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An interstellar meteor is a space rock that originates from outside our solar system, a rare occurrence.
This one is known as CNEOS 2014-01-08, and it crash-landed along the north-east coast of Papua New Guinea on January 8, 2014.
The finding came as a surprise to Amir Siraj, who identified the object as an interstellar meteor in a 2019 study he co-authored while an undergraduate at Harvard University.
Mr Siraj was investigating ‘Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object in our solar system that was found in 2017, with Abraham Loeb, professor of science at Harvard University.
A need for speed
The meteor’s high velocity is what initially caught Mr Siraj’s eye.
The meteor was moving at a high speed of about 45km per second relative to Earth, which is moving at around 30km per second around the sun.
Because researchers measured how fast the meteor was moving while on a moving planet, the 45km per second was not actually how fast it was going.
The heliocentric speed is defined as the meteor’s speed relative to the sun, which is a more accurate way to determine an object’s orbit.
It’s calculated based on the angle at which a meteor hits the Earth.
The planet moves in one direction around the sun, so the meteor could have hit Earth head-on, meaning opposite the direction the planet is moving, or from behind, in the same direction the Earth is moving.
Since the meteor hit the Earth from behind, Mr Siraj’s calculations said the meteor was actually travelling at about 60km per second relative to the sun.
He then mapped out the trajectory of the meteor and found it was in an unbound orbit, unlike the closed orbit of other meteors.
This means that rather than circling around the sun like other meteors, it came from outside the solar system.
“Presumably, it was produced by another star, got kicked out of that star’s planetary system and just so happened to make its way to our solar system and collide with Earth,” Mr Siraj said.
Difficulty getting published
Mr Loeb and Mr Siraj have been unable to get their findings published in a journal because their data came from NASA’s CNEOS database, which doesn’t divulge information such as how accurate the readings are.
After years of trying to obtain the additional information needed, they received official confirmation that it was, in fact, an interstellar meteor, from John Shaw, deputy commander of the US Space Command.
The command is a part of the US Department of Defence and is responsible for military operations in outer space.
“Dr Joel Mozer, the Chief Scientist of Space Operations Command, the United States Space Force service component of US Space Command, reviewed analysis of additional data available to the Department of Defence related to this finding,” Mr Shaw wrote in the letter.
“Dr Mozer confirmed that the velocity estimate reported to NASA is sufficiently accurate to indicate an interstellar trajectory.”
Mr Siraj had moved onto other research and almost forgotten about his discovery, so the document came as a shock.
“I thought that we would never learn the true nature of this meteor, that it was just blocked somewhere in the government after our many tries, and so actually seeing that letter from the Department of Defence with my eyes was a really incredible moment,” Mr Siraj said.
A second chance
Since receiving the confirmation, Mr Siraj said his team is working to resubmit their findings for publication in a scientific journal.
Mr Siraj would also like to put a team together to try and retrieve part of the meteor that landed in the Pacific Ocean but admitted it would be an unlikely possibility due to the sheer size of the project.
If researchers were able to get their hands on the “holy grail of interstellar objects,” Mr Siraj said it would be scientifically groundbreaking in helping scientists discover more about the world beyond our solar system.
NASA and US Space Command did not initially respond for comment.
This image of the celestial firework display was taken in Gippsland in Victoria. (Picture: www.andrewnorthover.com.au)
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