On October 19th, 2017, astronomers made the first-ever detection of an interstellar object (ISO) in our Solar System. This body, named 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua), was spotted shortly after it flew by Earth on its way to the outer Solar System. Years later, astronomers are still hypothesizing what this object could have been (an interstellar “dust bunny,” hydrogen iceberg, nitrogen icebergs), with Harvard Prof. Abraham Loeb going as far as to suggest that it might have been an extraterrestrial solar sail.
Roughly three years later, interest in extraterrestrial visitors has not subsided, in part because of the release of the Pentagon report on the existence of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” This prompted Loeb and several of his fellow scientists to form the Galileo Project, a multi-national, multi-institutional research team dedicated to bringing the search for Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations (ETC) into the mainstream.
On Monday, July 26th, the Project was officially announced via a live stream presentation that kicked off at 12:00 PM EST (09:00 AM PST). The event was hosted by Michael Wall, a senior writer at Space.com and the author of “Out There” (2018), which deals with humanity’s ongoing search for alien life. Co-hosting the event and leading its Q&A session was Faye Flam, a journalist and science writer with Science Magazine.
Throughout the conference, Loeb and Project co-founder Dr. Frank Laukien explained the purpose and inspiration behind this new project. Consistent with the approach of Galileo Galilee, Loeb and Laukien state that their Project will conduct a scientific and “agnostic” search for indications of ETCs by (as they describe it) “Daring to Look Through New Telescopes” (more on that below).
A Brave Theory
In addition to being the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Loeb is also the Director of Harvard’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), the Founding Director of the Black Hole Initiative (BHI), and the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. In 2018, he and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Shmuel Bialy released a study titled “Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain ‘Oumuamua’s Peculiar Acceleration?“ which detailed their controversial theory.
In it, Bialy and Loeb argued that ‘Oumuamua’s profile, orbital behavior, and sudden acceleration away from our Sun was not consistent with any known natural object. Instead, they showed that all of these parameters could be explained if ‘Oumuamua was actually a lightsail, a spacecraft that relies on a highly reflective surface and radiation pressure for propulsion (similar in concept to a solar sail).
This was followed by numerous papers that further investigated the possibility and showed that ‘Oumuamua’s behavior was consistent with that of a lightsail. In his 2020 book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb further detailed the research he and his colleagues performed that led them to this theory and his ongoing attempts to get the scientific community to take this possibility seriously.
As Loeb summarized in a press statement released concurrently with the conference:
“In 2017, the world for the first time observed an interstellar object, called ‘Oumuamua, that was briefly visiting our solar system. Based on astronomical observations, ‘Oumuamua turned out to have highly anomalous properties that defy well-understood natural explanations.
“We can only speculate whether ‘Oumuamua may be explained by never seen before natural explanations, or by stretching our imagination to ‘Oumuamua perhaps being an extraterrestrial technological object, similar to a very thin light-sail or communications dish, which would fit the astronomical data rather well.”
Throughout it all, one possibility that Loeb kept coming back to was the potential to send missions to intercept such objects in the future. The mere fact that ‘Oumuamua was detected showed considerable promise, even though it was spotted on its way out of the Solar System. The observation of the interstellar comet 2I/Borisov about a year later further bolstered the case for an intercept mission.
As Loeb himself has indicated in a series of studies, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) and similar survey telescopes will be able to do that very thing when they become operational. In particular, it is anticipated that when the VRO commences its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), it will be able to detect ISOs entering our Solar System at a rate of a few per month.
Cockpit video showing an anomalous aerial encounter in 2015. Credit: US Navy
Loeb also emphasized how the detection of ‘Oumuamua and 2I/Borisov validated theories about how common ISOs are. In fact, research conducted by multiple astrophysicists indicated that (on average) 7 ISOs pass through our Solar System every year, and hundreds of them could still be here. In fact, according to one research study, it is even possible that there is an entire orbit in the outer Solar System populated by nothing but ISOs.
If there is even a remote possibility that a tiny fraction of these objects are ‘Oumuamua-like in nature (that is to say, possibly artificial), then studying these objects would be a tremendous boon for humanity. With relative ease and little expense, we would finally have proof that intelligent civilizations with advanced technology (and likely predate our existence by eons or more) exist in our galaxy.
I’m not Saying it was Aliens…
Loeb also strongly emphasized how their efforts were spurred on by the recent release of the “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). This report details the many UAP sitings that have taken place in the US and the many government-led investigations that have been conducted into this phenomenon.
While news of the report’s release certainly triggered a great deal of excitement and speculation from the general public, the report is very clear that there was “wide variability in the reports” and that the datasets were too poor to support conclusions or “allow for detailed trend or pattern analysis.” In response, Loeb explained how this emphasizes the need for investigations that are led by the scientific community:
“After the recent release of the ODNI report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), the scientific community needs the determination to systematically, scientifically and transparently look for potential evidence of extraterrestrial technological equipment. The impact of any discovery of extraterrestrial technology on science, our technology, and on our entire world view, would be enormous.”
Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition. Credit: De Agostini Picture Library/U. Marzani/Bridgeman Images
The release of this report has also triggered additional interest in UAPs and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In fact, Loeb noted that since the existence of the Galileo Project first became known, Harvard University has received $1.75 million in donations that they have been able to put towards their research goals. Ultimately, the Project will span years and require a great deal more funding, but $1.75 million is not a bad start!
Galileo and Fermi
During the conference, Loeb welcomed his friend and Project co-founder Frank Laukien. Dr. Laukien is the CEO of Bruker Corporation, a manufacturer of scientific instruments for molecular and materials research and industrial applications. He is also a Visiting Scholar with Harvard’s Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology and (like Loeb) a member of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative (HOLI).
Laukien also indicated that beyond his expertise in the fields of biochemistry and astrobiology, his role on the Project is to be the “resident skeptic.” To illustrate, using points often raised in the context of the Fermi Paradox, Laukien explained why finding ETCs could be far more difficult than imagined:
“Just consider, you might think that in our Solar System, on Earth, there is one intelligent species and civilization – so that’s one for one – so that seemed like it’s pretty likely. But then again, on Earth, in the four billion years of life, there have been (or are today) about 100 million species and only one out of [those] has built a civilization. Also, if you think of time, astronomically, life on Earth is almost four billion years old, but our species is only 200,000 years old.
“And only for 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age, have we had something like a civilization. And finally, only in the last hundred years or so, have we been able to send out radar signals. So that, if some other civilization has a SETI program, their search for extraterrestrial intelligence, only in the last hundred years have we sent out signals.”
In short, Faulkien’s position is that while life may be ubiquitous in our galaxy, intelligent life may not. And even if there are multiple civilizations out there that we could communicate with right now, there are numerous astrophysical barriers and issues of timing that get in the way. This represents the counterpoint to Loeb’s own arguments about the likelihood of intelligence predating our own.
In true Fermi Paradox fashion, Loeb argued a combination of statistical likelihoods and the Copernican Principle:
“We now know from the Kepler satellite data that about half (plus or minus a quarter) of Sun-like stars have an Earth-like planet. Meaning an Earth-sized planet, roughly the same separation from the host star. So out of modesty, we should assume that under similar circumstances, we might get similar outcomes.
“In tens of billions of other systems within the Milky Way Galaxy, we can no longer ignore the possibility that technological civilizations predated us, and that we are not the most intelligent kid on our cosmic block. Most stars formed billions of years before the Sun. We know that by observing star formation in the Universe.
“Therefore, there was enough time for another technological civilization – just one – that is more advanced than ours to fill the Milky Way Galaxy with probes. With objects, because a billion years is enough time to travel across the Milky Way and basically populate it with artificial intelligence systems that perhaps, combined with 3D printers, can replicate themselves.”
As he explained, they decided to name the Project after famed Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilee because of the symmetry between his rigorous testing of the heliocentric model and the search for ETCs. This is a theme that Loeb alluded to several times in his book, claiming that the resistance he has experienced from the public and the scientific community bears a resemblance to the resistance Galileo faced in his time.
According to the popular legend, after Galileo was forced to publicly recanted his views and state that the Earth did not move around the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase, “And yet it moves” (Latin: “Eppur si muove“). According to Laukien, the same basic defiance to conventional thinking is at the heart of their Project:
“I find it amusing that according to the popular legend… even when prosecuted [Galileo] muttered the rebellious phrase, “And yet it moves,” referring to Earth moving around the Sun, of course. And Avi, in his wonderful book, Extraterrestrial, a few times has made the rebellious phrase, “And yet it accelerated.”
“That was, of course, referring to ‘Oumuamua, the interstellar unknown object for which we don’t know if it has natural or extraterrestrial explanations. But in some ways, the extraterrestrial explanations, which are only plausible, not approved, are the least unsatisfactory.”
Laukien went on to explain how another popular legend involving Galileo inspired their Project. In the course of advocating the Copernican model of the Universe (aka. heliocentrism), Galileo encountered resistance from religious authorities and scientists alike who preferred the Ptolemaic (geocentric) model. When he offered to show them the observational evidence and even gave them the chance to see for themselves, they refused.
Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser
“There were philosophers and allegedly perhaps even the Pope himself at the time who refused to look through new and improved Galileo’s telescope,” he said. “They said, ‘we know already the Earth is at the center of the Universe, we will not look through your telescope.’ And we do not want to repeat that mistake. We want to take an agnostic scientific look through the telescope.”
Goals and Instruments
As Loeb explained in the course of the conference, the Galileo Project will have three major avenues of research. They include:
Obtain High-resolution, Multi-detector UAP Images, Discover their Nature:
For this aspect of their research, Loeb and his colleagues will employ advanced algorithmic approaches that leverage Artificial Intelligence/Deep Learning (AI/DL) to differentiate atmospheric phenomena (i.e., birds, balloons, commercial or consumer drones) from potential technological objects that could be extraterrestrial in origin. The devices employed will also attempt to capture megapixel-quality images that could discern millimeter-scale features.
Search for and In-Depth Research on ‘Oumuamua-like Interstellar Objects:
The research group will also utilize existing and future astronomical surveys, such as the aforementioned Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO), to discover and monitor the properties of interstellar visitors. In addition, they will conceptualize and design (potentially in collaboration with space agencies or space ventures) a launch-ready space mission to intercept ISOs as they approach the Sun.
Search for Potential ETC Satellites:
The Project will use the same advanced algorithms and AI/DL object recognition and fast filtering methods to search for potential extraterrestrial satellites in orbit of Earth. This will initially be done using ground-based observatories but will eventually rely on orbital telescopes as well.
Artist’s impression of Breakthrough Starshot. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives
Loeb and his colleagues also plan to create a network of smaller telescopes equipped with high-contrast imaging cameras. Each will be part of a detector array that will rely on conventional radar, Doppler radar, high-resolution synthetic aperture radar, or high-resolution visible and infrared band detection. These arrays will be orthogonal and complementary in nature, observing different parts of the spectrum to ensure full-scale coverage.
Amir Siraj, a former graduate student who studied under Loeb, is the Director of Interstellar Object Studies for the Galileo Project – as well as the youngest laureate in the category of science for the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Siraj shared some details of what this network will look like with Universe Today via email:
“We are interested in building a network of fast-slewing sub-meter telescopes connected to wide-field cameras. Real-time signal processing, powered by artificial intelligence, will deliver slewing commands to the telescope, based on the appearance of objects of interest captured by the wide-field camera.
“If we reach a significantly higher level of funding, we will be interested in constructing an interstellar object intercept mission. One form this could take is a compact solar sail, parked at a Lagrange point and capable of unfurling and chasing down an interstellar object if a suitable target is identified.”
The Time Has Come
In summary, Loeb indicated that the Project also owes its inception to the thousands of extrasolar planets that have been discovered in recent years. To date, 4,438 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,290 star systems, with another 7,605 candidates still awaiting confirmation. However, it is the terrestrial exoplanets (aka. “Earth-like”) ones that orbit within their parent stars’ circumsolar Habitable Zone (HZ) that are of particular interest.
Artist’s impression of how an Earth-like exoplanet might look. Credit: ESO.
While only 165 terrestrial planets have been discovered that are similar in size to Earth, next-generation observatories like the James Webb and Nancy Grace Roman space telescopes are anticipated to find many more. These discoveries suggest that life as we know it could be ubiquitous in the cosmos. For all of these reasons, says Loeb, the Galileo Project is an idea whose time has come:
“Given the recently discovered abundance of habitable-zone exoplanets, with potential for extraterrestrial life, the Galileo Project is dedicated to the proposition that humans can no longer ignore the possible existence of ETCs. Science should not reject potential extraterrestrial explanations because of social stigma or cultural preferences that are not conducive to the scientific method of unbiased, empirical inquiry. We now must ‘dare to look through new telescopes’, both literally and figuratively.”
Since he first proposed it, Prof. Loeb’s explanation for ‘Oumuamua has garnered a great deal of controversy, support, and even ridicule from the scientific community. Time and again, Loeb responded by showing that his hypothesis fits the facts and stressed how the existence of ETCs – and that they could be buzzing our Solar System from time to time – is a possibility that needs to be taken seriously.
If nothing else, the Galileo Project represents a determined effort to transfer the study of UAPs from government and military entities to the scientific community. Rather than being treated as a matter of national security (which is to say, clandestine and secretive in nature), the research into these phenomena needs to be performed with a commitment to openness and transparency.
In this respect, the Galileo Project is not unlike Breakthrough Listen and many other efforts that have benefitted from a combination of public support, premier facilities, and the best scientific minds in the businesses. And much like how the growth of the commercial space industry (aka. NewSpace) has energized space exploration, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is also benefiting from citizen science, public engagement, and public-private partnerships.
For more information on the Galileo Project or to be apprised of updates, check out their home page at Harvard University. In the meantime, you can watch the full public announcement here:
Further Reading: The Galileo Project, Harvard Projects