Harvard’s Avi Loeb reports that the Galileo Project just completed the early analysis of 57 spherules from the crash site of the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1.
How do they know the meteor was of interstellar origin? It was detected before impact and was traveling at a speed beyond solar system escape velocity and from a direction heading out of the solar system. If it was traveling faster than escape velocity then any orbits in the solar system would be impossible. The fast moving object would break away and escape the solar system before it could orbit. The interstellar origin of IM1 was established at the 99.999% confidence based on velocity measurements by US government satellites, as confirmed in a formal letter from the US Space Command to NASA.
How do they know the pieces found came from the meteor? They did control checks outside the debris path of the impact and did not find the same melted metal bits.
How unusually fast and strong was it?
The fireball light curve showed three flares, separated by a tenth of a second from each other. Prior to entering the solar system, IM1 was moving at a speed of 60 kilometers per second relative to the Local Standard of Rest of the Milky-Way galaxy, faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun. Based on the fact that it maintained its integrity at an impact speed on Earth of 45 kilometers per second down to an elevation of 17 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean, its material strength must have been tougher than all 272 space rocks documented by NASA in the CNEOS meteor catalog, including the 5% minority of them which are iron meteorites.
Five of these millimeter-size marbles originated as molten droplets from the surface of IM1 when it was exposed to the immense heat from the fireball generated by its friction on air on January 8, 2014. Stein’s conservative analysis revealed that five unique spherules from the high-yield (yellow) regions near IM1’s path and not anywhere else, showed a composition pattern of elements from outside the solar system, never seen before.
Sample S21 was heavily enriched by factors of hundreds in Beryllium (Be), Lanthanum (La), and Uranium (U), relative to the solar-system standard composition of CI chondrites. This led Stein to label this unique abundance pattern: “BeLaU”.
Abstract. We have conducted an extensive towed-magnetic-sled survey during the period 14-28 June, 2023, over the seafloor about 85 km north of Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and found about 700 spherules of diameter 0.05-1.3 millimeters in our samples, of which 57 were analyzed so far. Approximately 0.26 km2 of seafloor was sampled in this survey, centered around the calculated path of the bolide CNEOS 2014-01-08 (IM1) with control areas north and south of that path. The spherules, significantly concentrated along the expected meteor path, were retrieved from seafloor depths ranging between 1.5-2.2 km. Mass spectrometry of 47 spherules near the high-yield regions along IM1’s path reveals a distinct extra-solar abundance pattern for 5 of them, while background spherules have abundances consistent with a solar system origin. The unique spherules show an excess of Be, La and U, by up to three orders of magnitude relative to the solar system standard of CI chondrites. These “BeLaU”-type spherules, never seen before, also have very low refractory siderophile elements such as Re. Volatile elements, such as Mn, Zn, Pb, are depleted as expected from evaporation losses during a meteor’s airburst. In addition, the mass-dependent variations in 57Fe/54Fe and 56Fe/54Fe are also consistent with evaporative loss of the light isotopes during the spherules’ travel in the atmosphere. The “BeLaU” abundance pattern is not found in control regions outside of IM1’s path and does not match commonly manufactured alloys or natural meteorites in the solar system. This evidence points towards an association of “BeLaU”-type spherules with IM1, supporting its interstellar origin independently of the high velocity and unusual material strength implied from the CNEOS data. We suggest that the “BeLaU” abundance pattern could have originated from a highly differentiated magma ocean of a planet with an iron core outside the solar system or from more exotic sources.
Altogether, about 700 spherules were collected by the expedition Avi Loeb led to the Pacific Ocean on June 14–28, 2023.
An independent test of whether “BeLaU” spherules originated from an extraterrestrial source is offered by iron isotope ratios. Indeed, the giant “BeLaU” spherule S21 from run 14 deviates considerably from various solar system environments in terms of its Iron-57 versus Iron-56 abundances. Given that this spherule was collected from the high-yield (yellow) region around IM1’s path, this is consistent with an interstellar origin for IM1.
The “BeLaU” overabundance of heavy elements could have instead originated from so-called “r-process” enrichment and fragmentation of ejecta from core-collapse supernovae or neutron star mergers. However, the “BeLaU” pattern also displays a so-called “s-process” enrichment which must have originated from an independent origin, such as Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars. A more exotic possibility is that this unfamiliar abundance pattern, with uranium being nearly a thousand time more abundant than the standard solar system value, may reflect an extraterrestrial technological origin. These interpretations will be considered critically along with additional results from spherule analysis in future work.
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