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Fragments of interstellar meteor discovered in the Pacific Ocean

Harvard University Professor Avi Loeb has recovered tiny iron fragments near the fireball path of the first recognised interstellar meteor. Tests are now underway to discover more about its mysterious origin beyond our solar system.

Scientists looked on in wonder in 2014, as a 500kg fireball plummeted from the sky and crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Manus Island.

In the years that followed, research was compiled to determine whether the object – dubbed IM1 – was of interstellar origin. Only last year, the US Department of Defence confirmed this theory, ratifying that its recorded speed was in excess of solar escape velocity.

Around the same time, Harvard University professor Avi Loeb published his own findings on the supposed meteor, stating that IM1 had been travelling faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun.

With the interstellar theory all but validated, Loeb prepared an expedition to the crash site with several colleagues involved in the Galileo Project – an organisation dedicated to identifying the nature of objects made by existing or extinct extraterrestrial civilisations.

Ignoring the bureaucratic process, the outfit made the voyage to Papa New Guinea using business visas and without research permits. Using a ship with an integrated magnetic sled, they excavated debris from the ocean floor mostly consisting of volcanic origin.

Once they sieved the collected matter using a fine mesh, however, they made the thrilling discovery of some 50 spherules; tiny, marble-like metallic balls which may have once comprised IM1.

Despite potentially taking billions of years to arrive on Earth, Loeb had them transported to three US laboratories within just a few days.

‘We hope to figure out whether the elements that this meteor was made of are, indeed, different from solar system materials,’ Professor Loeb said at the time.

‘The second question is, can we tell whether the object was technological in origin.’

The team is only in the preliminary stages of analysis, but Loeb is providing us with play-by-play updates via his Medium blog. With no real frame of reference with which to differentiate interstellar objects, he says this sample is made up of 84% iron, 8% silicon, 4% magnesium, and 2% titanium.

Though, given our limited knowledge and sample pool, it would be pompous to rule anything out, this likely points to IM1 being an S-type asteroid – which are mostly composed of iron and magnesium silicates.

Nevertheless, as in previous cases of astrophysical discovery, Loeb has jumped to some pretty fantastical conclusions. He says M1 could be the first sign of civilisation beyond our solar system and has postulated that the spherules could even point to alien technology.

A common consensus within the field, however, is that evidence (though hardly infallible) more likely indicates terrestrial pollutants. ‘There’s nothing especially special about the samples that Dr Loeb has pulled up,’ says Dr Marc Norman, a professor at the Australian National University.

‘Cosmic spherules like this have been found in the seabed from a variety of locations.’

Loeb may very well be pie-in-the-sky with his hopes and expectations, but to his credit he is planning to have his work peer reviewed in the near future. ‘We plan to share these materials with anyone within the worldwide scientific community. So there is no commercial value whatsoever,’ says Professor Loeb.

‘This project is of huge scientific value,’ he concludes. We certainly hope as much.