Military memo adds to possible interstellar meteor mystery

While many — including the two Harvard astronomers — interpreted Space Command’s statement to NASA as confirmation that the meteor is interstellar, some astronomers believe more data is needed to back up that claim. The available measurements, they say, lack error bars that indicate how precise or uncertain they were.

“Punishment is not enough. The scientific results are published, they are not secret,” said Maria Hajdukova, a researcher at the Astronomical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Slovakia, who studies meteors and has reviewed Space Command’s corroboration. “I’m not saying I don’t believe it, but if I don’t have facts, I can’t say that,” she added.

NASA said in a public statement this month that “the short duration of the data collected, less than five seconds, makes it difficult to definitively determine whether the origin of the object was indeed interstellar”.

“Quite frankly, we can’t confirm that it’s interstellar,” NASA planetary defense officer Lindley Johnson said in an interview. “While this is a high speed, a speed that could potentially be interstellar, it is almost impossible to confirm that it is interstellar without accompanying data – from a longer data range or of data from other sources, which does not exist in this case.”

Dr. Loeb and Mr. Siraj disagreed. “Five seconds is a long time,” Dr. Loeb said. “It’s not the duration that counts, it’s the quality of the data collected that counts. For five seconds you can do a lot, in terms of instrumentation and measurement.

He and Mr. Siraj plan to resubmit their paper to The Astrophysical Journal Letters. And data on the 2014 meteor now coming from the military agency may help their argument, said Peter Veres, an astronomer at the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planets Center, which tracks objects in the solar system.

This data shows an unusual sequence of three bursts of light as the object passed through Earth’s atmosphere. “It looks weird, I can tell you that,” Dr Veres said, noting that the brightness of meteors as they dive usually only peaks once.

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