Every time we hear about finding cosmic objects within or even outside our solar system, our mind automatically goes to telescopes pointing away from our home planet and towards the endless sky. But now, scientists are set to launch an unprecedented search — one that involves using tools like magnets to look for an interstellar cosmic object right here on Earth, in one of our oceans!
Background on this interstellar visitor
This object in question crashed into the southwest Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Papua New Guinea, back in 2014. Data collected at the time suggested it probably was an interstellar object — if confirmed, it would be only the third such known object (after ‘Oumuamua and Borisov) to have entered our solar system from the outside, and the first known object to exist here on Earth.
Dubbed CNEOS 2014-01-08, the potentially interstellar origins of this meteor were first recognised by Harvard professor Avi Loeb and then graduate student Amir Siraj. They reached this conclusion by looking at the half-meter-wide object’s trajectory — its unusually high heliocentric velocity indicated that it wasn’t bound to our Sun’s gravity.
However, the scientific community refused to officially classify CNEOS 2014-01-08 as an interstellar object due to lack of data. This was because the data used to measure the meteor’s impact on Earth was collected by a U.S. Department of Defense spy satellite designed to monitor Earthly military activities. And with the U.S. military refusing to make their spy satellite’s capabilities public knowledge, the exact error values of the measurement became a strongly guarded secret.
But in April 2022, U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command’s Chief Scientist, Joel Mozer, reviewed the classified data in question and confirmed that the velocity estimate reported to NASA was “sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory”.
While the official confirmation hasn’t led to any progress with the object’s scientific classification, it did convince Siraj and Loeb of its interstellar origin, and the duo has already started working on possible ways to find the meteor and study it up close.
An interstellar needle in an oceanic haystack
It is highly likely that most of the meteor burned up upon its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving just leftover fragments scattered on the ocean floor. But these fragments most likely possess magnetic properties, thereby providing a much-needed boost in this pursuit.
Siraj and Loeb, having teamed up with an ocean technology consulting company, plan on attaching a large magnet to a ship in order to scoop up the minuscule meteor fragments from the ocean floor.
While searching for these remains in the vast ocean seems like a gargantuan task, tracking data from the spy satellite, combined with wind and ocean current data, could end up providing a reasonable search area of just 10×10 km!
This forage will undoubtedly be difficult; but if successfully, it could give us the opportunity to actually put our hands on an interstellar meteor, understand the composition of matter beyond our solar system, and add valuable data to this field.
The paper outlining the ocean expedition was recently published in arXiv and can be accessed here.
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