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

'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

Has This New Discovery By Astronomers Confirmed there is a 'Planet X'?

Planet X?

Astronomers have extended the range of our Solar System with the discovery of a new 'dwarf planet' orbiting our Sun. The planet, currently technically labeled '2012 VP113', has an elliptical orbit that brings it to within 80AU of the Sun (an 'AU' is the unit of distance from the Sun to Earth) at perihelion (closest point in its orbit to the Sun) - some three times the distance from the Sun to Neptune - while it gets as far as 450AU away at the other end of its orbit. The object is not unique: astronomers have previously discovered another similar dwarf planet, named 'Sedna'. Indeed, the new discovery, by astronomers Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, hints that there are a multitude of dwarf planets orbiting the Sun in a location known as the 'inner Oort cloud'.

An intriguing coincidence is that the current positions of both Sedna and 2012 VP113 - which are also near both their perihelions - are very similar, leading to some speculation of an unknown, massive body orbiting our Sun well beyond our current sensing abilities - a 'Planet X':

The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body's orbit and that of Sedna's are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a "Super Earth" that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.

"If you took a Super Earth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have," said Sheppard.

Over at her Planetary Society blog, Emily Lakdawalla has a more detailed breakdown of the discovery, the coincidences, and what it might mean for the Planet X theory. She notes that for a an object of that size to form ('accrete'), it needs to be in a circular orbit - so the elliptical orbit of these two dwarf planets suggests that they were 'scattered' by something at some point after they formed. But the 'Planet X' theory isn't the only possible explanation - the planets may have been thrown into their current orbits by a star that passed within "several hundred AU of the Sun and disturbed orbits of objects it passed near", or it may be due to the fact that Earth was born in a star cluster.

It's really quite striking how close Sedna and 2012 VP113 are to each other right now, both close to their perihelia, both at around 80 AU. Here's an illustration that I put together using the JPL Small-Body Database Browser that shows you just how close they are.

Their current proximity is mostly a coincidence, given the fact that they have different orbital periods; there's nothing about their orbits that says they should be in the same place at the same time, except for the fact that their orbits happen to take them to similar spots in the sky when they are close to the Sun. But we are more likely to discover such objects when they are near perihelion (hence brighter and moving faster), so given the proximity of their perihelia they would've been somewhat close to each other in the sky because that's where we could see them both.

The fact that they have perihelia at similar locations is an interesting observation, though. And it's one that Trujillo and Sheppard noticed, too... They went on to hypothesize that the clustering of argument of perihelia resulted from "a massive outer Solar System perturber" [and] showed that it works for a super-Earth at 250 AU, but "This configuration is not unique and there are many possibilities for such an unseen perturber."

...I have confess to a bias here: I really wanted this coincidence in argument of perihelion to be strong evidence of a planet X. I would love for there to be a planet X. So would Trujillo and Sheppard, evidently, because they spent quite a bit of space showing it could work. And so would Nature, because then the first clear indication of a planet X would be in an article published in their journal.

But Hal [planetary scientist Hal Levison] dashed my hopes, or at least my certainty. "It's a very weak result," he told me; and indeed the paper spends more column inches on what 2012 VP113 tells us about the inner Oort cloud as a population than it does about this potential "perturber."

"There may be other explanations for this, rather than the extreme position of, "it's a planet"; but I can believe there's something going on".

In other words: something threw these planets into their elliptical orbits, but we still don't know what. Watch this...errr...space.

Link: A second Sedna! What does it mean?

Is Our Universe the Only Universe?

Because the universe just isn't big enough...

Is there more than one universe? In this visually rich, action-packed talk, Brian Greene shows how the unanswered questions of physics (starting with a big one: What caused the Big Bang?) have led to the theory that our own universe is just one of many in the "multiverse."

UFO Invasion Planned for April 5th

Alien Craft

Prepare for the UFO invasion folks. Darklore contributor Nigel Watson has uncovered a plot to fill our skies with illuminated flying craft, though the provenance is far from extraterrestrial - it's a prank being designed by remote-control (RC) aircraft enthusiasts. Via Yahoo News:

Dozens of volunteers around the world have signed up for what may be the biggest prank in history - using decades of knowledge of ‘UFO sightings’ to time the launch perfectly.

The ‘aliens’ will be strips of LED lights, on remote-controlled multi-rotor drone aircraft - launched at 8pm, so there are plenty of people to see the ‘invaders’, and held at a distance where it’s difficult to see what’s behind the glowing lights.

Nigel Watson, author of the Haynes UFO Investigations Manual found plans to “cause a wave of UFO sightings around the world and an apocalypse-like idea in the media,” on forums frequented by drone fans.

Watson says, “‘The Big UFO Project’ was originally scheduled to run on April Fool’s Day, but they have changed it to 05 April 2014 so that it will not seem like an obvious prank. Anyone who has a multirotor drone (pictured below) or anything that can carry a strip of LED lights and hover is invited to join in this event.

I was pointed to discussion about the project on a remote-controlled aircraft forum a few days ago, though since the plan has made mainstream news the thread has been locked down (it can still be found for now in Google's cache).

So, if any aliens *are* actually out there: April 5th would be a really good night to scout around without any witnesses being taken seriously...

UFOs Finally Turn Up in Documents Leaked by Edward Snowden

UFO image from GCHQ powerpoint The Art of Deception

A number of people have asked, if there is a government UFO cover-up, why haven't documents relating to them turned up in the massive intelligence leak by Edward Snowden. Well, in a new document released at The Intercept, the new website devoted to publishing information about the leaks, the flying saucers have arrived. Though where they've turned up might be cause for concern for the Fox Mulder's out there.

That document is a Powerpoint presentation from the British intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), titled simply enough "The Art of Deception: Training for a New Generation of Online Covert Operations", in which three of the fifty slides are images of 'UFOs'. Unfortunately, there is no text related to the images, so there could be a number of reasons for them being included - from pointing out people's belief systems, through to them possibly being part of actual psychological operations (psy-ops). The only clue might be that the images are listed under a heading of "Influence and Information Operations".

Besides the UFO references, there are a number of allusions to magic, from the mission statement to produce "cyber-magicians", to another slide listing the historical involvement of professional magicians with psy-ops, through to finishing with an image of Teller beside a quote, "Conjuring with Information".

Glenn Greenwald has written some commentary on the latest release of documents, pointing out how they show intelligence agencies are intentionally manipulating online discussions:

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums.

Returning to the topic of UFOs, writer/film-maker Mark Pilkington is well-acquainted with the dual topic of UFOs and intelligence agency deceptions via the intensive research he did for his book and related documentary Mirage Men. On his blog, Mark notes that "it’s clear that [intelligence agencies] consider the UFO subject, its attendant beliefs, and the vocal community surrounding it, to be a useful field of operations for their activities". He also points out that not much has changed in the last six decades, given the similarities between the newly released document and a research paper released in 1950 titled "Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare" - right down to the listing of magicians who have participated in psy-ops.

If you'd like to learn more about this subject, take a look at the lecture Mark gave a couple of years ago (embedded below), titled "The Abuses of Enchantment: Folklore and Deception in the Disinformation Age":

As Greenwald points out, "these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online... Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that... No government should be able to engage in these tactics".

Or, as Fox Mulder told us all those years ago: "Trust no-one".

Related links:

Flying Amongst Galaxies: Your Personal Total Perspective Vortex

In his wonderful fictional series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams introduced the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ – a machine built by inventor Trin Tragula, who after being constantly nagged by his wife to “Have some sense of proportion!” (sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day), decided to build a machine “just to show her”. Into one end, he plugged the whole of reality (in classic Adams fashion, extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake), and into the other he plugged his wife, so that she would be shown in one instant “the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it”. To his horror, Trin Tragula realized that this single, devastating shock had completely annihilated his wife’s brain, but to his satisfaction “he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion”.

I don't have any fairy cake on hand, but the above video is pretty close to being a Total Perspective Vortex: it's an accurate 3-dimensional model and animation created out of data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), showing some 400,000 galaxies in their actual position in the Universe.

High resolution and full-screen recommended! Remember: each of those points of light is a complete galaxy, each with 100 billion stars or more within them. And in case that all doesn't blow your mind enough, it's worth pointing out that this 3D representation only includes all objects out to redshift 0.1 - roughly 1.3 billion light years from Earth, about 1/10 of the distance to the edge of the known Universe. And the perspective given in this video is actually impossible, as to see the Universe in this way would require traveling at many times the speed of light.

(via @UnlikelyWorlds and Lights in the Dark)

Are Super-Intelligent Aliens Hiding Within Our Atoms?

Virus molecule

Okay, so that headline sounds pretty off-the-wall, and considering it's a Daily Grail headline then you know it's pretty weird! But that's exactly the question put forward by artificial intelligence researcher Hugo de Garis, who wonders whether the advanced artificial intelligences of extremely old alien civilisations might end up harnessing the vast computational power offered by sub-atomic elements, a hypothetical technology he labels 'X-Tech':

X-Tech provides a potential solution to the Fermi Paradox ("where are all the nonhuman civilizations?") ... maybe they're not out there living on other planets, but rather living inside atoms and particles! Perhaps we should be looking inside “elementary” particles because creatures constructed at these tiny scales would operate hugely faster, at far greater densities, and with vastly superior performance levels. We may need a paradigm shift away from outer space to inner space, from SETI to SIPI -- the Search for Infra Particle Intelligence!

...as one scales down, in general, performance levels increase dramatically. Hence one can readily speculate that any nano-based artilect [de Garis's monker for advanced 'artifical intellects'], sooner or later, will not be able to compete with his femto-based cousins, and will probably downgrade itself as well. This logic applies all the way down (to Plank-tech?). Hence we come inevitably to the following dramatic conclusion.

The hyper intelligences that are billions of years older than we are in our universe (which is about 3 times older than our sun), have probably “downgraded” themselves to achieve hugely greater performance levels. Whole civilizations may be living inside volumes the size of nucleons or smaller.

When I first had this idea, about a decade ago, I chuckled, but now I take it very seriously, because there seems to be so much logic behind it.

De Garis notes that once this idea is thought about seriously, the current SETI paradigm seems very 'provincial'. "Extra terrestrials (ETs), who might be primitive enough to bother sending radio signals to beings like us," de Garis says, "are NOT the most intelligent specimens in the universe. The really smart ones I suggest are very very tiny."

I have to say, reading about this concept at Centauri Dreams did bring to mind some of the shamanic stories about intelligences hiding within plant DNA, DMT etc. In particular, an experience that Dennis McKenna related where he was given a vision that was "a water molecule’s eye view of the process of photosynthesis", before hearing a voice behind his left shoulder quietly chiding him: "You monkeys only think you’re running things".

Fun speculations to riff on!

Link: SETI at the Particle Level

Ancients - A Timelapse Video That Follows a Cycle Unbroken Since the Dawn of Time

Long-time readers will know I'm a sucker for astronomical time-lapse movies. 'Ancients', by Nicholas Buer (music composed by Shudan), is one of the best I've ever seen. Fullscreen the hell out of it!

This film follows the ancient cycle of sunset, to night, to sunrise. A continuous loop of perpetual movement that has been unbroken since the dawn of time, and the only true constant in our lives.

I shot this film over 12 days around the San Pedro de Atacama region of Northern Chile. San Pedro is an oasis town in the Atacama and sits at an altitude of 2600m. The town is a great base to explore the fascinating landscapes that surround it, and everything just goes up and up.

The Atacama is well-known for what are arguably the cleanest, darkest skies on Earth. The dry air adds an extra transparency and this coupled with the altitude creates a night sky like no other. I visited at a time when Venus was situated quite close to the centre of the Milky Way; an astronomical event that only takes place every 8 years or so. I also timed my visit with the Autumn equinox which is a good time of year to capture Zodiacal light; the celestial phenomenon caused by sunlight scattering interplanetary space dust in the Zodiacal cloud. It stretches across the ecliptic and glows for a short while after sunset like a UFO beam and I was lucky enough to witness this every night I stepped out into the dark.

As always, I recommend taking the time to truly comprehend what we're looking at in a clip like this: pretty much our entire galaxy, and millions of stars beyond. Blows my mind every time I grasp that fact.

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Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Belief, Spirituality, and Alien Life

Chris Hadfield

Astronaut Chris Hadfield is currently on the publicity trail promoting his book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon.com / Amazon UK), and as a result there are a number of fascinating interviews with @Cmdr_Hadfield in various places around the internet that touch on fun topics such as belief, spirituality and alien life. For instance, in a recent NPR interview Hadfield remarked on how being on the 'outside' of the planet looking in certainly brings with it spiritual feelings:

I think what everyone would find if they could be [up in space] - if they could see the whole world every 90 minutes and look down on the places where we do things right, and look down where we're doing stupid, brutal things to each other and the inevitable patience of the world that houses us - I think everybody would be reinforced in their faith, and maybe readdress the real true tenets of what's good and what gives them strength.

Hadfield's words bring to mind the 'Overview Effect', which transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it.

Yesterday, everyone's favourite astronaut also stopped in to one of our favourite podcasts, the Joe Rogan Experience, for a relaxed and in-depth chat. It's one of my favourite JRE episodes, because Joe doesn't freak out about it all, and as a result the feel of the interview is like you're sitting down having a beer and chatting with an everyday guy, who just happens to have flown in space on multiple occasions and spent around half a year living on the International Space Station, and thus has some amazing experiences and insights to share with you.

One such insight was inspired as Hadfield looked down at the erupting Mount Etna below him:

It was a really clear reminder of the fact that most of the planet is super-heated lava and magma, so hot that the rock is liquid and plastic. And we just live on this little chilled crust, like the top of a porridge pot...we just live on this little thin bit on the top that is crust.

And when you tip it the other way around and look up, half of the atmosphere is in the first three miles. Three miles. Think about it, people go for a three mile run - and really the whole habitable atmosphere is three miles. Above 15,000 feet it's hard to even live.

So we live on this little bit of cooled crust, and this little sliver of air, and we think it's guaranteed. We think we're invincible right, and we think the whole universe is here to serve us. And we're like bacteria in a corner, just found a little niche that'll support our life.

You can watch/listen to the full one hour interview here:

Throw in Hadfield's first-hand description of what it feels like to ride a rocket into space (a journey that takes less than 9 minutes, reaching a speed of 5 miles per second), his thoughts on our use of fossil fuels, and whether there's life out there, and it's compelling stuff. I'll even forgive him and Joe for singling out UFO researchers as the focus for criticism about belief systems.

And just to round out the Chris Hadfield appreciation post here on TDG, here's his uber-popular rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity" (18 million views on YouTube), in case you're an alien being and haven't seen it yet: