An artist's impression of the first known interstellar asteroid, Oumuamua. An artist's impression of the first known interstellar asteroid, Oumuamua. An artist's impression of the first known interstellar asteroid, Oumuamua. (Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

Harvard professor discovers new way to hunt for alien spaceships

Alien hunter Avi Loeb found what appears to be an interstellar object using a new detection method.

Professor Avi Loeb, the chair of Harvard's astronomy department, published a scientific paper last night along with his undergraduate student Amir Siraj that may open new frontiers in the search for alien life.

Dr. Loeb, an Israel-born theoretical physicist and graduate of Hebrew University, is the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee, a $100 million science project that's attempting to find alien life. The committee believes that Earth will not be around forever and it behooves us to find a backup planet. Hence, the search for an alien civilization.

In 2017, astronomers discovered Oumuamua, believed to be the first interstellar object detected passing through our solar system. Loeb and his team used a massive telescope (weighing 16 million pounds and about 60% taller than the Statue of Liberty) to see if the object might be a piece of alien archaeology and listened for any potential radio bursts coming from it.

The Green Bank Telescope in the Allegheny Mountains of W. Virginia is the the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. (Photo: Jamiev_03 / Flickr)

The best way to look for alien objects is to use the sun as a lamppost and to search for objects based on their reflective sunlight. This is how Oumuamua was found. But smaller objects, like that of a meteor, can use the Earth's atmosphere as a detector. A few weeks ago, Loeb and Siraj were doing research on a meteor that had been spotted off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The fireball had an abnormally high velocity and seemed to originate from outside our solar system. If confirmed, the meteor will be only the second such object ever spotted by humans.

"Using the Earth’s atmosphere as a detector for interstellar objects offers new prospects for inferring the composition of the gases they leave behind as they burn up in the atmosphere," Loeb explained. "In the future, astronomers may establish an alert system that triggers follow-up spectroscopic observations to an impact by a meteor of possible interstellar origin. ... Some of them might even represent defunct technological equipment from alien civilizations, which drifted towards Earth by chance, just like a plastic bottle swept ashore on the background of natural seashells."

Ever the explorer, Loeb believes we should continue scanning the sky. "Such a search would resemble my favorite activity with my daughters when we vacation on a beach – namely, examining shells swept ashore from the ocean. Not all shells are the same, and similarly only a fraction of the interstellar objects might be technological debris of alien civilizations. But we should examine anything that enters the solar system from interstellar space in order to infer the true nature of Oumuamua or other objects of its mysterious population."

Wanting to learn more, we traveled to Loeb's office on Harvard's campus. We turned on a tape recorder and let him speak about Oumuamua and his search for alien life, which you can listen to here:

It's been a busy month for Loeb. In addition to this week's discovery, he also had a hand in the first-ever photograph of a black hole. About a decade ago, the professor helped predict the details of the black hole image that was revealed last week to international fanfare. "It's an amazing image," Loeb told From The Grapevine. "The prediction was remarkably close to the shape of the reported image. This confirms that Einstein's theory of gravity is confirmed once again and the gas behaves similarly to what we have expected just before plunging into the throat of the black hole."

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Harvard professor discovers new way to hunt for alien spaceships
Alien hunter Avi Loeb found what appears to be an interstellar object using a new detection method.