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Government sensors on the hunt for fireballs plunging toward Earth have so far logged about 1,000 meteors and asteroids. But only one of them can boast that it traveled through our atmosphere from outside our own Solar System.
This fireball, which shot through our atmosphere over Papua New Guinea in 2014, was no ordinary space rockit was actually an interstellar meteor, the first ever known to originate outside our system and arrive on Earth. Rocketing at a speed of over 130,000 miles per hour, the rock broke up during its descent, probably scattering interstellar debris into the South Pacific Ocean.
You love the cosmos. So do we. Lets nerd out over it together.
Confirmation of its distant origins arrived only recently, when the United States Space Command (USSC) released a memo on April 6, confirming that the meteor was indeed an interstellar object.
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Before USSC confirmed this meteor was a distant stranger, all previous rocky bodies that fell to Earth were thought to have originated in our own Solar System. Many of them do come from a colony of millions of other rocks in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, some 111.5 million miles from Earth.
Two Harvard University researchers were the first to study the 2014 meteors distant origin, posting their research on the preprint server arXiv back in 2019 (meaning it was not peer-reviewed at the time). The meteors unusually high speed implies a possible origin from the deep interior of a planetary system or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way galaxy, the researchers state in the study, which will be resubmitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal in light of the recent confirmation. The researchers combed through records of all the fireballs that U.S. government sensors have detected since 1988.
One of the researchers, Amir Siraj, wants to find meteor debris scattered on the ocean floor. It may be impossible, given the speed of the disintegrating objectwhich was only a few feet wideand the minute pieces that probably resulted from the impact. We are currently investigating the possibility of embarking on an ocean expedition to recover the first interstellar meteorite. If found, extensive analysis will be conducted on the sample to understand its origin and the information it carries about its parent system, he tells Popular Mechanics by email.
At first, I could hardly believe the discovery, since astronomers had been searching for an interstellar meteor since 1950 or earlier, says Siraj, who is director of Interstellar Object Studies at Harvards Galileo Project, which aims to look for extraterrestrial technological artifacts.
This confirmed impact of an interstellar object with the Earths atmosphere implies that similar objects are very common throughout space.
Siraj and his Harvard colleague Avi Loeb, who leads the Galileo Project, originally submitted the discovery to The Astrophysical Journal Letters. However, the review process dragged on for years due to missing information that the U.S. government withheld from the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) database, which identifies objects like meteors and asteroids and calculates their odds of hitting Earth. The U.S. Department of Defense operates some of the sensors that detect fireballs in order to monitor the skies for nuclear detonations, so Siraj and Loeb couldnt directly confirm the margin of error on the fireballs velocity.
After moving through NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and several bureaucratic departments, the sensor data finally ended up with Joel Mozer, chief scientist of Space Operations Command at the U.S. Space Force. Mozer released the memo confirming that the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory.
Siraj learned the good news through a NASA scientists April 6 tweet. Now, he is in the process of revising the paper, taking into account the government confirmation. This confirmed impact of an interstellar object with the Earths atmosphere implies that similar objects are very common throughout space, which of course raises interesting questions about how they are ejected in such large quantities from their parent systems, he says. Even if the remnants of the rock are never found, data from the meteors fiery descent could hold clues to its composition, and maybe origins.
The chances of a rock from another star system coming close to Earth are rare, but astronomers knew of two other interstellar objects before this recently-confirmed discovery. Quarter-mile-long asteroid Oumuamua was the first confirmed interstellar object identified in the Solar System; Pan-STARRS, a wide-field astronomical imaging system in Hawaii, detected the massive rock in 2017. Amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov spotted Comet Borisov with his telescope in 2019. Its the first confirmed comet to enter our solar system from some unknown place beyond our suns influence, according to NASA. Neither of these distant visitors flew close to Earth, though.
Expanding our sensory capabilities with efforts like the new Vera C. Rubin Observatorys planned ten-year survey is critical to enhance our discovery rate of interstellar objects, Siraj writes in an arXiv post in November 2021. Who knows? We may even find extra-galactic objects, like the 2007 discovery of a particle that originated outside the Milky Way.
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