A United States research team has been accused of stealing fragments from a meteor – which its lead scientist believes may even be part of an alien spacecraft – from Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The kitchen sink-sized rock entered the Earth’s atmosphere at such a speed in 2014 that it is believed it came from outside the solar system.
Although many scientists doubt it was from a UFO, some aren't so sure.
If analysis proves the meteor, called IM1, did come from another planetary system, it would be the first time interstellar material of any kind knowingly discovered.
But American scientist' seizure of 50 iron balls from the ocean floor off PNG’s Manus Island has been criticised by authorities in the country, who claim no clearance was given for the research team.
According to the Times, the leader of PNG’s opposition demanded the team, led by Harvard University scientist Professor Avi Loeb, return the pieces of the mysterious IM1.
Joseph Lelang said the move undermines trust in the US, which signed a new security pact with the Pacific island state just two months ago.
“What the US citizens were doing was illegal from the start, including stealing the artefacts from our shores,” Mr Lelang is quoted as saying.
“The ink has not yet dried and already the US citizens are disrespecting our people, our country and constitution.
“We expect nothing less than the return of what was stolen from us and for those thieves to be held accountable.”
Amir Siraj, who was part of the expedition, said the discovery of material from an interstellar meteor “would be an enormous scientific achievement” in the Scientific American last week.
Other scientists regard speculation that it could be from a UFO as premature, but the Times reports Professor Loeb has written about the possibility of winning the Nobel prize.
He has reportedly booked a screen in New York’s Times Square for an announcement if evidence supports his theory.
The meteor samples are being analysed in California and will begin at Harvard.
What is the row over IM1 about?
While local media reports Rob McCallum – who led the expedition team – claims the team had approval, PNG’s National Research Institute, which licenses foreign researchers, accused the team of skipping procedures.
The Times reports Stanis Hulahau, the chief migration officer, saiying the scientists could face criminal charges for failing to notify state authorities.
It comes less than two months after the US signed a security pact with PNG, as it competes with China for influence in the Pacific.
PNG’s location just north of Australia makes it strategically significant.
It was the site of fierce battles during World War II, and with a population of nearly 10 million people, it’s the most populous Pacific Islands nation.
The US State Department said the agreement in May provides a framework to help improve security cooperation, enhance the capacity of PNG’s defence force and increase regional stability.
“The work that we’re doing together to try to shape the future could not be more important, could not be more timely,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters.
“We’re deeply invested in the Indo-Pacific because our planet’s future is being written here. Papua New Guinea is playing a critical role in shaping that future.”
Papua New Guinea's prime minister James Marape said the pact is mutually beneficial and “secures our national interests” in “becoming a robust economy in this part of the world.”
But the agreement sparked student protests in the second-largest city, Lae, with many in the Pacific concerned about the increasing militarisation of the region.
Last year, the nearby Solomon Islands signed its own security pact with China, a move that raised alarm throughout the Pacific.
The US has increased its focus on the Pacific, opening embassies in Solomon Islands and Tonga, reviving Peace Corps volunteer efforts, and encouraging more business investment.
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