'Anomalous' metal spheres unlikely to be alien technology, despite Harvard scientist's claim

A microscopic metal ball glitters with various elements
A close-up of one of the 'anomalous' metal spherules pulled from the Pacific Ocean in June. Objects like these are abundant and nearly impossible to trace. (Image credit: Avi Loeb/ Medium)

For nearly a decade, hundreds of tiny magnetic spheres shed by an extraterrestrial visitor lay deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. Now, the minute pellets have been dredged up by a scientific expedition — and they're fueling a media frenzy that some scientists feel is unearned.

In 2014, a fireball blazed across the sky above Papua New Guinea, shedding debris as it passed. A U.S. government sensor stationed nearby measured its speed at more than 110,000 mph (177,000 km/h), and NASA's Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) detected its fall. The meteorite splashed down in the ocean about 53 miles (85 kilometers) offshore. 

Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, is on a quest to find it. Based on its extreme speed and trajectory upon entry into Earth's atmosphere, Loeb believes the object, which he dubbed Interstellar Meteor 1 (IM1), is a relic from another star system. He also thinks it might potentially harbor alien "technosignatures" — traces of technology crafted by nonhuman entities — according to an interview Loeb gave with the Daily Beast

Related: Are aliens real?

This is not the first time Loeb has hypothesized that our solar system has been visited by alien technology. Five years ago, he and fellow Harvard researcher Shmuel Bialy proposed that the weird interstellar object 'Oumuamua, which whizzed through our solar system in late 2017, was an autonomous alien probe similar to a light sail. Their paper on the object garnered a flurry of media attention, as well as both pushback and praise from the larger scientific community. 

Now, backed by funding from crypto multimillionaire Charles Hoskinson, Loeb is leading an expedition in the Pacific Ocean to recover IM1. So far, the crew has pulled up more than 50 magnetic spherules — minuscule orbs made of iron, magnesium and titanium — that may be pieces of the meteor. In a recent blog post, Loeb described these spherules as "anomalous" — presumably due to their low nickel content, a common ingredient in meteorites. 

"This has been the most thrilling experience in my scientific career," Loeb said of the expedition in a recent interview with Motherboard.

However, many scientists harbor doubts about the spherules' origin. In fact, they say these particular pellets might not be associated with the 2014 fireball at all. 

"It's been known for a century that if you take a magnetic rake and run it over the ocean floor, you will pull up extraterrestrial spherules," Peter Brown, a meteorite specialist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, told Live Science. Such debris has accumulated worldwide on the seafloor over millions of years from meteors dropping tiny bits of molten metal as they pass overhead, Brown added. Factoring in shifting ocean currents and sedimentary movements, "it essentially would be impossible to say that this particular spherule comes from a particular event."

Brown also recently co-authored a paper calling into question IM1's interstellar pedigree. The claim that the meteor came from outside our solar system is based on its ridiculous speed upon entering our atmosphere. However, Brown said, "particularly at higher speeds, the U.S. government sensors tend to overestimate speeds." A lower speed would also account for the object's unusual brightness profile, which didn't match what would be expected for a metallic meteor moving at over 100,000 mph (160,000 km/h), Brown said. 

Of course, this doesn't mean the meteorite isn't from another star system — just that it doesn't have to be. To date, there have been no confirmed interstellar meteorite impacts on Earth, though Brown himself has spent 20 years searching for one. 

As for the possibility that this is evidence of extraterrestrial technology, most of the scientific community is skeptical. "That would be an extremely cool result," Brown said. "But I don't see any evidence that would necessarily back you into such an extreme hypothesis."

Joanna Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Joanna Thompson is a science journalist and runner based in New York. She holds a B.S. in Zoology and a B.A. in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University, as well as a Master's in Science Journalism from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. Find more of her work in Scientific American, The Daily Beast, Atlas Obscura or Audubon Magazine.

  • 7%solution
    When you cry alien wolf too many times, it could be that no one pays attention when evidence of aliens is found for real. Since we don't have a clue what evidence of aliens is supposed to look like, we tend to deem anything that's not immediately explainable as potentially alien. In reality, this is a leap too far. Unless space aliens are practically handing over inexplicable materials themselves, we can't be sure something was created by alien hands. Even if we found alien creatures, that alone is still not definitive proof they originated from another solar system or galaxy. They won't have their return addresses stamped on their foreheads, assuming they have foreheads. They could also be time travelers from our own future or past. That would be the most logical explanation. Only someone who originated on Earth would know how to locate it in another time. Perhaps our entire alien focus is unrealistic to begin with. Rather than finding aliens in our own time, we should realize our best chance to locate aliens isn't by using our limited 3 dimensional understanding of reality. By now we should've gotten used to the idea from looking into the cosmos, reality has 4 dimensions, possibly even more. If we find evidence of aliens via radio telescopes, they may not even exist anymore if the signal originated a few 1000 lightyears away. Perhaps they're sending distress signals ahead of an unavoidable disaster. The possibilities are endless. Our presumed aliens are the product of our creative imagination. We use them as place holders for some things we can't immediately explain, kind of like jokers in a card game. The same imagination presumes we're interesting to aliens. The fact we keep expecting aliens to brighten up our existence may be evidence we don't even find ourselves interesting. So, why would advanced aliens find us interesting? If they're the operators of the more esoteric observed UAPs, that could be evidence they're laughing at us. They're driving our imagination amok without giving us real evidence of their existence. If they're real, they're only giving us enough evidence to make fools of ourselves. The tic tac video by itself is no evidence of aliens. Just because we don't believe humans could've created such a flying machine doesn'trule it out. We also don't know enough to rule out that millions of alien civilizations exist in our time. Then again, time is an ambiguous term in the universe. At best, we calculate with earth time. An alien civilization may have an entirely different way to calculate time, assuming time even matters to them. Our 3 dimensional coordinates need to become 4 dimensional, if we want to have a chance to make contact. To make that possible, our brains need to become 4 dimension literate. Not too many of us can identify a 4 dimensional graphic on sight. That means, we won't recognize anything else as such if we encountered it in everyday life. It also means, we don't see reality as it is. We only see the 3 dimensions we accept as reality. It means, to meet aliens we need to master a leap of our consciousness. The 3 familiar dimensions won't be good enough to meet an advanced alien civilization that is adept in overcoming time and space. As little as a few 100 years ago, most humans didn't read or write. If you teleported someone from that time into our time, they'd be thoroughly confused. Reading and writing didn't just open the doors to communicate, it also gave us the tools to understand the world around us. We need to become 4 dimension literate to navigate 4 dimensional information. That will enable us to communicate with an alien civilization. Until then, aliens are just a dream.
  • 01001011
    Harvard is not immune to confirmation bias. Only evidence has bearing on truth, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.