The First Meteor From Outside Our Solar System Collided With Earth in 2014, Confirm Scientists
Around 25 million meteors of different sizes enter Earth from within our solar system every day. But when CNEOS 2014-01-08, a couch-sized meteor, illuminated the night sky along the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea in January 2014, two Harvard researchers were intrigued. They found this hurling rock as more than a mere meteorite collision; based on their measurements, it was a meteor from outside our solar system. Their paper on the object was rejected in 2019.
But now, three years later, U.S. officials confirm that the 2014 space rock was the first known interstellar — what came from outside our solar system — meteor collision — an incredibly rare event. “Given that this is interstellar… Either it’s natural in origin, or it’s artificial — you know, from another civilization,” said Avi Loeb, a Harvard University astrophysicist, told Inverse. In other words, the meteor was most definitely not from our solar system.
The confirmation very well challenges a scientific milestone. Until now, the mantle of the first interstellar meteor to collide with Earth is held by Oumuamua, a cigar-shaped object that visited Earth in 2017. If the current research is indeed true, it would mean Oumuamua, despite its unflinching fascination, may have to concede the title because CNEOS collided with Earth back in 2014.
What makes the 2014 meteor of shining interesting is its velocity. “This [meteor] gained the interest of the scientific community as it has been posited it could have interstellar origin due to the detected event’s high velocity within the atmosphere,” a NASA release stated. Scientists measured the meteor’s high-speed relative to the sun, and on charting the trajectory, found it came from an unbound orbit. In other words, the meteor wasn’t circling the sun as is expected out of them; it instead 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,” Amir Siraj, co-author of the paper, said.
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It was only while studying Oumuamua that Siraj and Loeb chanced upon data around the 2014 meteor. But back then, they struggled to get the research published since the data came from NASA’s CNEOS database — which isn’t transparent about certain metrics.
An interstellar meteor is a fascinating claim to make, but also a hefty one that explains some scientists’ hesitance around finding unequivocal merit in these findings. Chris Lintott, a professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford, referred to a previous paper refuting Loeb’s earlier assertions. The paper argued: “Just because something is on an inbound trajectory, doesn’t mean it is interstellar.” NASA on its part has said it needs more evidence to come to a conclusion on the origins of the 2014 meteor.
So what do we finally know? A meteor entered Earth in January 2014, and exploded in the atmosphere. The U.S. Space Command says this with 99.9% certainty; while others are still a little reluctant.
The asterisks and buts will slowly be resolved as scientists explore more about the mysteries within these rocks. But for now, as Loeb noted, “I think it opens a new frontier where you’re using the Earth as a fishing net for these objects. And that makes it very exciting.”