Declassified U.S. government data confirms that the first interstellar object hit Earth

A small meteor that whizzed across the sky in Papua New Guinea in 2014 was a visitor from another star system, making it the first known interstellar meteor – and our first known interstellar visitor – according to recently declassified U.S. government data.

In 2017, we had our first confirmed interstellar guest ever. The object, ‘Oumuamua, was seen traveling through our solar system, possibly from another star about 200 light-years away. ‘Oumuamua (pronounced: oh-MOO-a-MOO-a) was so new that there are many questions: was it a comet, an asteroid or a spaceship?

Two years later, two scientists claimed to have found not just a former interstellar visitor, but one who crashed into Earth in 2014. A paper was written, but it could not be confirmed because some important data was missing – data that was classified according to the United States Government.

Now, the U.S. Space Command has confirmed in a note released last week that “a previously discovered interstellar object was actually an interstellar object”.

For a year or two after ‘Oumuamua was discovered, scientists discussed the object’s origin. While some scientists argued whether it was a comet or an asteroid, others put forward several “out there” hypotheses, ranging from it being some dark matter to an alien spaceship (spoiler: it was not).

The controversial Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb – who has authored a staggering number of wide-ranging articles on ‘Oumuamua’s, including claims that it was a piece of light sailing technology from a potential former galactic civilization and thus humanity’s first brush with an extraterrestrial artifact – is a of the two scientists who found the interstellar meteor in 2014. In this case, it appears he was right.

Loeb and co-author Amir Siraj suggested that “Oumuamua was preceded by another interstellar traveler who crashed into Earth’s atmosphere in 2014.” One would expect a much greater abundance of smaller interstellar objects, some of which collided with Earth often enough to to be noticeable “, they wrote in their 2019 newspaper.

To see if any of these “smaller interstellar objects” had hit Earth (or at least flown past) recently, they reviewed observations logged in NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) catalog, which notes and calculates asteroid and comet orbits and their potential for Earth impact. In order to escape the pull of its own star, an interstellar object must travel extremely fast, so that they narrowed their search to the fastest objects logged.

One that caught their eye was a fireball that burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere over Papua New Guinea at 6 p.m. 03.05 local time on January 8, 2014. It had been traveling at a speed of 216,000 kilometers per hour (134,000 miles per hour), much faster than the average meteor orbiting the solar system, suggesting that it was unbound from the Sun and very possibly “from the deep interior of a planetary system or a star in the thick disk of the Milky Way galaxy”. Its velocity and orbit, they wrote, proved with 99 percent certainty that the object came from outside the solar system.

Siraj and Loeb submitted the paper about their discovery to The Astrophysical Journal Letters, but the review process stalled due to lack of information that had been withheld from the CNEOS database by the US government.

According to Becky Ferreira of VICE, who broke the story, some of the sensors used to detect objects near Earth are operated by the US Department of Defense and were therefore classified, which meant Siraj and Loeb could not confirm their margin of error at the meteor’s speed . After being caught up in legal bureaucracy for almost three years while pursuing confirmation of this information, Siraj found out that the meteor had been confirmed by the US Space Command last week via a tweet from another scientist.

The memo, dated March 1, confirms “the velocity estimate reported to NASA is accurate enough to indicate an interstellar orbit.” Siraj told VICE that they intend to pursue the publication of their original study to help scientists discover and study other potential interstellar – and possibly even extra-galactic – visitors.

“Given how rare interstellar meteors are, extragalactic meteors will be even rarer,” Siraj told VICE. “But the thing is, going forward, we will not find anything unless we look for it.”

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