Studying small solar system bodies such as comets and asteroids gives us valuable information about our stellar neighborhood, helping us improve our models of the planetary systems’ formation and evolution. Of course, studying such objects can also allow us to uncover strange visitors.
Case in point, recently, a 22-year-old identified the first interstellar object ever discovered. Amir Siraj is a young astrophysicist who has just obtained his degree, and with his professor, the renowned and controversial astrophysicist Abi Loeb, they are working on cataloging this type of interstellar body.
The science and other stuff to know
In January 2014, a meteorite hit the coast of Papua New Guinea. The impact did not cause much of a stir. Although we don’t realize it, 48.5 tons (44 tonnes or 44,000 kilograms) of material falls on the Earth each day. This dust arrives in the form of small rocks, fireballs, and shooting stars. But all of that material comes from within the solar system. It is in orbit with our Sun, and due to the gravitational disturbances it suffers, thanks to the influence of larger bodies, it ends up colliding with our planet.
However, the case of CNEOS 2014-01-08, the object that fell in 2014, is different.
Siraj and Loeb calculated the space rock’s trajectory before impact, and they found that its speed was too high to come from our Solar System. They immediately realized that this was an interstellar object that had arrived on Earth from the far reaches of space.
“People have been looking for these things since the 1950s. Every rock that we know has hit Earth comes from our solar system,” Siraj told Astronomy magazine after publishing their study in The Astrophysical Journal.
Although the pair of experts has been working on the origin of this meteorite for three years, the finding was not published immediately. Instead, the duo waited for confirmation until April 2022, after the Space Force of the United States declassified a document where they ratified the orbital calculations that ensure that CNEOS 2014-01-08 is an interstellar visitor.
5/ From the @AsteroidWatch tabletop exercise earlier this year, we learned that as long as the simulated asteroid was in the space domain, #USSPACECOM was the supported combatant command within the @DeptofDefense.
— U.S. Space Command (@US_SpaceCom) April 6, 2022
As Loeb notes, the meteorite was the “first interstellar object ever discovered.” Unfortunately, we can’t analyze it…because it’s at the bottom of the ocean. Both Siraj and Loeb believe that concrete efforts should be made to recover a piece of the meteorite from the ocean floor. Experts are already arranging meetings with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to carry out an expedition to the coast of Papua New Guinea, where the impact took place.
Knowing in depth the structure of the meteor will provide new information and help to strengthen the models of stellar dynamics. The meteorite’s composition could account for the region of the sky from which it originates and the processes it has undergone. This finding also contributes to the early identification of similar objects and establishes more precise parameters for size calibration and quantification in the population of interstellar objects.
Their study concludes by emphasizing that future research will help clarify the parameters and identify objects of this type more effectively. However, the scope of research in interstellar dynamics goes much further. In their article, the authors state that “[interstellar] meteors could generate life from another planetary system and mediate panspermia.” In other words, this type of body could be transporting living organisms from one-star system to another.
Siraj will take a year to finish his musical studies because, in addition to being a promising scientist, he is also a piano player, and he assures that at the end of his artistic career, he will resume research in the interstellar objects field.