In 2019, a cigar-shaped object known as 'Oumuamua was spotted zipping through the inner solar system and, peculiarly, speeding up while making its exit, seemingly in defiance of the physics of a quotidian asteroid. There are plenty of mundane hypotheses about why 'Oumuamua sped up — outgassing, or the expulsion of previously trapped gas, is among the most popular. Yet Harvard astronomy professor Dr. Avi Loeb has penned numerous papers and a book arguing that it could have been caused by a light sail spacecraft — one driven by a form of interstellar propulsion — created by an alien civilization.
Now, Loeb has a new provocative hypothesis, one that relates to a mysterious meteoroid that became known to Earth-dwellers several years before 'Oumuamua. Given a decisively less memorable name, CNEOS 2014-01-08, it is believed to have been only two feet long when it crashed into Earth at over 100,000 mph in 2014, after which it exploded into tiny fragments that landed in the South Pacific Ocean. Astronomers believe it may very well be the first human-observed interstellar object of its size to strike Earth — and, for that reason, CNEOS 2014-01-08 has piqued the attention of the astronomy community.
Loeb is also going the extra mile: he is leading a $1.5 million expedition to retrieve pieces of CNEOS 2014-01-08. As a scientist, Loeb is keeping an open mind to all possibilities — including that CNEOS 2014-01-08 could contain extraterrestrial technology.
"The first interstellar meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08 is a rare outlier for two reasons," Loeb told Salon in writing when asked about the alien technology hypothesis. The first reason relates to its impressive speed: "By tracing its trajectory back in time, we know that [CNEOS 2014-01-08] was moving faster than 60 kilometers per second outside the solar system. This is faster than ninety-five percent of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun."
Loeb added that, in addition to this, "from the light curve of the fireball [CNEOS 2014-01-08] created in the lower atmosphere of the Earth, we calculated that it had material strength tougher than all other 272 objects" in the catalogue kept by NASA to keep tabs on near-earth objects. "Its material strength was twice tougher than an iron meteorite."
Siegel argued that there are more credible hypotheses, such as that "this is an object that came from our solar system that, with a poorly measured impact velocity, simply came from our solar system like everything else that hits Earth from space."
These odd traits set CNEOS 2014-01-08 apart from its more quotidian meteoroid kin, which typically originate in our own solar system. Indeed, much debris still remains from the violent early days of our solar system, when it formed out of the gaseous remnant of the protoplanetary nebula that preceded our solar system. The asteroid belt contains a particular dense (by space standards) agglomeration of some of the "leftover" stuff that never formed into planets; or, which was sloughed off of our solar system's existing planets in violent collisions, and remained floating in the void. Random meteoroids of this nature strike Earth constantly: scientists estimate between 10 million and 1 billion kilograms of meteorites hit Earth every year, most of them tiny micrometeorites. An interstellar meteorite, particularly a large one with odd properties, would be a novel find.
Loeb's hypothesis is not without its critics. Dr. Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist and science writer who has been critical of Loeb's work in the past, told Salon that he believes Loeb's hypothesis is a "travesty" that diminishes the work of other astronomers.
"The alien technology hypothesis is so far-fetched that there is no scientific reason to consider this as anything other than someone with no evidence crying wolf when there is no wolf that we have ever seen before," Siegel told Salon. "Saying that it is alien technology, to me, is an absolute travesty for the hundreds upon hundreds of legitimate solar system scientists who are doing excellent work studying what actually exists."
Siegel argued that there are more credible hypotheses, such as that "this is an object that came from our solar system that, with a poorly measured impact velocity, simply came from our solar system like everything else that hits Earth from space"; or, that "this is one of many, many, many interstellar objects that we know need to be out there that pass through our solar system, and this one happened to strike Earth and it, again, would be a naturally occurring small object."
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Dr. Steve Desch, an astrophysics professor at Arizona State University, suggested to Salon by email that regardless of what CNEOS 2014-01-08 is made of, very little material would survive the collision with Earth's atmosphere — perhaps mere "grams" of matter. Desch cited the work of Marc Fries, a NASA scientist, in determining this. Desch also argued that "all evidence points to this being an iron meteorite, part of a population of natural objects ejected by stellar systems."
"The ideal scenario is that in addition to tiny fragments, we would find a piece of an advanced technological device, like the hundredth version of the iPhone," Loeb told Salon.
Still, no one has definitively cracked the mystery of CNEOS 2014-01-08, and if nothing else, this is one mystery that Loeb seems determined to solve. The Harvard scientist explained to Salon that the upcoming expedition "will have a sled equipped with a magnet that will scoop the ocean floor in search of the fragments from the meteor explosions, about a hundred miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea." Loeb says that it will use machinery which has already been designed, and that he already has received donations of half a million dollars toward the project, with another million being necessary for the expedition to start.
"The ideal scenario is that in addition to tiny fragments, we would find a piece of an advanced technological device, like the hundredth version of the iPhone," Loeb told Salon. "I would love to press a button on such an object."