Israeli Harvard professor launches search for ‘extraterrestrial civilizations’

Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project will seek out objects made by existing or extinct otherworldly cultures; theoretical physicist has clashed with scientific establishment over theories

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

An artist’s impression of the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua. Scientist Avi Loeb believes it could have been an extraterrestrial artifact. (Courtesy/European Southern Observatory, M. Kornmesser)
An artist’s impression of the interstellar asteroid Oumuamua. Scientist Avi Loeb believes it could have been an extraterrestrial artifact. (Courtesy/European Southern Observatory, M. Kornmesser)

A prominent, but controversial, Israeli scientist at Harvard University has launched a project that will take a fresh approach to the search for extraterrestrials, hoping to find some signs of their technology or civilizations.

Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project will systematically search for physical artifacts produced by “extraterrestrial technological civilizations.” Previous programs, such as the SETI Institute, scoured the cosmos in search of electromagnetic signals, not objects.

“Given the recently discovered abundance of Earth-Sun systems, the Galileo Project is dedicated to the proposition that humans can no longer ignore the possible existence of extraterrestrial technological civilizations,” the group said.

Loeb, a theoretical physicist, announced the Galileo Project on Monday. Loeb was the longest-serving chair of Harvard’s Department of Astronomy, a position he held from 2011-2020, and is currently a tenured science professor at the university.

He came to public prominence after asserting that an anomalous object from outside the solar system observed tumbling past the sun in 2017 could have been an extraterrestrial artifact.

Astronomers in Hawaii only glimpsed the object they called Oumuamua, meaning “scout” in Hawaiian, as it streaked away from the sun, moving irregularly. The strangely shaped body was the first known interstellar object seen in our solar system. It appeared to be small, under 1 kilometer in length, dark red and shaped like either a cigar or a pancake.

Israeli Harvard scientist Avi Loeb. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Loeb argued Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial artifact, such as a light-sail powered by solar rays, or a communication dish. Most astronomers believe it was natural in origin, but differ in opinion on what it was, or where it came from.

He promulgated the theory in mass media, scientific literature and in a book called “Extraterrestrial.” Loeb has alienated himself from much of the scientific community with his outspoken views and approach and clashed with some of his peers.

“Science should not dogmatically reject potential extraterrestrial explanations because of social stigma or cultural preferences, factors which are not conducive to the scientific method of unbiased, empirical inquiry,” the Galileo Project said.

The initiative’s launch also follows a long-anticipated US government report issued last month on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) that were seen and recorded by US navy personnel. The Department of Defense investigators said they found no evidence the phenomena were extraterrestrial, but did not deny a link and could not explain some of the sightings.

The image from video provided by the Department of Defense labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at center as it is tracked as it soars high along the clouds, traveling against the wind. (Department of Defense via AP)

“The existing data on UAP and Oumuamua are sufficiently anomalous to motivate the collection of additional data on UAP or Oumuamua-like objects and to test whether such objects may be astro-archeological artifacts or active technological equipment produced by one or more putative, existing or extinct extraterrestrial technological civilizations,” the Galileo Project said on its website.

Loeb founded the project with Frank Laukien, head of the Massachusetts-based Bruker Corporation, a manufacturer of scientific equipment. The scientific advisory board includes researcher Sagi Ben Ami of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, and the research team includes members from the universities of Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge and UNC Chapel Hill.

The Galileo Project aims to identify unidentified aerial phenomena and “Oumuamua-like interstellar objects” through scientific analysis of data collected with cutting-edge instruments. The data and analytical process will be transparent and open to the public, the group said.

The researchers will pursue three main avenues to achieve their goals: they seek to capture high-resolution images of unidentified aerial phenomena with a network of telescopes and other detection equipment; search for interstellar objects with existing and future astronomical surveys; and look for small extraterrestrial satellites that may be observing our planet.

The project said that, even if it does not find evidence of aliens, it will produce useful data on novel interstellar objects.

It has received donations amounting to $1.755 million, Loeb said in Monday’s press conference.

The project was named for the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, a trailblazer in the use of telescopes to study space who was punished by church officials in the 17th century for stating the Earth rotated around the sun. The initiative’s tagline is, “Daring to look through new telescopes.”

Loeb is from the moshav of Beit Hanan in central Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces’ prestigious Talpiot program and received his first degree from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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