Experts cast doubt on interstellar fragment discovery

Is it too good to be true?
Loukia Papadopoulos
An artist's conception of 'Oumuamua, first known interstellar object to visit our solar system.jpg
An artist's conception of 'Oumuamua, first known interstellar object to visit our solar system.


Last week, Avi Loeb, a professor of astrophysics at Harvard University, claimed that he had found in the sea fragments of a meteorite that came from beyond our solar system. 

This discovery was exceptional, as it is highly uncommon for interstellar objects to enter our solar system. The majority of the celestial objects that we can see originated from inside the solar system billions of years ago.

The interstellar object known as 'Oumuamua, which was found in 2017, was the first one to be known to pass past our solar system. It was a long, cigar-shaped object that didn't exhibit any cometary activity (such as a tail or coma that could be seen). Its origin and nature are still up for debate in science.

Investigating 'Oumuamua

It was this object that Loeb and his team were first investigating, looking for similar fireballs, when he stumbled on evidence that another meteorite had hit earth in 2014. The meteorite, known as IM1, was too small to be seen by telescopes, but US sensors were able to measure its impact.

Then, in 2022, the US Space Command made a discovery that IM1's origins weren't from our solar system, which served as the final confirmation for the team's study. Seven months later, Loeb's crew set out to search 100 miles of the Pacific Ocean floor off the Manus Island coast for meteorite fragments.

Last week, they announced that they had found them. However, scientists around the world are not so sure the debris is indeed alien in nature.

This is according to a report by Nature published on Thursday.

Experts told the science news outlet that it is impossible to show that the object that caused the 2014 earth-atmosphere collision was interstellar since very little meteorite would have survived the force of re-entry into our planet.

According to Mária Hajduková, an astronomer at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, the 2014 flash's measurements of the oncoming fireball were not exact enough to confirm the meteorite's intergalactic origin.

Meanwhile, Larry Nittler, a cosmochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe, told Nature that even the fact that the newly-discovered spheres are unusually rich in the elements beryllium, lanthanum and uranium, is not a “smoking gun” indicating an interstellar origin.

Analyzing the oxygen isotopes in the spheres would be a superior approach to confirming an alien source, said Nittler. These particles differ significantly in objects from other planetary systems.

Loeb responded by telling Nature that an evaluation of oxygen isotopes is on the way. But is this enough?

Not impossible

The huge distances required to travel to earth from outside our solar system make the likelihood of an interstellar object striking our planet extremely low. However, it should be noted that it is not impossible.

Scientists are constantly scanning the skies for Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), including those from interstellar space, in order to determine whether a collision with one might be imminent. Is it too much to assume that they may have finally found something?

Time and further research will tell whether Loeb’s discovery is the real thing or just empty promises. In the meantime, it might serve us to put aside our scepticism and hope that we may finally have a source to better understand objects beyond our solar system.

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