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"Never been seen before": Harvard professor Avi Loeb analyzing fragments believed to be interstellar material

Harvard professor analyzing fragments believed to be "interstellar material"
Harvard professor analyzing fragments believed to be "interstellar material" 02:51

CAMRBIDGE - It's a common question, are we alone in the universe? Many scholars have pondered it; however, Harvard professor Avi Loeb hopes to one day answer it. He and a team of researchers began studying fragments of a meteor believed to be from another solar system. They have reason to think it could even be part of an interstellar spacecraft.

Loeb traveled with his team to the waters of Papua New Guinea. Using a sled full of magnets, they scraped the sea floor near the meteor crash site. They did runs of roughly seven miles and went through the crash area 26 times. They discovered 50 spherules they thought to be interstellar material. They brought the tiny pieces to Harvard, along with tubes of volcanic ash from the site.

"When we brought the materials back to Harvard, my summer intern Sophie Bergstrom, was able to find over 600 more spherules," said Loeb.

Sphere, alien technology
Sphere found near the meteor crash site in water off Papua New Guinea being analyzed by Harvard professor Avi Loeb.  CBS Boston

For weeks they have been analyzing the material, including under electron microscopes at UC Berkeley. They discovered that inside the spherules are more spherules.

"Sort of spheres inside spheres like Russian dolls," said Loeb.

The compounds are made up of elements including beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium. The levels of these elements are uncommon and enhanced hundreds of times.

"It has never been seen before in any environment within the solar system. Not on Earth. Not on the moon. Not on Mars," said Loeb.

It led Loeb and his team to conclude they aren't from this solar system. But if not, then where?

"It could have originated from some natural environment. The question is potentially from a magma ocean on a planet with an iron core," detailed Loeb.

Avi Loeb harvard
Harvard professor Avi Loeb CBS Boston

Another possibility is the material ejected from an exploding star; however, Loeb says this theory only accounts for some of the material discovered. He also says the meteor was traveling faster than 95% of the stars in our galaxy.

"Finally, there is the possibility that these elements were put together in a technological process for a good reason," said Loeb.

His theory alludes to alien technology set adrift through space thousands of years ago. This could also equate for the increased speed of the meteor. He likens the situation to one of the probes the U.S. has sent to other planets that will never return.

"We can in principle create this material in the laboratory, and ask whether it has any unusual properties," said Loeb.

There is also the potential that a bigger part remains in the ocean. During their collection along the sea floor, they had a camera attached to the sled. It picked up video of the sled colliding with a large rock within the meteor crash site.

"We didn't collect it. It needs examination close up. Perhaps it's a piece of a meteor, but who knows," added Loeb.

He and his team aim to get back out there by spring of 2024. Using costly sonar technology, they may be able to find a larger chunk or maybe more. The hurdle now is funding.

"If there is a technological gadget [down there], I would be curious to see if there are any buttons on it," Loeb said. "Because, then the question is, should we press the button?" 

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