ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.
A team of scientists has proposed that small spherical particles hauled from the Pacific Ocean seafloor are “likely extrasolar” in origin, meaning that they might come from another star system, according to a preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The discovery of interstellar material here on Earth would be an unprecedented scientific achievement that would allow us to actually touch the sprinkles of another star system—and, more importantly, to study them in sophisticated laboratories. But while the results of the preprint are tantalizing, it will take much more experimentation, analysis, and discussion before any consensus about their origin will emerge in the broader scientific community.
The new preprint was led by Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard University, who is well-known for his view that some interstellar objects that pass through the solar system might be alien artifacts. Loeb told Motherboard that he thinks tiny “spherules” recovered from the Pacific seafloor during a recent weeks-long expedition are the remains of an interstellar meteor, and could also potentially be alien technology, distinguishing the find as a “historic” breakthrough.
“It’s the first time that scientists have analyzed materials from a half-a-meter object that came from outside the solar system,” Loeb said. “It’s different to get material in your hands than looking at it through a telescope. We’re using microscopes instead of telescopes to tell what lies outside the solar system. That’s a completely new technique.”
However, many experts expressed profound skepticism about the methods and conclusions of the new preprint, including its interpretation of the spherules as likely extrasolar in origin and the suggestion that they could be remnants of alien technology.
“It’s clear that [Loeb] is just searching for non-natural explanations when natural explanations exist for lots of things,” said Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, in a call with Motherboard.
Regardless of their origin, the spherules described in the preprint have a bizarre backstory that involves global fireball databases, secret government information, and an ocean expedition funded by a blockchain entrepreneur.
It all started a few years ago when Loeb and Amir Siraj, who is now a PhD student in astrophysics at Princeton University, proposed that a meteor that blew up in the skies near Papua New Guinea on January 8, 2014 came from interstellar space. Interstellar Meteor 1 (IM1), as the object is known, was a few feet wide and struck Earth at a very high speed that seemed inconsistent with a solar system object.
The U.S. Space Command eventually confirmed that IM1 was interstellar using classified sensor data, though many scientists still have their doubts about this exotic origin, including Desch. Siraj and Loeb have since identified another potential interstellar meteor, called IM2, that burst into a fireball hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal on March 9, 2017.
Inspired by these findings, Loeb organized an expedition to search for any fragments of IM1 that might have settled on the seafloor north of Papua New Guinea. The trip, which took place from June 14 to 28, recovered hundreds of spherules. Loeb and his colleagues, including Harvard geochemist Stein Jacobsen, have been studying the composition of these fragments, many of which are microscopic, in multiple laboratories over the summer.
In the new preprint, the team reports that five of the spherules have unusually high abundances of the elements beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium, a composition that the researchers said has never been seen in the solar system, hinting at an interstellar origin.
The team suggested that the beryllium concentrations could have been boosted by IM1’s interactions with the interstellar medium, while its lanthanum and uranium content could potentially be explained if it came from an exoplanet with a magma ocean and iron core. Loeb and his colleagues also wrote that “this unfamiliar abundance pattern may reflect an extraterrestrial technological origin” and noted that “these interpretations will be considered critically along with additional results from spherule analysis in future publications” in the preprint.
“The impact would be enormous if this were confirmed as interstellar because it’s marrying geology and astrophysics in a way that hasn’t been done on this scale before,” said Siraj in a call with Motherboard. “It would also represent a huge leap forward in the field of exoplanetary science because we could actually study a piece of an exoplanet in our hands and that would be of enormous scientific interest across many fields.”
But while he thinks that the strange composition raises “extremely exciting questions,” Siraj cautioned that the results are preliminary and that it will take much more time, energy, and resources to shed light on the source of the spherules described in the study.
“It is a very interesting initial result, but it’s definitely not confirmed,” he noted. “I’m looking forward to the feedback from the community, because there is just not a lot known about these kinds of materials in general, even from the solar system.”
Loeb’s views about extraterrestrials and his prominent public presence have made many scientists exhibit caution regarding his claims. Motherboard reached out to half a dozen other experts in cosmochemistry and meteoritics, but most declined to share thoughts on the preprint, including a researcher who expressed reluctance to comment before the research has gone through peer review.
Desch said that the preprint was a “fine start” in terms of its compositional analysis, but noted that similar compositions have been found in solar system objects, casting doubt on the extrasolar interpretation. He also expressed concerns about the absence of a control sample of spherules collected from a faraway location, the assumption that IM1 was actually interstellar in the first place, and Loeb’s decision to release the results as a preprint.
“There’s absolutely no reason to have rushed this out,” Desch said. “If your goal was to get the data out, just put out the data. But instead, it comes with all of these unsubstantiated and speculative interpretations which don’t withstand any scrutiny. So fine—put the data up there and ask everyone: ‘What do you think this is?’ But that’s not what they did. They say this looks extrasolar. Then he hints at other things, and ends with ‘maybe it’s alien technology.’ Come on.”
Loeb said the team is submitting the research to a journal so that it can proceed with the peer-review process, but that he decided to release the early results in order to expeditiously inform the public and his peers in the scientific community.
“When you are going to peer review, you have one or two referees—it’s a small numbers statistic and it really is very sensitive to the individual,” Loeb said, noting that he’s seen plenty of papers accepted for publication that had mistakes in them. “If you allow the community at large to look at it, if they don’t put blinders on and they just look at it, what’s the big deal?”
“It’s really doing the science that is critical,” he continued. “Here is the paper; that’s the outcome. After describing the expedition, we ended up writing a paper and submitting it for peer review. We are going through the scientific process, but at the same time we are communicating with the public. I see that as a great benefit.”
To that end, Loeb said he welcomes any input from scientists and is open to requests to study the spherules from other laboratories. His team also plans to move forward with more precise studies of the spherules’ isotopes, which are subtle variations of elements, as this approach might yield clearer insights about their parent source. Loeb also hopes to eventually put together another expedition to hunt for larger remnants of IM1, if they exist.
“We want to see if there are bigger pieces because then we can tell the difference between a rock or a natural object, and a technological object,” he said.
Whether or not the spherules really do come from another star system—let alone if they are remnants of alien gadgets—the team’s earnest effort has stoked public curiosity and raised questions about the best methods in the ongoing hunt to find interstellar treasure.
“This is a highly sought-after thing; many people have been looking for decades for evidence of interstellar meteors,” said Desch. “They’ve been looking, but they just haven’t found any substantial evidence and I don’t think there’s substantial evidence that this meteor was interstellar either.”
“If it’s confirmed as not interstellar, and consistent with a solar system origin, I would say that this was still an extremely valuable mission and set of analyses,” Siraj concluded. “It’s the first time a mission like this has been undertaken, and irrespective of what the isotopes end up telling us, this does represent a new class of material to the best of our knowledge.”