Astronomers debate if meteor has 'interstellar origins'

Rival scientists spark row over ‘interstellar meteorite’ that Harvard physicist announced to world after recovering it from bottom of the Pacific Ocean – and say they’re ‘very sceptical’ that the object came from outside solar system

  • Analysis of fragments found in Pacific Ocean suggests they have an interstellar origin, Harvard physicist says
  • Rocky particles called ‘spherules’ were created when a meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere in January 2014

A huge row has erupted among the scientific community over sensational claims that ‘alien’ material from outside our solar system has been found on Earth for the first time ever.

Controversial Harvard physicist Professor Avi Loeb said analysis of fragments recovered from the Pacific Ocean in June may have an ‘extraterrestrial’ origin and could be proof of higher intelligence.

He claims the tiny metallic spheres have a composition of elements from ‘outside the solar system, never seen before’ that do not match any natural or man-made alloys, suggesting they came from interstellar space.

However, some of his peers are not so sure.

Dr Matthew Genge, of Imperial College London, told MailOnline he was ‘very skeptical’ about the alleged discovery.

Small round fragments (known as spherules, pictured) recovered from the waters have a composition of elements from ‘outside the solar system, never seen before’, Professor Avi Loeb said

Harvard physicist Avi Loeb announced Tuesday that the hundreds of tiny metal fragments recovered from the Pacific Ocean originated outside our solar system 

READ MORE First ‘alien’ object recovered on Earth by Harvard team

The remnants came from an object that crashed into the Pacific in 2014

‘The seafloor is littered with spherules, some natural and some artificial, from satellite debris, rocket exhaust, windblown material from industry, or even nuclear tests. You can find all sorts of odd particles in the deep,’ he added.

‘There are tens of thousands of different alloys and I’d suspect they haven’t compared them all, particularly when some, for example in military hardware, are classified.

‘Furthermore, these are spherules, thus formed by melting and mixing of materials, making new, odd compositions.’

However, Dr Genge did caution that it was not possible to ‘entirely dismiss’ the findings because Professor Loeb’s results have not been published in their entirety.

‘I would be delighted if this was all evidence of aliens, it would be one of the most profound discoveries in human history,’ he said.

‘[But] the team has to convince me with conclusive evidence published in a reputable journal.

‘I hope I am wrong and ET was here…I await the convincing evidence.’  

Dr Peter Brown, an astronomer at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, also poured water on Professor Loeb’s claims that the remnants came from a meteor-like object that crashed off the coast of Papua New Guinea in 2014.

He doesn’t believe that fragments from the meteorite, which was estimated to be travelling at over 100,000 mph (160,000 km/h) when it hit Earth, could have survived the impact.

‘There has never been a meteorite recovered from any object that hits the atmosphere moving at more than 28 kilometers a second [62,600 mph],’ Dr Brown told

‘Any solids that would remain would be essentially aerosol-size.’ 

He also called into question the claim that the meteor originated from outside the solar system — suggesting this conclusion had been drawn from the speed at which Interstellar Meteor 1 (IM1) smashed into our atmosphere. 

‘Particularly at higher speeds, the U.S. government sensors tend to overestimate speeds,’ Dr Brown said.

If its speed was lower than calculated, this would also explain why the space rock’s brightness profile did not match what would be expected for a metallic meteor moving at over 100,000 mph (160,000 km/h). 

This doesn’t mean the meteorite wasn’t from interstellar space, just that it isn’t that clear cut.

On top of this, Dr Brown also previously told Live Science that spherules are all over the ocean floor – and that they can’t necessarily pinpointed to a specific meteor impact. 

According to NASA, the meteor lit up skies near Manus Island, Papua New Guinea on January 8, 2014 whilst travelling at more than 100,000 miles per hour. It may have showered the ocean with interstellar debris, according to scientists 

‘It’s been known for a century that if you take a magnetic rake and run it over the ocean floor, you will pull up extraterrestrial spherules,’ he said. 

‘It essentially would be impossible to say that this particular spherule comes from a particular event.’

Not everybody is dismissing Professor Loeb’s claims, however.

Humberto Campins, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida, agreed with the preliminary findings from the research.

READ MORE 2014 meteor ‘was indeed an interstellar object’ US Space Command says 

According to NASA, the meteor soared through skies near Papua New Guinea at more than 100,000 miles per hour and impacted near Manus Island on January 8, 2014 (concept image)

‘I think this was a meteorite that came from outside the solar system,’ he told Cosmos.

‘It’s enough to be excited about. My hat’s off to these people.’

On the suggestion that the remnants could have been fragments of an alien craft, Professor Michael Garrett, of the University of Manchester, said: ‘I really admire Avi’s enthusiasm in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence but I’d be surprised if this recent effort is going to produce conclusive evidence that extraterrestrial spacecraft re-entering or crashing on Earth are responsible for these spheroids.

‘I think its unlikely any extraterrestrial spacecraft have crashed here or indeed elsewhere in the solar system. 

‘I think it’s more likely these spheroids have a more natural explanation which is what scientists in the field are saying.’ 

The discovery has been detailed in a pre-print paper, meaning it is yet to be peer reviewed, but some members of the scientific community are refusing to engage with Professor Loeb’s work. 

‘People are sick of hearing about Avi Loeb’s wild claims,’ Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, told the New York Times.

‘It’s polluting good science – conflating the good science we do with this ridiculous sensationalism and sucking all the oxygen out of the room.’ 

Astrophysicist Steven Tingay, of Curtin University, told MailOnline: ‘Generally scientists would go through that peer review process first, before making massive claims. 

‘Avi does things differently and that clearly annoys a lot of people. 

‘It is interesting that both Avi and his opponents each claim that the other is ignoring proper scientific process. 

‘My view is that Avi’s approach is not inherently terrible, because at the end of the day all the evidence has to be presented, tested, independently reviewed and, at some point, the scientific community will come to a majority view on the claims. 

‘That’s how science works. The loud minority can still exist, if it wants to, at that point.’

Dr Genge at Imperial added: ‘I suspect we will never see this published in a reputable journal. There are many pay for publication journals that don’t have a proper review process.’ 

The origins of the whole saga date back nearly a decade ago when a meteor – also known as a shooting star – slammed into Earth’s atmosphere. 

According to NASA, the meteor, known as IM1, lit up skies near Manus Island, Papua New Guinea on January 8, 2014 whilst travelling at more than 100,000 miles per hour.

Scientists thought at the time it may have left interstellar debris in the South Pacific Ocean, which, if recovered, would reveal more about the rocky object’s origin. 

In an official memo last year, it confirmed by US Space Command as the first known interstellar object, with ‘99.999 per cent confidence’, based on velocity measurements by US government satellites. 

The memo referred to a 2019 study by Professor Loeb and colleagues that acknowledged the meteor’s existence and argued it had come from outside our solar system. 

A memo from March 2022 signs off findings from US Space Command chief scientist Dr Joel Mozer. It agrees the object is of an interstellar origin – with ‘99.999 per cent confidence’

Throughout their two-week Pacific voyage, the Galileo team scoured the seabed for signs of IM1 debris, dragging a deep-sea magnetic sled along the fireball’s last known trajectory. Pictured is Loeb (right) 

Determined to find the debris, Professor Loeb recruited a team – and the help of expeditions company EYOS – to venture out into the Pacific to find the meteor in June. 

The mission – funded by cryptocurrency entrepreneur Charles Hoskinson to the tune of $1.5 million – involved dragging a deep-sea magnetic sled along the fireball’s last known trajectory and completing 26 runs of the sea floor. 

To their delight, they found about 700 tiny metallic spheres during the expedition, and the 57 that have been analysed as yet contain compositions that do not match any natural or man-made alloys. 

The sperules represent ‘a new class’ because they’re unusually rich in three elements – beryllium, lanthanum and uranium.

While the elements are found on Earth, Professor Loeb explained the patterns do not match the alloys found on our planet, moon, Mars or other natural meteorites in the solar system.

The lanthanum and uranium were 500 times more plentiful than in earthly rocks and beryllium hundreds of times so.

The latter is significant because beryllium, which is the second-lightest solid material on the periodic table, is produced by a violent reaction called spallation which involves high-energy cosmic rays. 

‘That is a flag of interstellar travel,’ Professor Loeb says, because it cannot occur at such a high level in our solar system as the solar wind protects us from the bulk of the radiation that causes it.

He added that the discovery ‘opens a new frontier in astronomy, where what lay outside the solar system is studied through a microscope rather than a telescope’. 

The findings do not yet answer whether the spheres are artificial or natural in origin – but this is the next question Professor Loeb aims to answer. 

Interstellar objects are exciting to astronomers because they may provide an insight into other solar systems that we cannot reach. 

Only three such objects have been observed, including the first (IM1 in 2014), the second, ‘Oumuamua, discovered in October 2017, and the third, Comet Borisov, discovered in August 2019.

Originally classified as a comet, ‘Oumuamua was later reclassified as an asteroid as it lacked a coma (the cloud of gases that surrounds the nucleus of a comet).

Professor Loeb got himself a reputation for adventurous theories when he suggested Oumuamua could have been artificially constructed by aliens.  

2I/Borisov, meanwhile, is one of the most ‘pristine comets’ ever observed, scientists announced in 2021, meaning it has not been altered or degraded by heat and radiation from stars like our sun.  


A cigar-shaped object named ‘Oumuamua sailed past Earth at 97,200mph (156,428km/h) in October 2017. 

It was first spotted by a telescope in Hawaii on October 19, and was observed 34 separate times in the following week. 

It is named after the Hawaiian term for ‘scout’ or ‘messenger’ and passed the Earth at about 85 times the distance to the moon.

It was hailed as the first interstellar object seen in the solar system, but it baffled astronomers.

Initially, it was thought the object could be a comet. 

However, it displays none of the classic behavior expected of comets, such as a dusty, water-ice particle tail.

The asteroid is up to one-quarter mile (400 meters) long and highly-elongated – perhaps 10 times as long as it is wide.

That aspect ratio is greater than that of any asteroid or asteroid observed in our solar system to date.

But the asteroid’s slightly red hue — specifically pale pink — and varying brightness are remarkably similar to objects in our own solar system.

Around the size of the Gherkin skyscraper in London, some astronomers were convinced it was piloted by aliens due to the vast distance the object traveled without being destroyed – and the closeness of its journey past the Earth. 

Alien hunters at SETI – the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence based at Berkeley University, California said there was a possibility the rock was ‘an alien artefact’.

But scientists from Queen’s University Belfast took a good look at the object and said it appears to be an asteroid, or ‘planetesimal’ as originally thought. 

Researchers believe the cigar-shaped asteroid had a ‘violent past’, after looking at the light bouncing off its surface. 

They aren’t exactly sure when the violent collision took place, but they believe the lonely asteroid’s tumbling will continue for at least a billion years.

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