibited material strength tougher than iron. It was an outlier both in terms of its speed outside the Solar system (representing the fastest five percent in the velocity distribution of all stars in the vicinity of the sun) and its material strength (representing less than five percent of all space rocks).

The money quote in the Medium article, however, is one that explictly notes that this is a search that has the potential of discovering that the ‘meteor’ was actually an alien space probe: “The Galileo Project plans an expedition to retrieve the fragments of this meteor from the ocean floor in an attempt to determine the composition and structure of this unusual object and study whether it was natural or artificial in origin.” [my emphasis]

Elsewhere in his blog post, Loeb points out that the number of alien space probes in our galaxy “could be extremely large if they are self-replicating, a concept enabled by 3D printing and AI technologies”. And, perhaps in reference to the estimated half-metre size of CNEOS 2014-01-08, he notes that “NASA launched more small spacecraft than large ones… In addition, the launch of faster objects increases the specific energy requirements and therefore may be restricted to smaller objects that are more challenging to discover.”

Loeb’s views on CNEOS 2014-01-08, as presented in his blog post, make the concluding remarks in the arXiv paper hit a little different. “The best way to decipher anomalies is to gather additional data”, the researchers note. “Altogether, anomalous properties of interstellar objects like CNEOS-2014-01-08 and ‘Oumuamua, hold the potential for revising conventional wisdom on our cosmic neighborhood.”

Or even our cosmic neighbors…

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