A topic about outer-space and everything in it, from little green men to big spirally galaxies

Elon Musk is Accumulating Assets Purely to Fund His Dream of Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species

Martian city

Last year we reported on Elon Musk's grand dream of making humans a multiplanetary species, which he detailed in a speech to the space industry at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in September 2016.

Musk's speech - in which he laid out a plan to create a city on Mars - has now been published as a white paper, "Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species", available freely online (until July 5). In it, the SpaceX and Tesla billionaire makes clear that colonizing Mars truly is his grand dream, stating that...

...the main reason I am personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this. I really do not have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.

As I mentioned in last year's story, it certainly is a case of 'dreaming big', and will surely be criticized by more pragmatic and skeptical space industry experts. But I also see echoes in it of JFK's statement in the early 1960s about landing on the Moon before the decade was out, and is perhaps a necessary tonic for breaking out of the limited, 'safe' thinking that has crept into space exploration since the 1970s.

Musk's vision is based on what he sees as a likely 'bifurcation' in the future path of humanity, depending on the decision we make on space colonization - one of which (staying on Earth) will likely end in our extinction.

One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.

His choice of Mars as the destination is based on a number of reasons:

To give some comparison between the two planets, they are remarkably close in many ways. In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.

Mars is about half as far again from the sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.

There may be a bit of glossing over of details, or perhaps simply naivety, in saying "it would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth". Along with the ability to leap a long way comes a bunch of other complications in the way the human body - optimised for living in very specific conditions on Earth - would function (or more correctly, struggle to function).

Another rather large issue in colonizing Mars in any sort of numbers is the price. Up till now, Musk figures, the cost of putting people on Mars would be around $10 billion per person. To achieve his dream, the cost needs to be closer to $200,000 per person:

Not everyone would want to go. In fact, probably a relatively small number of people from Earth would want to go, but enough would want to go who could afford it for it to happen. [But] it's a bit tricky because we have to figure out how to improve the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent. This translates to an improvement of approximately four-and-a-half orders of magnitude. This is not easy. It sounds virtually impossible, but there are ways to do it

The threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars or a civilization would be a million people. If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person.

However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

Musk says that, at the moment, "we are just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and to keep the ball moving forward". If they can do so, he says, their efforts will "show that this is possible and that this dream is real—it is not just a dream, it is something that can be made real—the support will snowball over time."

It's a big dream, but one I'm fully behind - and who knows, if Musk can do it, Wernher von Braun's 1949 prophecy of a Martian leader named Elon might just come true...

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Was the Legendary "Wow!" Signal Caused by a Comet, Rather Than ET?

Radio Telescope Scans the Sky

If you ask a scientist if there's any evidence of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations, you'll likely get the answer "none", but also with the caveat of "although there is the 'Wow!' signal, which hasn't yet been explained". This anomalous radio signal was detected just once, forty years ago, by Ohio State University's Big Ear radio telescope, and got its name from the annotation that astronomer Jerry R. Ehman scribbled on the computer printout when he noticed it: "Wow!"

Beyond simply being an anomalous signal that stood out from the usual background noise, the other important facet of the Wow! signal was its frequency: at the beginnings of SETI, it was theorised that any signal sent by E.T. might be located around the natural emission frequency of the most common element, hydrogen, which is 1420 megahertz. The Wow! Signal frequency was 1420 megahertz.

But now the media is trumpeting that "the Wow! signal has officially lost its wow factor". The alien-killing headline is based on a new paper, "Hydrogen Line Observations of Cometary Spectra at 1420 MHz", authored by Professor Antonio Paris. Building on his 2016 paper arguing that a comet and/or its hydrogen cloud might have been the cause of the Wow! signal, Paris now claims to have found actual examples of similar signals emanating from comets, based on 200 observations conducted between November 2016 and February 2017:

This investigation discovered that comets 266/P Christensen, P/2013 EW90 (Tenagra), P/2016 J1-A (PANSTARRS), and 237P/LINEAR emitted radio waves at 1420 MHz. In addition, the data collected during this investigation demonstrated there is a well-defined distinction between radio signals emitted from known celestial sources and comets, including comet 266/P Christensen.

We speculate that the strength of the original signal in 1977 would have been accounted for by the size of the Big Ear Radio Telescope (when compared with Site B) and/or the potential loss of mass from comet 266/P Christensen, which would have been considerably larger 40 years ago. In addition, while neutral hydrogen clouds have been observed around other comets (mostly from Lyman alpha spectra), determining the physical extent and density of the clouds around comets 266/P Christensen, P/2013 EW90 (Tenagra), P/2016 J1-A (PANSTARRS), and 237P/LINEAR were not the purposes of this investigation. To dismiss the source of the radio signal as emission from comet 266/P Christensen, we repositioned the telescope away from the comet and conducted clear sky observations when the comet was not near the coordinates of the “Wow!” Signal. During these clear sky observations, we detected no significant radio signal at 1420 MHz.

These results led Paris to the conclusion that "cometary spectra are observable at 1420 MHz and that the 1977 “Wow!” Signal was a natural phenomenon from a Solar System body".

So is that the end for the legendary Wow! signal? Apparently not, as a number of astronomers have already responded to the paper with serious skepticism. In a post at r/astronomy, radio astronomer Yvette Cendes explains multiple reasons why the new paper "screamed bullshit to me" - from the obscure journal it was published in, through the strange choice of units used to measure the signal, to the lack of important details about the methodology. In the end, Cendes suggests there might be a very good candidate for what caused Paris's signals (though not the Wow! signal): the Sun:

There is something really radio bright that was within 20 degrees of these comets during the observations- the sun! The sun is the brightest radio source on the sky- it can be thousands of Jansky at these frequencies, if not more, and is frankly bright enough that you can even observe it with one of those little one foot satellite dishes if you know what you're doing. With such an incredibly bright source so incredibly close, it is very, very possible (if not probable) that a bright signal on a telescope of this size is not a genuine source, but the signal from the sun picked up in a side lobe. Hell, you would likely have side lobe issues observing that close to the sun on the best radio telescopes on Earth. Does this paper mention the possibility of this, or how he dealt with observing so close to the sun to make sure he wasn't just picking the sun up in a side lobe? Of course not.

You'll find further skepticism on this new comet theory in this post at Discover ("the signal isn’t bright enough or rapid enough to be a good fit to the Wow! signal"). Additionally, In the comments to the Reddit piece there's much concern about both Paris 'inflating' his reputation, and the fact that he has used Kickstarter to collect money for his research.

Astronomer Chris Lintott has assembled a list of questions that he, and other astronomers, have regarding this new paper that supposedly debunks the Wow! signal. As far as I know Paris has not answered them publicly yet (from his tweets it appears he is currently travelling, so understandable).

The irony of this story is that Paris is also a ufologist (he is the founder and director of Aerial Phenomenon Investigations), and he's the one debunking the Wow! signal while orthodox astronomers are defending it as an ongoing mystery.

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WTF? This 1949 Science Fiction Novel by a Legendary Rocket Designer Names the Leader of Martian Civilization as "Elon"

Project Mars book cover

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In recent years entrepreneur Elon Musk has put himself at the forefront of the emerging commercial space industry with his company SpaceX enjoying multiple orbital rocket launch successes (as well as the development of their self-returning, reusable rocket systems).

Just last year Musk dreamt big when discussing the future of space travel, saying it was his goal to see a million people living on Mars within 50 years. But with a population that large, the logistics and planning wouldn't just involve space travel, but would also have to take into consideration a variety of social, economic and political factors. For instance, Who would be in charge? Who would be mayor, or governor, or president of the Red Planet?

Never fear, the answer may have already been given to us: in 1949, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun - former Nazi rocketeer, soon to be NASA's star rocket designer - wrote a science fiction book about humanity's first mission to Mars. Von Braun put his considerable technical knowledge to use (according to many reviewers, perhaps adding *too* much detail) in writing Project Mars: A Technical Tale. In his story, set in the 1980s, ten large space ships make the journey, a project which required "upwards of 1,000 flights into Earth's orbit" in order to "build, supply and fuel these ten ships, and it is an international, cooperative project."

By chapter 22 of von Braun's novel, the human visitors have discovered a peaceful indigenous civilization that resides underground on Mars (remembering when he wrote it, little was known about the planet's habitability). And then, in chapter 24, we are given an outline of how Mars is governed by this civilization. It's here that we come across a wonderfully surprising discovery:

Project Mars Excerpt

The Martian government was directed by ten men, the leader of whom was elected by universal suffrage for five years and entitled "Elon." Two houses of Parliament enacted the laws to be administered by the Elon and his cabinet.

The Upper House was called the Council of the Elders and was limited to a membership of 60 persons, each being appointed for life by the Elon as vacancies occurred by death. In principle, the method was not unlike that by which the College of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church is appointed. Usually the Elon chose historians, churchmen, former cabinet members or successful economic leaders who could offer lifetimes of valuable experience.

Yes, you heard von Braun - one of the progenitors of human space travel - correctly: the leader of Martian civilization is called 'Elon', the same name as Elon Musk, who is currently leading the field of human space travel. Predestination, time vortex, or just a delicious coincidence? Maybe throw this one in the Mars weirdness file with Jack Kirby drawing the Face on Mars in a comic 17 years before it was discovered...

Wernher von Braun's Project Mars: A Technical Tale is available to download in multiple formats from archive.org.

(via Reddit)

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Billionaire Robert Bigelow Tells 60 Minutes There is "an Existing Extraterrestrial Presence on Earth"

Robert Bigelow

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In recent years Robert 'Bob' Bigelow has become a major player in the fledgling commercial space industry, most notably through Bigelow Aerospace's development of inflatable space modules that have since been tested at the International Space Station. Bigelow Aerospace was made possibly by Bigelow's extraordinary success as the entrepreneur who created the hotel chain Budget Suites of America. But before Bigelow became big in extraterrestrial accomodation, he was interested in other extraterrestrial matters: namely, the possibility that aliens had visited - and to this day are still present on - Earth.

Back in the day, Bigelow funded the National Institute of Discovery Studies (NIDS), devoted to studying 'out-there' phenomenon in a scientific manner (at one time purchasing the legendary 'Skinwalker Ranch' outright in order to investigate the odd sightings reported there), and later (controversially) provided financial backing to the Mutual UFO network (MUFON) for field investigators, in return for access to the organization's data. (We've mentioned Bigelow many times here over the years, along with NIDS.)

But if anybody thought Bob Bigelow might be leaving UFOs and the paranormal behind in a bid for respectability, think again. In an interview this week with 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan, Bigelow came right out and nailed his colours to the mast.

Lara Logan: Do you believe in aliens?

Robert Bigelow: I'm absolutely convinced. That's all there is to it.

Lara Logan: Do you also believe that UFOs have come to Earth?

Robert Bigelow: There has been and is an existing presence, an ET presence. And I spent millions and millions and millions -- I probably spent more as an individual than anybody else in the United States has ever spent on this subject.

Logan, surprised by this up-front revelation, pushed Bigelow, asking him if he thought it was risky for him - as a high-profile businessman, and CEO in the commercial space industry - to say publicly that he believed in aliens. I looooove Bigelow's response: "I don't give a damn. I don't care."

Lara Logan: You don't worry that some people will say, "Did you hear that guy, he sounds like he's crazy"?

Robert Bigelow: I don't care.

Lara Logan: Why not?

Robert Bigelow: It's not gonna make a difference. It's not gonna change reality of what I know.

Lara Logan: Do you imagine that in our space travels we will encounter other forms of intelligent life?

Robert Bigelow: You don't have to go anywhere.

Lara Logan: You can find it here? Where exactly?

Robert Bigelow: It's just like right under people's noses. Oh my gosh. Wow.

Bigelow Aerospace's Alien Logo

Link: Robert Bigelow interviewed by 60 Minutes

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Astronomers Scramble for their Telescopes as 'Alien Megastructure' Star Starts Dimming Again

Dyson Sphere

The controversy over the 'alien megastructure' star (aka KIC 8462852, 'Tabby's Star', and Boyajian's Star) has raged in the few short years since it was noticed that the light it is emitting has periodically dimmed - a pattern that doesn’t show up anywhere else in astronomy, across 150,000 stars surveyed.

If the topic is new to you, work your way through the 'Related Stories' links at the bottom of this post, as we've been covering it for a while now. Or, for the tldr; crowd, here's the Wikipedia summary:

Unusual light fluctuations of the star were discovered by citizen scientists as part of the Planet Hunters project, and in September 2015 astronomers and citizen scientists associated with the project posted a preprint of a paper on arXiv describing the data and possible interpretations. The discovery was made from data collected by the Kepler space telescope, which observes changes in the brightness of distant stars to detect exoplanets.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the star's large irregular changes in brightness as measured by its unusual light curve, but none to date fully explain all aspects of the curve. The leading hypothesis, based on a lack of observed infrared light, posits a swarm of cold, dusty comet fragments in a highly eccentric orbit. However, the notion that disturbed comets from such a cloud could exist in high enough numbers to obscure 22% of the star's observed luminosity has been doubted. Another hypothesis is that of a large number of small masses in "tight formation" orbiting the star. However, spectroscopic study of the system has found no evidence for coalescing material or hot close-in dust or circumstellar matter from an evaporating or exploding planet within a few astronomical units of the mature central star. It has also been hypothesized that the changes in brightness could be signs of activity associated with intelligent extraterrestrial life constructing a Dyson swarm.

(And if you really don't like reading, check out this TED talk about KIC 8462852, by Tabetha Boyajian herself.)

Now, the controversy over the star looks set to be reignited - and hopefully answers to the mystery uncovered - with news that it has just started dimming again. Astronomers are, understandably, a wee bit excited about this:

The dimming event is still underway as I write, so it's still very early days in terms of looking for patterns and answers. However, the following graph posted by @David_Kipping shows an interesting comparison between the public observations of the star so far to a previously recorded dipping event.

Dipping pattern in Tabby's Star

To keep up to date with developments related to this new dimming event, it is probably worth checking out the ongoing discussion currently taking place on a Reddit board devoted to KIC 8462852. Also, last night Tabetha Boyajian participated in an online Q&A about the new observations currently underway, which I've embedded below for those interested:

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Solving the Fermi Paradox: Could Advanced Aliens Be Lovecraftian 'Old Ones', Sleeping Through Eons?

Aliens in hibernation

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It's not often that you find academic papers about the possibility of alien civilisations that cite H.P.Lovecraft. But that's exactly what you'll find in a new article authored by Oxford University researchers, "That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox".

The researchers, from Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, ask if advanced civilisations - who would likely be burning through power sources due to vast increases in computational ability - might make the decision to go into a hibernation of sorts ("aestivation") in order to take advantage of more energy-friendly conditions in the deep future:

[E]arly civilizations have a far greater chance to colonize and pre-empt later civilizations if they wish to do so. If these early civilizations are around, why are they not visible? The aestivation hypothesis states that they are aestivating until a later cosmological era.

The argument is that the thermodynamics of computation make the cost of a certain amount of computation proportional to the temperature. Our astrophysical and cosmological knowledge indicates that the universe is cooling down with cosmic time. As the universe cools down, one Joule of energy is worth proportionally more.

...Hence a civilization desiring to maximize the amount of computation will want to use its energy endowment as late as possible: using it now means far less total computation can be done. Hence an early civilization, after expanding to gain access to enough raw materials, will settle down and wait until it becomes rational to use the resources.

We are not observing any aliens since the initial expansion phase is brief and intermittent and the aestivating civilization and its infrastructure is also largely passive and compact.

In short, the paper says, very big civilisations might have a small footprint because they have "relocated most of their activity to the future". Advanced civilizations might have “seen it all”, the researchers say, and so "do not gain much more information utility from hanging around in the early era".

To 'relocate their activity to the future', the researchers say, advanced aliens could have figured out a way to either just 'hibernate', or otherwise perhaps even regulated their "mental speed" to change their subjective experience of time to enable them to 'traverse' large periods of time with minimum impact.

The paper is obviously all very speculative, even if they do offer real science (much of it too complex for me) to try and back up their hypothesis (they also note that the paper didn't originally aim to solve the Fermi Paradox, but rather was a consideration of how advanced civilizations might manage their resources).

But if you're going to have some fun speculating about hibernating ancient aliens, why not go hog wild and throw in some Lovecraft to paint a picture? That's exactly what the authors do to illustrate their scenario of 'sleeping Old Ones', inserting the two following quotes into their paper:

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
H.P. Lovecraft

The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.
Not in the spaces we know, but between them. They walk serene
and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror and Others

Maybe they should have put 'eldritch' in front of every second noun just to really set a Lovecraftian tone...

Link: "That is not dead which can eternal lie: the aestivation hypothesis for resolving Fermi’s paradox" on arXiv.org

Related: SETI Should Consider Black Holes As Potential Targets

(thanks Norman)

Searching for Artifacts of Ancient Technological Species in Our Own Solar System

Ancient alien city

Since its birth around a half century ago, SETI has largely focused on looking for alien civilisations beyond our own solar system, searching for radio signals from prominent or nearby stars. But what if there were earlier technological civilisations in our own solar system, or even here on Earth?

That's the question explored in a new paper posted to arXiv.org (and soon to be published in the International Journal of Astrobiology), "Prior Indigenous Technological Species", by astronomer Jason T. Wright.

SETI typically focuses on interstellar radio signals or other studies of objects beyond the Solar System, however an alternative search avenue has been appreciated for nearly as long: the search for alien artifacts within the Solar System. This has not only been a topic for science fiction (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey) but in the SETI literature. Indeed, the apparent lack of such artifacts has been used as evidence that humanity must be the only spacefaring civilization in the Galaxy (Hart, 1975). Despite Hart’s claim, we can hardly rule out such artifacts in the Solar System, as demonstrated by Freitas (1983a) and Haqq-Misra & Kopparapu (2012).

In these discussions it is assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the origin of such artifacts would be not just extraterrestrial (Haqq-Misra & Kopparapu, 2012, refer to them as “Non-Terrestrial Artifacts” (NTAs)) but extrasolar. But if such technology were to be discovered, we should consider the possibility that its origin lies within the Solar System, and potentially on Earth.

After all, given that the bodies in the Solar System are at least five orders of magnitude closer than the nearest star system, and given that we know that not only are the ingredients of and conditions for life common in the Solar System, but that one of its planets is known to host complex life, it is perhaps more likely that their origin be local, than that an extraterrestrial species crossed interstellar space and deposited it here. At the very least, the relative probabilities of the two options is unclear.

In this paper, I discuss the possibility for such prior indigenous technological species; by this I mean species that are indigenous to the Solar System, produce technosignatures and/or were spacefaring, and are currently extinct or otherwise absent.

Wright notes that one of the great difficulties in finding evidence for previous technological civilisations in our solar system is simply the passage of time - old stuff disappears. "The Earth is quite efficient, on cosmic timescales, at destroying evidence of technology on its surface," he notes. "Biodegredation can destroy organic material in a matter of weeks, and weathering and other forms of erosion will destroy most exposed rock and metals on a timescale of centuries to millennia, if human activity does not erase it faster.

Wright points out that, at the very longest, some "large and durable structures, in the right environments" - such as the Giza pyramids - might last for 'just' tens of thousands of years. Given complex life has existed on Earth for over 400 million years (40,000 sequential periods of 10,000 years), you see the problem in searching for 'ancient aliens'. Not least, because, on timescales of hundreds of millions of years "plate tectonics will subduct almost all evidence for technology with the crust it sits upon, erasing it from the surface entirely.

Regardless of those difficulties, where should we look? Wright suggests that Venus - with a thinner atmosphere in the past - and Mars, once covered in water, would be good candidates. And he reminds us that search should also include Earth (though he disavows the topic of 'ancient aliens' on his blog). Furthermore, he notes, "while all geological records of prior indigenous technological species might be long destroyed, if the species were spacefaring there may be technological artifacts to be found throughout the Solar system."

It's a fascinating hypothetical topic, though it is worth pointing out that Jason Wright is not particularly happy about "all the wrong kind of attention" the paper has received "from the yellow press and the ufologists....it is mortifying...Now excuse me while I answer all these emails from Coast to Coast and ufologists sending me pictures of clouds."

No doubt his frustration has arisen from the "astronomer says ancient aliens existed in our own solar system" headlines that the paper has generated, with many mis-judging what the words "may" and "is possible" mean, in terms of likelihood of ancient alien civilisations. As Wright says on his blog, he put his paper together...

...not because I think they exist, but because we’re at the point where it should be possible to say for sure that certain types of them didn’t. The end of the paper is all about the things we can do to start drawing some conclusions.

I recommend - as I have to SETI people before - that it might be worth engaging with the ufologists and Forteans, rather than dissing them, as they could be some of your staunchest advocates, even if there is some disagreement over assumptions and conclusions.

Paper: "Prior Indigenous Technological Species", by astronomer Jason T. Wright.

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Cassini Takes a Photo of Earth While Looking Through Saturn's Rings

Earth as Seen From Between Saturn's Rings

Just to break things down in case you've lost your sense of wonder: a robot orbiting around Saturn just took a photo of all 7.5 billion of us sitting on a pinhead, and framed it with Saturn's rings.

Or, let's allow Carl Sagan to present a more eloquent explanation (originally written in 1994 regarding the original 'pale blue dot' image taken by Voyager 1):

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Cassini is about to dive into Saturn's rings on its way to its 'grand finale' - a death plunge into Saturn itself.

More information on the photo is available at the Cassini website.

Reports About the Demise of the UFO Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There's a persistent joke on the 'net about how, as camera phones have grown in usage, the number of UFO sightings has dropped (e.g. this XKCD comic). And while this joke has morphed slowly into an assumed fact, the truth of the matter is actually the opposite - at least in Canada anyhow.

Need proof? See the 2016 Canadian UFO Survey, which shows that UFO sightings are currently being reported at near-record levels. The Canadian UFO Survey has been compiled by UFOlogy Research Manitoba since 1989, and in 2016 they recorded 1131 officially filed UFO reports - the fifth year in a row above 1000 cases - which "clearly contradicts comments by those who would assert that UFOs are a ‘passing fad’ or that UFO sightings are decreasing in number".

Here's a graph of the numbers of reported sightings of UFOs in Canada from 1989-2016, just for clarity:

Graph of the Number of Canadian UFO Sightings 1989-2016

Of course, a high number of UFO sightings doesn't necessarily translate to something inexplicable. As noted in a blog post summarising the report, most of the UFOs reported were just simple lights in the sky, while 'close encounters' comprised less than 1 in 100 of the reports. Additionally, it has to be noted that the number of cases considered "Unexplained" was just 4%. And further...

...It should be emphasized the classification of Unknown does not imply alien visitation. Each case may still have an explanation following further investigation. And of those that remain unexplained, they may remain unexplained, but still are not incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial intervention or some mysterious natural phenomenon.

For more detailed (and fascinating) breakdowns of the data, as well as selected cases of interest, see the full 2016 Canadian UFO Report (PDF download).

Cassini's Grand Finale

While I'm not exactly in the mood to marry a robot, if ever there was a machine that I could love it is the Cassini probe. After almost 20 years in space on its mission to investigate Saturn and its moons, later this month the probe will begin a five month approach that will see it eventually destroyed as it descends into the cloudy atmosphere of the ringed planet.

To commemorate Cassini's two decade-long mission, NASA and JPL have released the short video above.

The final chapter in a remarkable mission of exploration and discovery, Cassini's Grand Finale is in many ways like a brand new mission. Twenty-two times, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will dive through the unexplored space between Saturn and its rings. What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft. This animated video tells the story of Cassini's final, daring assignment and looks back at what the mission has accomplished.

For more detailed information about Cassini's 'grand finale', head over to the NASA website.