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CNEOS 2014-01-08: Sampling the Interstellar Meteor

How unusual that the study of an interstellar object should receive a boost from the United States Space Command, which is responsible for US military operations off-planet. But that’s part of the story of CNEOS 2014-01-08, which is described in its discovery paper as “a meteor of interstellar origin.” The 2019 finding came from Harvard’s Avi Loeb, working with then undergraduate student Amir Siraj. Loeb had been examining a catalog containing data on meteors over the last three decades in terms of the strength of their fireball, prompted by a 2018 fireball off the Kamchatka peninsula.

The Kamchatka meteor produced a blast with ten times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb, leading Loeb to put Siraj to work on calculating the past trajectories of the fastest meteors in the CNEOS catalog – CNEOS is NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. In an email yesterday morning, Loeb explained that numerous factors went into the study. Siraj was able to work with the position and velocity of the meteors at impact while factoring in the Earth’s gravity as well as that of the Sun and planets.

You would think that the fastest such objects would be those with interstellar implications, but it turns out that the fastest meteor in the catalog was not on a hyperbolic orbit, but had made a head-on collision with the Earth. But CNEOS 2014-01-08, which struck the Earth in 2014, impacting the ocean near the coast of Papua New Guinea, was another matter. The 2019 discovery paper (citation below) outlined the case for this object as interstellar in origin, unbound to the Sun.

A new paper is now available, submitted to the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation. Says Loeb:

In our 2019 discovery paper, Amir and I inferred CNEOS-2014–01–08 to be moving at nearly sixty kilometers per second outside the Solar system, twice faster than the characteristic speed of stars in the so-called “Local Standard of Rest” of the Milky Way. In our new paper we took account of the meteor slowdown in the atmosphere and found that its speed was initially larger than the value measured from the fireball deep in the atmosphere by twenty kilometers per second. If the meteor was natural in origin, then this high initial speed suggests gravitational ejection from a deep potential well, such as found in the interior of a planetary system, within the orbit of a Mercury-like planet around a Sun-like star. Alternatively, the meteor could have been a technological object propelled by artificial means.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the paper. Caption: Trajectory of the January 8, 2014 meteor (red), shown intersecting with that of Earth (blue) at the time of impact, ti = 2014-01-08 17:05:34. Credit: Siraj & Loeb.

We’re able to draw some conclusions about this interstellar meteor even from the relatively sparse data available. But first, a word about the data collection process. You can imagine how wide-ranging the network of sensors that tracks objects entering the Earth’s atmosphere for reasons of national security must be. I learned from Loeb’s email that Space Command and NASA had made an agreement in 2020 that would boost NASA’s asteroid tracking capabilities through the use of Pentagon resources. Thus NASA is able to take advantage of light curve data generated by this source.

For more on these interactions, see Amir Siraj’s Spy Satellites Confirmed Our Discovery of the First Meteor from Beyond the Solar System. Because confirming the nature of CNEOS-2014–01–08 required referencing classified datasets, a letter to NASA from US Space Command came into play, issued on April 6, 2022 and making note of the 2019 paper by Loeb and Siraj. The letter confirms the interstellar nature of this object.

Loeb points out that as the meteor detection occurred in January of 2014, it predates the discovery of ‘Oumuamua by almost four years. Thus CNEOS-2014–01–08 “should be recognized as the first massive interstellar object ever discovered.”

We can already make some statements, as the authors do in the new paper, about the composition of this object, because the US Department of Defense released, along with its confirmation letter, the light curve for CNEOS 2014-01-08, showing three flashes separated from each other by roughly a tenth of a second. The authors note that it is possible to use the measured direction of motion for the object to calculate the altitude of these flashes as well as the density of the air at the level they occurred.

The calculations are complex and I send you to the paper for the details. But here is a taste of the logic behind them as stated within:

When a supersonic meteor moves through air, it is subject to a friction force on its frontal surface area. The force per unit area equals the ambient mass-density of air times the square of the object’s speed. This ram pressure reflects the flux of momentum per unit area per unit time delivered to the object in slowing down its motion. The meteor disintegrates if the ram pressure exceeds the yield strength of the material it is made of, representing the maximum stress that can be applied to it before it begins to deform. The heat released by the friction with air melts the fragments and generates the flashes of light in the fireball.

Loeb and Siraj calculated the ram pressure exerted on CNEOS 2014-01-08 at the time the three flashes in the light curve occurred. Here I’ll again draw from Loeb’s email:

We translated the meteor light curve to a plot of the power released as a function of the ambient ram pressure. To our surprise, the disintegration of CNEOS-2014–01–08 occurred when the external ram pressure reached a value of 113 megapascals (MPa). This value is twenty times larger than the highest yield strength of stony meteorites and two times larger than that of the toughest iron meteorites. The first interstellar meteor could not have been a stony meteorite similar to most solar system asteroids.

Indeed, as Loeb points out, the required material strength for this object has to exceed that of iron meteorites to allow it to survive the ram pressure down to the 18.7 kilometer altitude where the brightest flare shows up in the data. About one in twenty of the objects impacting the Earth are iron meteorites – 90% to 95% iron, mixing with a remainder of nickel alloys and trace amounts of iridium, gallium and sometimes gold. Loeb’s email points out how useful a sample of this object would be:

We could confirm the interstellar origin of this meteor independent of its speed based on its composition being different from solar system objects. It could deliver exotic abundances of heavy elements, depending on the proximity of its birth place to a supernova or a merger event of two neutron stars.

Confirming this with actual samples from the object would be ideal, which is why Loeb is hoping to find the funding to put what he describes as “an experienced expedition team” and the needed equipment to reach the impact site off the coast of Papua New Guinea. He has already received half a million dollars toward this purpose but needs another million to proceed with the expedition. From the paper:

The best way to decipher anomalies is to gather additional data. We are currently planning an expedition to Papua New Guinea where we could retrieve the meteor’s fragments from the ocean floor. Studying these fragments in a laboratory would allow us to determine the isotope abundances in CNEOS-2014-01-08 and check whether they are different from those found in solar system meteors. Altogether, anomalous properties of interstellar objects like CNEOS-2014-01-08 and ‘Oumuamua, hold the potential for revising conventional wisdom on our cosmic neighborhood. The expedition to the ocean floor around Papua New Guinea will illustrate metaphorically how scientific evidence expands our island of knowledge into the ocean of ignorance that surrounds it.

The search area appears to be a relatively reasonable 10 kilometers by 10 kilometers, offering the potential for discovery of fragments on the ocean floor. The plan is ambitious but seems entirely workable. I’ll close with its description in the paper:

Our plan is to mobilize a ship with a magnetic sled deployed using a long line winch. We will be operating approximately ∼ 300 km north of Manus Island. The team will consist of seven sled operators, plus the scientific team… We will tow a sled mounted with magnets, cameras and lights on the ocean floor inside of a 10 km × 10 km search box. A number of sources have been used to narrow the search site to this relatively small search box. A sled, ∼ 2 m long, ∼ 1 m wide and ∼ 0.2 m centimeters tall weighing about ∼ 55 kg, will be towed along the seabed to sample for ferro-magnetic meteorite fragments from the CNEOS 2014-01-08.

It would never have occurred to me when I began publishing Centauri Dreams that one day we might be mounting a search in our own oceans looking for debris from an interstellar object. Readers with deep pockets take note.

The paper is Siraj & Loeb, “An Ocean Expedition by the Galileo Project to Retrieve Fragments of the First Large Interstellar Meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08,” submitted to the Journal of Astronomical Instrumentation (preprint). The discovery paper is Siraj & Loeb, “The 2019 Discovery of a Meteor of Interstellar Origin,” submitted to Astrophysical Journal Letters (preprint).

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{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Michael Fidler August 9, 2022, 9:31

    An Ocean Expedition by the Galileo Project to Retrieve Fragments of the First Large Interstellar Meteor CNEOS 2014-01-08
    Amir Siraj, Abraham Loeb, Tim Gallaudet

    The earliest confirmed interstellar object, `Oumuamua, was discovered in the Solar System by Pan-STARRS in 2017, allowing for a calibration of the abundance of interstellar objects of its size ∼100 m. This was followed by the discovery of Borisov, which allowed for a similar calibration of its size ∼0.4−1km. One would expect a much higher abundance of significantly smaller interstellar objects, with some of them colliding with Earth frequently enough to be noticeable. Based on the CNEOS catalog of bolide events, we identified in 2019 the meteor detected at 2014-01-08 17:05:34 UTC as originating from an unbound hyperbolic orbit with 99.999\% confidence. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense has since verified that “the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory,” making the object the first detected interstellar object and the first detected interstellar meteor. Here, we discuss the dynamical and compositional properties of CNEOS 2014-01-08, and describe our plan for an expedition to retrieve meteoritic fragments from the ocean floor.

    https://arxiv.org/abs/2208.00092

    Tim Gallaudet
    @GallaudetTim
    CEO, Ocean STL Consulting, LLC / Explorer’s Cub Fellow /
    Former Deputy / Acting NOAA Administrator (2017-2021)
    Former Oceanographer of the Navy (2014-2017)
    Aug 8
    Submitted my first scientific publication in nearly 20 years for Harvard University’s Galileo Project on our upcoming expedition to recover fragments from the first observed #interstellar object to arrive on Earth!

    https://twitter.com/GallaudetTim/status/1556351026244075522?s=20&t=inwqxX5lZtIpEGpo1heakw

  • Alex Tolley August 9, 2022, 10:50

    If they are correct that this is an interstellar object, then this would support the hypothesis that these objects are relatively common in the solar system and offer the opportunity of “sample return” from other star systems. While this object will no longer be as pristine as it was before impact and contamination in the ocean, it would be a valuable prize. It should strengthen the case for deploying rapid interceptor probes for such interlopers.

    This makes me wonder if there is not a lot more waiting to be found on the planet. Wouldn’t we expect a few in the Antarctic meteorite fields?
    Is it also possible that there are the odd interstellar grains amongst the interplanetary ones that fall on Earth and of which metallic ones are collected using magnets on flat rooftops?

    And a note about one advantage of global heating for retrieval of meteorites. A group of hyper-wealthy individuals is funding the search for a meteorite with valuable elements in Greenland, where the retreating glaciers are exposing the surface.
    Billionaires are funding a massive treasure hunt in Greenland as ice vanishes
    [The similarity to the movie “Don’t Look Up” is almost scary. Rylance’s Peter Isherwell is no longer quite the satirical parody he was portrayed]

    • David H August 11, 2022, 21:33

      I was also thinking about rapid interceptor probes. We should expect to see another interstellar pass near us pretty soon. It would be great if we could start designing and building an interceptor now, and then dust it off and launch it when we next observe an interstellar visitor.

  • andy August 9, 2022, 12:31

    Oh it’s Loeb and Siraj, who as far as I can tell are well on the way to becoming astronomy’s current poster children for science by press release. After the infamous ʻOumuamua claims, and some rather dubious stuff on the nature of the Chicxulub impactor (I recommend reading Desch et al.’s response to the latter), I’m not particularly inclined to listen to anything they have to say on the subject of asteroids/comets, interstellar or not, especially if the discovery paper has been sitting on the arXiv since 2019 without being published in a refereed journal. And the interstellar nature of CNEOS-201401-08 has been challenged, see Zuluaga (2019), or as summarised in Jennings et al. (2020):

    Caution is necessary in applying these results to the present context, both because the power-law distribution is being extrapolated well beyond the range of sizes for which it was derived, and because the velocity measurements required to establish a meteor as interstellar in origin are challenging. Hajduk (2001) gives a critique of the velocity measurement techniques used to establish the interstellar origin of radar meteors in the AMOR data set (Taylor et al. 1996; Baggaley 2000). Additionally, the velocity measurement used to establish the interstellar character of CNEOS 2014-01-08 relies on US government sensors, whose performance characteristics are not made public (Devillepoix et al. 2019; Zuluaga 2019).

    My reading of this is that there’s a pretty good chance that the only thing that’s hyperbolic here are the claims of Loeb & Siraj.

    • Alex Tolley August 9, 2022, 13:46

      This may be why Loeb is shifting the concept from aliens to exotic mineral treasures – it may be easier to find funding from greedheads. The wealthy probably care little about finding spaceships, but getting even wealthier is an easier sell, especially if it means the wealth is on Earth, more easily reachable rather than in deep space (all those asteroid mining companies have folded).

      [While Musk is building retro spaceships from the movies, Loeb seems to be following in the footsteps of those movie depictions of scientists venturing out into distant and unknown lands in search of some incredible treasure that will prove the truth of their widely disbelieved theory. ;) ]

      • Andrei August 11, 2022, 0:48

        They have indeed tried to get the paper published, but it have failed to get trough peer-review meaning it gotten rejected. And that’s why it’s been on arXiv – which is not scrutinized, and anything can be posted as long as the fee is paid.
        And @andy Indeed, the idea that the Chicxulub event instead would have been a comet do not fit with already known facts. So their alternative proposed scenario make no sense. An the whole matter with these two researchers increasingly appear to be a case of either attention seeking and/or wishful thinking.
        shorturl.at/irTUV

    • Adam Crowl August 11, 2022, 16:39

      Hi andy

      As Space Command has now verified the data formally [as in the letter in Paul’s post], the previous criticisms have been answered. The interstellar meteor claim now seems likely.

      Loeb might ruffle a few feathers, but that’s what makes him interesting. Most of the criticism I’ve seen over the years reads like professional jealousy.

  • Alex Tolley August 9, 2022, 13:08

    From the discovery paper:

    Since we expect interstellar meteors of this size to strike the Earth at least a few times per year

    We estimate the impact rate of similarly sized objects with the Earth, given 95% Poisson distribution confidence intervals, to be at least 0.1 [+0.457, – 0.097] per year

    [ 0.1 – 0.097 makes this 1 every 10 years estimate possibly be as low 1 every 333 years.]

    If there are meteorites with different isotope ratios than those from our system, they could be interstellar. The numbers indicate that they should be common enough to find the odd one.

    The intercept velocity is the best determinant, so the authors’ suggestion of 600 all-sky trackers on the ground around the planet, and able to do some analysis makes sense. Perhaps it can be financed if the expedition is successful.

    The expedition paper makes much of the calculated pressures and the bolide’s disintegration. The claim that it is ~2x higher than even iron meteorites and therefore may be exotic material seems a bit hyperbolic to me and perhaps deliberate to induce some funding. The calculations may easily be sufficiently off to allow it to comfortably fall into the iron meteorite category. [I note that Loeb disclaims that it could be an alien probe in favor of an exotic composition]. If it was an alien probe, then the prior paper’s abundance calculation for objects of its size would make no logical sense.

    If they are successful, and the isotopic ratio is different from that expected, then I would hope that those rooftop searches for iron meteorite particles would add isotopic ratio analysis if they are not already doing so (a quick Google search indicates no evidence of such analysis), as we may have such interstellar samples already in our hands (but are such particles contaminated by GCRs?).

  • Mike Serfas August 9, 2022, 17:43

    The world failed to find MH370 despite apparent evidence of its path via interference with radio broadcasts. It seems hard to believe that three secret glints from space are sufficient to pinpoint undersea evidence of an exploded 1-meter meteor of unknown composition. Are they expecting to find a magnetic grain of sand like in a gift shop item from Meteor Crater, then prove it couldn’t have come from any natural source or passing garbage barge?

    • Ron S. August 9, 2022, 20:54

      Finding something unusual is virtually certain. If they are unscrupulous they can claim it’s what they were looking for, and the media will spread it far and wide. I don’t have andy’s knowledge but I’ve learned to be very skeptical whenever Loeb makes a claim these days.

      • Alex Tolley August 10, 2022, 13:36

        Finding something unusual is virtually certain.

        I agree. Although well west of the dense manganese nodule mining targets, will there not be some of these nodules scattered about in the search area? These nodules are at the very least paramagnetic, and any iron would make them magnetic. As meteorites from our system are more common, the probability of finding a local iron meteorite is likely to be higher than the ISO one. Add to that the amount of metal debris likely lying on the ocean floor creating false +ves and the likelihood of success diminishes. As Alastair suggests, maybe waiting for the next one that lands on the ground might be a better bet. IOW, fund the trackers first, detect the potential ISO, and then search for it should it land on the ground rather than totally disintegrate. Just how expensive are these trackers, and where would you locate them to get clear skies and possible good places for meteorites to be found?

        Perhaps an isotopic analysis of more already collected [micro]meteorites might be a less expensive approach, although the results could be ambiguous without the velocity confirmation of external origin.

        I will credit Loeb with the approach of trying to collect a small ISO that has landed on Earth as easier and less expensive than building and operating a number of rapid interceptor probes for the larger ISOs that enter our system.

        As an aside, while we hear about Martian meteorites on earth, do we know what fraction of meteorites are of lunar origin, given the frequency of impacts on the Moon, the lower gravity allowing more escapes, and the proximity to make Earth the target?

    • Alastair Williams August 10, 2022, 6:50

      I’m inclined to agree with you. If these interstellar objects are as common as statistics suggest, they’d be better off waiting for another one to hit and land somewhere more convenient.

  • Audrey August 10, 2022, 17:07

    Most of this makes my head spin.
    But what concerns me is the unknowable “virus” that might be embedded somewhere within the meteorite…in a crevice or pocket that was protected from the heat and friction withstood by its exterior. I say “virus” but mean also to include any form/fragment/metal/mineral/etc. that is capable of exporting disease or otherwise exploiting our vulnerabilities. (You see, I remember Wuhan Covid-19…and I realize that what we don’t-know-that-we-don’t-know is potentially lethal on a global scale. Just sayin’…)

  • Jeff Wright August 11, 2022, 2:42

    Just because a body doesn’t come in at extrasolar speed doesn’t mean it isn’t extrasolar in nature-with Jupiter’s gravity. The 1972 Teton event deserves this level of investigation…on the off chance it was a Bracewell.

    • Michael Fidler August 11, 2022, 10:14

      Incoming! 1972 Asteroid Could Return on August 10, 2022!
      Aug 4
      Fifty years ago, on Aug. 10, 1972, our planet received a warning shot from the cosmos
      It was the size of a small house, weighed 9,000 tons and was moving at 50,000 km/h. As it passed over the Grand Teton National Park, one alert tourist photographed the incandescent fireball and its long vapor trail. In less than two minutes, it had sliced through the Earth’s atmosphere and returned to space.

      The slightest change of orbit during the billions of years it had been circling the sun might have sent the asteroid crashing upon any of the world’s great cities with an explosive force five times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

      The date was Aug. 10, 1972.

      —Arthur C. Clarke, “The Hammer of God,” 1993

      https://www.boslough.us/blog/incoming-1972-2022

      Maybe it will land this time!

  • wdk August 11, 2022, 22:12

    There does seem to be some ambiguity here. And reading the overall premise, I am forced to wonder what TV detective Columbo would do in this situation. See if he understood the testimony, I guess.

    There is apparently some SpaceCom tracking of this object, but it is unclear to me where the tracking is first picked. At atmospheric entry?
    Or is there an earlier indication of the cross section of this object from radar tracking prior? Now thereafter it is noted that there is significant flare and deceleration. And for the object to survive, it is necessary to invoke an extremely high material yield strength. Better than the warheads that are designed for coming in steep.

    It strikes me that the entry modeling needs to be examined further.

    It’s not so much that I am sceptical about, say, interstellar meteorites the size of basketballs, but rather the need to invoke super materials
    to support their physical analysis. And in this case we have uncertainties about entry velocity, flight path, mass and implications
    of light signature.

  • Ljk August 12, 2022, 22:37
  • Mike Serfas August 14, 2022, 13:23

    In other news, scientists have discovered stellar-mass entities jetting around at over 3% of the speed of light. More of them start moving all the time. They apparently use a beam of neutrinos as exhaust. Naturally, no one suspects aliens… https://phys.org/news/2022-08-neutrino-rocket-high-velocity-pulsars.html

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