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

UFOs in Norway: Are the 'Hessdalen Lights' Sparks From a Giant Geological Battery?

Hessdalen Lights
(Photo by Leif Havik, copyright Project Hessdalen)

Are the 'Hessdalen Lights', strange luminous aerial phenomena (some might even say the word 'UFOs'...) observed for many years in the Hessdalen Valley of Norway, the equivalent of sparks created by a natural geological battery? That's one of the theories suggested in a story in this week's issue of New Scientist, in which reporter Caroline Williams spoke to some of the researchers who have returned year after year to study the anomaly:

Sometimes the lights are as big as cars and can float around for up to 2 hours. Other times they zip down the valley before suddenly fading away. Then therea re the blue and white flashes that come and go in the blink of an eye, and daytime sightings that look like metallic objects in the sky. It is little wonder that when they started appearing up to 20 times a week in the early 1980s, UFOlogists hailed the Hessdalen valley as a portal to other worlds and flocked there to celebrate.

But for an international team that has been studying the mysterious lights since then, the valley harbours something much more exciting than flying saucers. If they can work out what it is about the place that powers such incredible light displays, it may not only help explain mysterious lights in other parts of the world, but also open up the possibility of storing energy in a radical way. It is a big if, but the team will be heading back to Hessdalen in the summer to test out a bunch of theoires on what is generating the lights. Armed with clues from recent lab studies, plus a bank of new instruments and sensors, they could find that this is the year it all starts to make sense.

The small group of Italian, Norwegian and French researchers who have been working together (part-time) on the mystery for the last 14 years have have noticed a few curious things about the Hessdalen Lights: while they make no sound and don't seem to be overly hot (no evidence of burn marks where they contact trees and the ground), they do seem to sterilise the ground where they land, as there is an absence of soil microbes at areas of contact. Furthermore, the researchers have found that they sometimes get strong radar echoes "from unseen entities" even when no lights are visible.

The combination of all these clues has researchers thinking that the Hessdalen Lights are a kind of plasma, formed from ionised gas. When the gas ionises, it forms "a cloud of ions and electrons which release energy in the form of light when they recombine". This light is not always in the visible spectrum though, and plasmas can be cool enough to touch. Even more interesting, plasmas are known to kill bacteria. And a plasma cloud would also account for the strange daytime sightings of 'metallic objects' flying through the sky - such objects would in fact be very dense plasma clouds beginning to emit light.

However, to ionise gas usually requires temperatures around the 10,000°C mark...something like a lightning strike. Therein lies the problem: in Hessdalen the lights aren't linked to thunderstorms, and appear on sunny days and clear nights. This has researchers mystified. "There must be an energy source somewhere that has the power of a lighting strike," electrical engineer Bjorn Gitle Hauge says. "What can electrify and drive a ball of light as big as a car for several hours?"

There are a number of theories. One is that strong winds whipping through the valley might create static electricity on the mountains. Another theory is they are powered by radioactivity - specifically, decay of radon in the atmosphere (though radioactivity tests have failed to find any evidence for this). One other theory is that the valley acts as a giant battery, due to its unique geology: it is literally a "valley of two halves", as the rocks on one side of the river are rich in zinc and iron, while those on the other side are rich in copper. With the possibility that the river water between has sulphur in it, researchers have asked whether the natural geology of the valley make it "a perfect battery".

"To test the idea, Jader Monari (of the Institute of Radio Astronomy in Medicina, Italy) and Romano Serra (from the University of Bologna, Italy) set up a pair of rocks from opposite sides of the valley as electrodes, and dunked them in river sediment to mimic a battery. They found that a current flowed between the two. "It was possible to light a lamp," says Monari.

Monari suggests that this unique geology contributes to the lights in two ways. First, it supplies the bubbles of ionised gas, formed when sulphurous fumes react with the humid air of the valley. Second, it forms electromagnetic field lines in the valley that could move the bubble around. "This electrical field creates a path that could be the 'main raod' of the lights inside the valley," he says.

The amount of theories has some researchers worried though. Computer engineer Erling Strand, who began the scientific study of the lights some three decades ago with 'Project Hessdalen', says he thinks "the theories we have now are based on too few hard facts. It can damage the research." Nevertheless, the idea that the phenomena have some basis in electrical charges is supported by other observeations, such as an observed connection between the aurora and the Hessdalen lights - observers have found that they are particularly impressive during auroral displays.

For those that would like to know more about the Hessdalen Lights, watch the documentary below. And of course, check out the feature in the latest issue of New Scientist.


You Monkeys Are Not Ready for ET Contact!

It is quite possibly every middle-aged geek's wet dream, aside of a working hover-board: That fateful day when humans finally get to shake hands, claws or tentacles with ambassadors from another world; the watershed moment when we'll finally know for certain that we're not alone in the universe, and a new chapter --or rather, an entire volume-- in the history of our species would commence.

I've been ready for that moment all of my life, ever since I heard that seminal 5-tone sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but what about humanity as a whole? That's what Gabriel G. De la Torre, a professor of psychology from the University of Cádiz in Spain, sought to find out. His conclusions: We still need a looot of growin' up to do before we can hang out with the big boys of the galactic playground.

De la Torre is a corresponding member of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and has been part of several committees related to space-oriented projects. In a paper published on the IAA's Acta Astronautica titled Toward a New Cosmic Consciousness: Psychoeducational Aspects of Contact with Extraterrestrial Civilizations, he analyzed the preliminary results of a written questionnary he applied to 116 college students from Spain, Italy & the USA, to assess whether our current level of awareness would be capable of handling the deep psychological impact, of discoverying and/or contacting an extraterrestrial civilization. His concern is that several cultural factors --religion in particular-- would tend to skew our opinion & expectations about the aliens; are they friends or enemies? conquerors or saviors? Like anything else we interact with, there would be an unconscious tendency to anthropomorphize these non-human entities.

We estimate that this type of event will have not only a social effect but also on both consciousness and biology as well. Some authors [16] believe that an anthropocentric vision can influence the benevolent or malevolent perception of a possible EC.The variables that produce these misperceptions or interpretation biases with regard to this type of event are related to what we called modular aspects of cosmic consciousness.

I must say that after reading De la Torre's paper, I found it something of a mixed bag. Yes, organized religions tend to color the prejudice of a great percentage of the population --although it must be pointed out that all the participating students in his study were living in Christian nations, and that he initially focused on the 80 of them who were from Spain, where Catholicism still has a great influence-- but I think most Grailers would agree with me when I say you can also find a lot of biased opinions among non-religious individuals. When Louis Pasteur was trying to support the case for germ theory, arguing that diseases like cholera or anthrax were caused by a whole realm of tiny organisms which are invisible to the naked eye, I hardly suspect whatever resistance he encountered was fueled by the lack of mention of microbes in the Bible…

What's more, De la Torre seems to follow the party-line assumption that alien contact has yet to occur, even though a significant amount of his study subjects considered UFOs "are a real phenomenon that explains that beings from other worlds are visiting us today;" and yet further along on the paper he states that although an open contact would be the most likely scenario, "a covert or unconscious contact is another possibility we should not discard." If De la Torre is so preoccupied with the social & biological effects of alien contact, perhaps he should pay more attention to Jacques Vallee's 'cultural thermostat' theory of UFOs, and his ideas of how this phenomenon acts like a control system slowly shaping our cultural, and perhaps even physical evolution.

Not that De la Torre is a hard materialist per se, mind you. There's a part in the paper where he gives a little shout-out to Roger Penrose & Stuart Hameroff's quantum consciousness theory, and he even speculates whether consciousness may play a bigger role in the structure of the Universe than we're currently aware of. Like I said, mixed bag.

In the end I guess the matter is something of a paradox: Nothing could ever fully prepare our world for the cultural shock of ET contact, and realizing it's not just us floating about in all this 'wasted space'; and yet facing that truth would greatly accelerate our shift from a local awareness to thinking in a much, much broader scale. Like Richard Dolan & Brice wrote in their book After Disclosure: The People's Guide to Life After Contact, when they equated it to parenthood --no matter who you are, you're NEVER ready to become a parent, but when the time comes you learn the ropes as you go along.

While he tries to continue with his research, applying his little questionnaire to more students from other nations, De la Torre has already found a deficiency in astronomy & space-related knowledge among the subjects studied so far; he proposes that aside from scanning the skies in search of that long-waited ET tweet, SETI should also focus some of its efforts in devising strategies to improve the education of astronomy is school curricula.

Extensive education outreach and efforts to increase awareness of Space related topics and existent relationships between Cosmos, Earth and life can be extremely helpful. SETI can take an important role in this regard.

That's all well & good, but if we're REALLY serious about achieving that cosmic consciousness of his, how about we start including some magic mushrooms in school lunches, too? ;)

William Shatner Goes Boldly Into the Topic of UFOs and Alien Abductions on Larry King

Kirk vs Gorn

"Don't beam me up, aliens". That's what William Shatner – the man who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek - might be saying each night after researching the topic of alien abductions for a novel he is currently working on. In a conversation with Larry King (embedded below), the original captain of the Enterprise noted the work of Harvard professor John E. Mack on the topic, before veering into other fringish topics such as the mysteries of quantum physics.

When King first asks Shatner whether he is writing a sci-fi novel involving UFOs, the 83-year-old actor hesitates, then answers "yes". King then asks him to explain why he paused before answering, and Shatner's reply references John Mack's troubles after delving into the subject:

The hesitation is this: do you remember a man by the name of John E. Mack? John E. Mack was a psychiatrist, a tenured professor at Harvard. Was given by a friend of his, an opportunity to interview some of the people who said "we've been abducted by UFOs". After 200 interviews he concluded they were right...

He almost lost his tenure at Harvard. He lost his wife and children over it. And he walks out of the door not too long after that, and he's hit by a hit-and-run driver and killed.

There's a bit of hyperbole in there (e.g. John Mack was killed by a drunk driver in 2004, some ten years after the publication of his book Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens), but that's part of the package with good old Bill. Great to see him still producing quotes that are sure to make rationalist geeks froth at the mouth (he's previously hosted shows looking into paranormal mysteries, such as Weird or What).


The Curiosity Rover on Mars May Have Just Taken the Best Selfie Ever

Curiosity Rover's Selfie on Mars

Sure, you may have some cool selfies, but do you have one of you on another planet?! Here's the latest self-portrait from the Mars Curiosity Rover (click for larger version), just to help us all remember the mind-blowing fact that we have a robot driving around on the surface of another planet...

If you're wondering how the rover can take a selfie without any visible 'arm' in the shot, it's actually stitched together out of 75 separate images. For more information on this, see this 2013 post from Emily Lakdawalla where she explained a previous selfie taken by Curiosity.

(Image reprocessed by @Doug_Ellison)

Update: There's another very cool wide-angle Curiosity selfie!


The XXX-Files: Is Area 69, A Brothel Near Area 51, Spying on Government Secrets?

Captain Kirk Does His Thing

Not far up the road from the top secret military base Area 51 (aka 'Groom Lake', 'Dreamland' etc) lies Area 69 - another location with secrets, though of a different kind: it's a brothel. Said to cater to the sci-fi enthusiast, incorporating sex into an array of role-playing settings from famous sci-fi films and TV shows, the house of alien repute is now suspected by some to be targeting other clients - namely, workers from Area 51, in order to pump them (no pun intended) for secret information:

“Because of its close proximity and location, the brothel, gas station and convenience store will see a lot of truck and vehicle traffic from and to ‘the base’ – which official [sic] doesn’t exist. It is conceivable that a femme fatal or spy could work at the brothel and target men thought to work at the base in some capacity. Men get lonely and form relationships sometimes with whores at the brothel. Ply them with drinks and ask leading questions and they could reveal secrets about what they do at the facility at Groomlake…”, says Tony Gibbs of Charlotte, N.C. a private security consultant for high level corporate executives. “Why else would you set up such located out in the middle of nowhere but America’s most secret research facility”, he said.

You can find out more about Area 69 in this 2012 video report from ABC News:

(via @UnlikelyWorlds)

Link: Brothel near top secret base in Nevada poses a serious security concern

The Varieties of the UFO Experience

UFO Typology Chart 1967

Next time the Pleiadeans land in your backyard, use this handy chart (created in 1967) to identify their craft type and previous visits.

(via Bruce Sterling)

Life Too Slow to See - Timelapse Footage of Marine Animals

Slow life - timelapse footage of marine animals

Last month, in a post about hummingbird singing slowed down by a factor of eight, I asked whether "our human-based perception of events in time blind us to certain aspects of 'reality'". That principle isn't limited in one direction to things too fast for us to see or hear though - see the stunningly beautiful video below (fullscreen and HD that thing) showing 'slow life', made observable in our natural timeframe only by speeding up timelapse observations:

"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.

...To make this little clip I took 150000 shots. Why so many? Because macro photography involves shallow depth of field. To extend it, I used focus stacking. Each frame of the video is actually a stack that consists of 3-12 shots where in-focus areas are merged. Just the intro and last scene are regular real-time footage. One frame required about 10 minutes of processing time (raw conversion + stacking). Unfortunately, the success rate was very low due to copious technical challenges and I spent almost 9 long months just to learn how to make these kinds of videos and understand how to work with these delicate creatures.

Could there be 'slow life' at the extremes, moving on the scale of millennia, all but unobservable to beings like us limited to a century of life?

(Video by Daniel Stoupin - art prints of his photography are available there. Found via Explore)

NASA Orbiter Sees a Robot on Mars

Curiosity Rover on Mars

I am constantly amazed at how quickly I take amazing technology for granted which would have seemed like science fiction just a decade previous to their invention (iPhones, 60+ inch flat screen TVs etc). I guess it's just the way we're wired. But this still boggles my mind - we have put robots on to other planets, such as Mars, and in some cases we can even see those robots via other amazing technology, such as the above shot (click to telescopenate) of the Curiosity rover from the HiRise camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Amazingly, the HiRise camera has previously even imaged these robots parachuting down to the planet on their arrival.

Now, if we could just see an image of the landscape to the top left of this one, where the 'Mars light' (if it was a physical object) seemed to be shining from in those anomalous images last week...

(If there wasn't an Earthly robot on the Red Planet in that spot, I wonder if NASA would investigate further, or if the line would simply be that it's obviously some sort of shiny, mineral outcrop, and that the tracks leading to it are some sort of natural, wind-created striations in the Martian soil)


'Blood Moon' Rises Over Brisbane, Australia

Blood Moon rises over the ocean off Brisbane, Australia

While today's 'blood Moon' lunar eclipse occurred in the middle of Monday night for people in the United States, here in Australia the eclipse rose in the east - over the ocean for me here in Brisbane - right on the stroke of sunset on Tuesday evening. We took the kids down to the pier with a camera and tripod and grabbed a few images, including the one above. Bonus points for this shot, because it includes the star Spica (above the Moon) and the planet Mars (out to the left). Did you get clear skies and the opportunity to walk outside and take a look?

Mars Rover Sees a Light on the Horizon

'Light' seen on the horizon by Mars rover Curiosity

The Red Planet may well be a dead planet, but deep down we all seem to want to find that extraterrestrial intelligence is (or at least was) present on Mars. From the Face on Mars through to Bigfoot on Mars, news stories continue to be written about photographic anomalies on our second-nearest planetary neighbour (no doubt assisted by the relatively large number of missions that have placed satellites in orbit and rovers on the ground there).

The latest anomaly creating a buzz is a 'light on the horizon' snapped by NASA's Curiosity rover four days ago (April 3) soon after reaching a new study area known as the Kimberley (see the pic above - click for full-size image). But before you get too excited, there's a problem: Curiosity takes stereo pictures with two different cameras, and the 'light' only shows up in the right hand camera, despite both taking pictures simultaneously. This suggests that the 'light' is not truly out there on the horizon, but is instead an imaging artifact of some kind. Indeed, Doug Ellison, visualisation producer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explicitly stated on Twitter today that it was an artifact caused by "a cosmic ray hit". Such glitches have caused Mars confusion before, such as this story about a Martian base.

What I found odd though is that another image taken by Curiosity, a day earlier, also showed this 'light' artifact - and this glitch too was precisely on the horizon line:

Another 'light' seen on the horizon by Mars rover Curiosity

The camera is positioned differently, it was taken a day earlier, and yet the 'light' is on both occasions on the horizon. I thought perhaps that such glitches might manifest in areas of high contrast (e.g. where ground meets sky/distant mountain range) in an image, so I asked Doug Ellison on Twitter whether that was the reason for the similarity in location. His reply was that it was actually, quite simply, a coincidence that was bound to happen at some stage:

I bow to the experts on these matters, but I still find that explanation slightly unconvincing. Maybe there's a better one: the Martians are trying to blind the rover...

(Caveat for the sake of those without a drop of humour: that last statement was a joke).

Update: Last night I checked Curiosity's track maps and consulted Google Earth's Mars view to get a feel for the direction the images are looking. What I found piqued my interest even further. The bottom image in my post was taken on Sol 588, the top image a day later on Sol 589. During that time the Rover moved slightly to the south, and in both cases is looking west(ish), firstly from the north-side of a mound in the foreground and subsequently on the south-side. If you look at where the light is in relation to the mountain range in the background (use the quite recognisable 'two-level' mountain directly behind the 'light' in the top pic for reference), you'll notice that the 'light' would be in pretty much the same position on the terrain a couple of hundred metres away, if parallax is taken into consideration. Which tends to lift the possibility in my mind that it could very well be a physical object (shiny rock, electrostatic dust devil, Nephilim) rather than a cosmic ray camera artifact (though the issue of only being in one of the stereo cameras remains suggestive of a cosmic ray artifact).

Update 2: A few about-faces today on the cosmic ray artifact explanation. Doug Ellison, who in his reply to me was certain it was a CR, is now saying "I've done a complete 180. 589 could be a CR hit. 588 isn't. It hides behind a hill behind the two eyes... if one triangulates between the two observations, one finds a point on a small ridge line. That point is also visible in Sol 580 MastCam imagery that shows a tall, thing [sic], bright rock at the exact same point". And Justin Maki, lead scientist on Curiosity's engineering cameras, has told Alan Boyle that it could be the light is the glint from a rock surface reflecting the sun.

Link: Bright Blips on Mars Pictures Spark a Buzz Among UFO Fans