It is a safe bet that no one outside of Harvard or a few astronomy circles knew of astrophysicist Abraham "Avi" Loeb before a cigar-shaped space rock passed by Earth on its way around the Sun and some astronomers identified it as an interstellar object – the first known to have traveled through our Solar System. As more information came in from astronomers who watched the interstellar object – now named ʻOumuamua, the Hawaiian name for ‘scout’ – theories were debated as to whether it was a meteor, a comet, or a not yet identified new kind of space object. That is where Avi Loeb stepped into the limelight with his proposal, supported by a few other astronomers, that ʻOumuamua was some sort of spacecraft, possibly powered by a light sail.
With attention now focused on him, Loeb began looking for other interstellar objects to support his argument. Earlier this year, he claimed that meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08, which crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2014, is another interstellar object or possible spacecraft and he planned to mount an expedition to find it. While the media attention was still high on that one, Loeb came up with another stunning announcement this week – he claims that a meteor that burst into a fireball off the coast of Portugal in 2017 is an “additional interstellar object candidate” and he wants to look for that one too. Is Avi Loeb just seeking attention or is he on his way to becoming the first scientist to prove the existence of extraterrestrial spacecrafts visiting Earth?
“We don't say, necessarily, that it is artificial, (but) obviously, there is a possibility that a spacecraft was designed to sustain such harsh conditions as passing through the Earth's atmosphere, so we should allow for that.”
In an interview with Vice, Avi Loeb is allowing for the idea that he and Amir Siraj, a student in astrophysics at Harvard University, have discovered a fast-moving meteor that crashed into the ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal on March 9, 2017, which they not only think is an “interstellar object candidate” but that it could be something more than a space rock because it had a material strength so high, only two others were stronger – and one of them was the object Loeb wants to recover from the Pacific. That object, called CNEOS 2014-01-08 is so unusual that Loeb said in an interview with Salon he believes it is something more than a space rock.
“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. I would love to press a button on such an object.”
Loeb already has the seal of approval from the U.S. Space Command which confirmed in 2022 that CNEOS 2014-01-08 is indeed an interstellar meteor from outside our solar system. That made two when you add ʻOumuamua, and Loeb seems confident that what he’s calling IM2 (interstellar meteor 2) for now will be added to the list. While he waits for a response from the U.S. Space Command, he described the discovery in a study posted to the preprint server arXiv that is not peer-reviewed.
“Here, we describe an additional interstellar object candidate in the CNEOS fireball catalog, and compare the implied material strength of the two objects, referred to here as IM1 and IM2, respectively. IM1 and IM2 are ranked 1 and 3 in terms of material strength out of all 273 fireballs in the CNEOS catalog.”
In an article in The Debrief, Loeb explains that the odds that IM2 and IM1 (CNEOS 2014-01-08) both being interstellar in origin are extremely high -- at the 99.99% confidence level – because of their material strength which allowed them to trave at extremely high speeds and survive intact until reaching extremely low altitudes in Earth’s atmosphere before breaking up and crashing into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively. Because of this, Loeb sounds confident that they are something unusual.
“This tantalizing conclusion about the extremely rare material strength of IM1 and IM2, implies that interstellar meteors are not rocks from planetary systems like the Solar systems.”
One possibility he proposes is that they are “iron-rich bullets” fired into space by an exploding supernova – a phenomena which has been proven to happen as a result of something called “bow shocks.” Another is that IM1 and IM2 are some sort of spacecrafts, possibly powered by some sort of light sail. This was the theory proposed by Loeb about ‘Oumuamua, which at a quarter of a mile in length was significantly larger than the yards-across IM1 and IM2. ‘Oumuamua was also cigar-shaped and tumbling end-over-end rather than penetrating space like an arrow or bullet, which caused other astronomers to cast doubt on it being a sail-powered artificial craft … or even being a light sail itself. Also, there was no evidence of a flat light sail – the kind human science has developed. Loeb countered with the argument that light sails need not be flat and could be of a shape and reflective material not yet know to human science.
Finally, Loeb proposed that 'Oumuamua may have been “just a surface layer torn apart from a bigger object" – with the bigger object being an even larger spacecraft. That seems to be the idea he has about IM1 and IM2, which is why he wants to mount underwater searches for pieces of both. That will be harder than finding the proverbial needle in a deep-sea haystack -- IM1 exploded near Papua New Guinea after impacting at 130,000 miles per hour – an incredible speed for a meteor … especially one only 0.45 m (1.5 ft) in diameter. IM2 was about 13 times more massive than IM1 and hit the atmosphere at about 112,000 miles per hour before exploding hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal. Loeb and Siraj are said to be raising funds to mount searches for fragments of both interstellar meteors while they continue to publish papers (a new one on IM1 is forthcoming in The Astrophysical Journal) and give interviews stating their cases on artificial possibilities of interstellar objects. To those who question the science of Loeb’s theories, he has this to say in Vice:
“There are a lot of puzzles here that imply that we will learn something new, no matter what. I think in a way it is a celebration of science—we need more evidence and the evidence will guide us.”
Whether you think Avi Loeb is right or wrong about the interstellar objects, he’s certainly right about one thing – we should definitely celebrate science.