It's official: A fireball that exploded over Earth in 2014 is our first interstellar visitor

Recently declassified data sheds light on our first detected interstellar visitor.
Christopher McFadden
A meteor in route collision.RomoloTavani/iStock

Recently declassified data has shown that an interstellar object spectacularly exploded over Earth in 2014. The fireball from the event was witnessed over the skies of Papua New Guinea but further analysis of the event couldn't be completed until the data was opened up for wider study.

The object. officially called CNEOS 2014-01-08, was a small meteorite roughly 1.5 feet (0.45 meters) across that slammed into our planet's atmosphere on the 8th of January, 2014. Analysis of the recently declassified data shows that it was traveling at around 30,000 mph (210,000 km/h) which is far in excess of most meteorites found in our solar system. 

A 2019 study on the meteorite argued that the object's excessive velocity, along with its trajectory, conclusively shows that it must have originated far beyond our solar system.  It may even have come "from the deep interior of a planetary system or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way galaxy," the study authors wrote.

A bold claim

The team's paper has waited over three years to be verified through peer review. The delay was due to the classified nature of some of the data they used to reach their conclusions. 

With the data now free to be examined by third parties, United States Space Command (USSC) scientists have officially confirmed the team's findings. A memo on the subject shared on Twitter shared on the 6th of April by Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw, deputy commander of the USSC, explained that the 2019 analysis of the fireball was "sufficiently accurate to confirm an interstellar trajectory."

Lead author of the 2019 study and a theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard University, Amir Siraj told Vice that he still intends to get the original study published so that the scientific community can pick up where he and his colleagues left off. Since the meteorite exploded over the South Pacific Ocean it is also possible that some shards of it survived entry and could, in theory, be recovered.

However, actually locating these fragments in such a large body of ocean is likely going to be next to impossible to actually pull off. 

"The possibility of getting the first piece of interstellar material is exciting enough to check this very thoroughly and talk to all the world experts on ocean expeditions to recover meteorites," Siraj told Vice.

This is all very interesting in and of itself, but it gets better. The confirmation of the 2019 study's findings now makes the 2014 meteorite the first interstellar object ever detected in our solar system, the memo added. It predates the more widely known Oumuamua, the now-infamous, cigar-shaped object that is also moving far too fast to have originated in our solar system, by three years, according to the USSC memo. 

The 2014 meteorite is very small indeed, but it does also highlight the fact that our solar system is possibly teeming with material from other solar systems. Perhaps even other galaxies. 

“Given how infrequent interstellar meteors are, extra-galactic meteors are going to be even rarer,” Siraj cautioned Vice. ”But the fact of the matter is, going forward, we won't find anything unless we look for it. We might as well take it upon ourselves as scientists to build a network as extensive as the U.S government's sensor network, and use it for the purposes of science and fully use the atmosphere, he added. 

“The atmosphere is already a sensor for these things,” he concluded. “We're just not paying attention to the signals. So we might as well use the whole atmosphere and see what comes our way.”

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