In a move that some of his peers consider risky but rewarding, Harvard professor and astrophysicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb last month launched a systematic search for artifacts or active technology created by extraterrestrial beings, called the “Galileo Project.”
The project’s necessity, per a July 26 press release, stems in part from a June 25 report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena delivered by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to Congress, which sparked fierce debate over the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Also inspiring this project was Loeb’s work in 2018 studying the “‘Oumuamua” interstellar object, which he famously suggested could have been a probe sent by extraterrestrial beings.
“These objects appear to behave in ways that are not compatible with technologies that we possess,” Loeb said in an interview. “It’s about time for the scientific community to get engaged in studying the nature of these objects, as well as objects like ‘Oumuamua.”
The Galileo Project, per the release, aims to identify UAP “using the standard scientific method based on a transparent analysis of open scientific data to be collected using optimized instruments.”
It will also limit its explanations of UAP to “known physics” to avoid speculation and maintain scientific rigor.
The Galileo Project will follow three avenues: taking images of UAPs to identify them, searching for “‘Oumuamua-like” interstellar objects, and hunting for possible extraterrestrial satellites.
Toward the first end, researchers wrote they hope to create a “network of mid-sized, high-resolution telescopes and detector arrays with suitable cameras and computer systems” in numerous areas. Machine learning software, they added, will allow researchers to sift conventional aircraft or birds out of their collection of images.
In avenue two, according to the press release, the project team will use “existing and future astronomical surveys” to discover and monitor interstellar objects and to design space missions capable of imaging these objects.
The project’s final avenue, the researchers wrote, will include discovering potential one meter-scale or smaller ETC satellites that may be exploring Earth.
Altogether, Loeb said, the project seeks to fill the “big, giant gap” both in humanity’s understanding of extraterrestrial life and research into the subject.
He said he believes the desire for “extraordinary evidence” of extraterrestrial life, combined with a dearth of funding, has made research into the subject practically impossible.
“If there is no funding, obviously, we will never find extraordinary evidence,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle — a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Unlike government reports with only anecdotal evidence, this project will abide by an unbiased, scientific approach, Loeb added. It will not assume the existence of extraterrestrial life to draw conclusions.
“We want to collect our own data from scratch, basically, that will be open, and the analysis will be transparent the way science is done,” Loeb added.
Harvard Astronomy lecturer Gerhard Sonnert said he “applaud[s]” Loeb and his team’s proposal — in particular, their commitment to “empirical” and transparent research.
The government’s secrecy around extraterrestrial research, Sonnert said, has compromised the credibility of its information and bred conspiracy theories. The Galileo Project, by contrast, will be conducted by scientists of the “highest caliber,” which will bestow “legitimacy to the findings,” according to Sonnert.
Sonnert said he is still unsure what exactly the project will find and recognized its high risks, but ultimately pointed to the potential high rewards to the field of extraterrestrial research.
“It’s an ambitious project of high risk, high return, and we don’t know if they find anything, but if they do, it would be a tremendous finding,” he said. “So they try to bring cutting-edge science to bear on a problem that has been around for a long time and has been ignored and put to the sides.”
Harvard astronomer Mercedes López-Morales, member of the Galileo Project’s Scientific Advisory Board, said the project is likely to offer natural explanations for UAPs, though she acknowledged the research’s limitations.
“The Galileo Project data will also be incomplete in a way that is not going to cover all wavelengths. There should be also radar observations and so on,” she said. “But at least in terms of a time baseline, it will be more complete than anything else that is currently available.”
Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan C. McDowell said he worried the project could be too ambitious and unfocused.
McDowell said sightings of UAP are “extremely rare,” acknowledging the “millions of times” that they might have been spotted, but were not.
“My fear is you spend a lot of money and you see nothing,” he added.
McDowell also said he is skeptical that the origins of these UAP is extraterrestrial life, adding that the “boring explanation is almost always right.”
He also said he has questions about the project’s plans to search for one-meter or smaller interstellar satellites, which he feels is “ambitious” and would require the team to “replicate everything that the Space Force already does.”
Amir Siraj ’22, the Galileo Project’s director of interstellar object studies, acknowledged that the project is ambitious, but said he is “very hopeful” it will make significant discoveries, assuming the team can construct a sufficiently large network of telescopes.
Even if the project does not observe any UAP, Siraj added, it could still be a success.
“Let’s say we don’t find any UAP,” he said. “That will be really interesting in its own right, because that could potentially put our result in tension with the rates implied by previous eyewitness testimonies, or even U.S. government reports.”
Loeb said he welcomes pushback about his proposal and will continue with his plans in the spirit of the accurate but then-unpopular theory that Earth revolves around the sun, posited by the project’s namesake Galileo Galilei. “We should look through telescopes to find out the facts,” he said.
“I’m not afraid of addressing a question just because others ridicule it,” he added.
— Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.