Diary of an Interstellar Voyage: Part One

This is the first in an ongoing series of updates from Harvard Astronomer Avi Loeb, who heads The Galileo Project, documenting his team’s expedition to attempt the recovery of an interstellar object from the floor of the Pacific Ocean. This entry covers Days 1-2 (June 11-12, 2023) of the team’s expedition. 

We left my home and headed to Hanscom Airport in Bedford, Massachusetts, on our way to Denver, Colorado, from where we were scheduled to depart for Australia the following morning.

Last week was marked by the news about a report by the whistleblower David Grusch who served as a representative to the Task Force on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) within the US Department of Defense (DoD). Grusch says recoveries of extraterrestrial objects of non-human origin have been ongoing for decades by the US Government, allies, and defense contractors.

So far, Grusch’s story is about hearsay and classified documents in the absence of any physical evidence, images, or scientific data. It is unclear whether we will ever see the evidence–even if it exists–because the government is hiding it behind the veil of national security.

In recent days, an avalanche of reporters asked me for comments about Grusch’s story. The last three of them called on short notice from the US, UK, and Canada, just hours before we left for Australia. In the last interview, I expressed my hope that updates on our cosmic neighborhood will be included in the 2024 State of the Union address by President Biden.

Grusch’s story broke out just days before my trip to lead an expedition of the Galileo Project to the Pacific Ocean, aiming to discover whether the first recognized interstellar meteor, IM1, was a craft from an extraterrestrial civilization. In contrast to the storyline provided by David Grusch, all scientific findings of the Galileo Project will be open to the public. Our expedition boat is fittingly named “Silver Star.”

From the boat, we will surely see many stars in the night sky, given the lack of artificial light pollution. Perhaps IM1 came from one of them. But even more importantly, the question is whether IM1 originated from another technological civilization. And even more important than that is the question of whether the senders were more technologically advanced than we are, in which case we can learn from them as if they represent our technological future.

The filming crew that joins the expedition took special notice of the compass that my wife gifted me last year for my 60th birthday exactly a year ago, in a special event with my former students and postdocs at Martha’s Vineyard. Here’s hoping that this compass will guide us to our interstellar treasure.

I met my wife on a blind date. When embarking on an interstellar date, it is natural to look in the mirror and imagine a similar dating partner. Still, reality may have a more uplifting quality to it. We created artificial intelligence (AI) in our image, but we might be inspired to imitate extraterrestrials if they represent better angels than our nature.

My mother told me that when she first saw me as a newborn in the delivery room, my eyes were wide open with wonder about the new world that surrounded me. A recent profile in the Smithsonian Magazine also characterized me with the quality of wonder based on my search for extraterrestrial artifacts. I was born on a farm and collected eggs throughout my childhood. Now, I am traveling to the Pacific Ocean to collect interstellar fragments that may be a hundred times smaller. A day after my return from the expedition, I will chair the scientific advisory board of the Starshot project, aiming to send a gram-mass spacecraft to the nearest star system. Altogether, the items I am most passionate about became smaller over the years.

IM1’s fireball was detected by the US Government on January 8, 2014, and indicated that this meteor was speeding beyond the value required to escape from the Solar system. Based on the air ram pressure that it sustained before disintegrating in three flares 20 kilometers above the ocean surface, this half-meter-sized object was tougher in material strength than all other 272 meteors in the CNEOS catalog of NASA. Its interstellar origin was formally recognized at 99.999% confidence in an official letter from the US Space Command under DoD to NASA on March 1, 2022. Two years earlier, my discovery paper of IM1 with Amir Siraj showed that IM1 was moving outside the solar system faster than 95% of all stars in the vicinity of the Sun. The possibility that IM1’s excess speed benefited from propulsion and the fact that it was tougher than all known space rocks suggest that it may have been technological in origin – similar to NASA’s New Horizons craft colliding with an exoplanet in a billion years and burning up in its atmosphere as an interstellar meteor.

Based on the IM1’s fireball, I calculated in a paper with the students, Amory Tillinghast-Raby and Amir Siraj, that the object likely disintegrated into tiny spherules, which our expedition hopes to find with a magnetic sled or a sluicing device. Once we recover the meteor materials, we plan to bring the sample back to the Harvard College Observatory and analyze its composition with state-of-the-art diagnostics. My daughter, Lotem, which was just admitted to Harvard College, will take part in this analysis as a summer intern at Harvard’s Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences.

Our latest paper on IM1 focused on localizing the fireball site based on the blast wave signal recorded by seismometers in the region. I was asked by several reporters whether I am nervous or excited about this historic expedition. I denied any such feelings and explained that I am simply focused on the task of finding IM1’s relics. Surely, it would have been exciting to board a spacecraft and land on IM1 before it impacted Earth, but I am happy to stay on Earth and travel to the Pacific Ocean instead.

My main concern is that we may not find anything other than plastics and volcanic ashes, the abundant constituents in the control areas that we will survey beyond the meteor site. But without searching, we will definitely not find anything. Life is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it is much better to be an optimist.

In my last class of the spring semester at Harvard University, I asked my students for advice on what to do if we find an extraterrestrial craft of the type mentioned in Grusch’s report. Half of the class recommended pressing buttons on it, and the other half expressed caution. This discussion is purely academic because IM1’s fireball released a few percent of the energy output of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, implying that IM1 likely melted into tiny droplets that rained on the ocean.

The task of finding millimeter-sized spherules from a search region that is a million times bigger is mind-boggling. But given the nearly century-old history of waiting for the US government to disclose whether it collected extraterrestrial technological materials, it appears simpler to survey the Pacific Ocean for answers.

In the coming weeks, I will report on findings from the expedition through this diary. Indeed, it may yet prove that it’s easier to seek extraterrestrial facts on the Pacific Ocean floor than get them from the government.

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s – Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.