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

A Close Up Look at a Comet as the Rosetta Space Probe Finally Closes in on its Prey

Comet 67P

Ten years ago, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta space probe on a ten-year mission to 'hunt' Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Over the last few days, Rosetta has finally closed in on its prey, and today ESA scientists put it into 'orbit' around the comet (not a natural gravitational orbit yet, but a triangular, thruster-assisted orbit). It will slowly edge closer over coming days and weeks, before eventually deploying the Philae* lander to drop on to the comet itself.

But as part of the celebrations today, the ESA released the amazing image above of the comet (click for higher resolution), taken a few days ago from a distance of around 300km (today Rosetta is only around 100km away). It's a gnarly looking beast, almost dumbbell shaped with many house-sized boulders visible on its surface (the entire comet is around 4km in diameter). Not to mention that shadowy bit on the end looks like it could easily house an exogorth...

With Rosetta in 'orbit', the ESA are now updating their website fairly regularly with new images as they are downloaded from the probe...keep an eye on the Rosetta blog and the Rosetta mission image gallery for updates, and what are sure to be jaw-dropping pictures of another world.

* Both Rosetta and Philae are named after the Rosetta Stone and its place of discovery

A Q&A with UFOlogical Heretic Jacques Vallee (via Open Minds)

If you were to conduct a poll about who is the most important UFO researcher in the world, the name of Jacques Vallee would rightfully appear among the highest rankings in the list. His books remain as provocative & influential today as when they were fresh out of the printers, several decades ago; and his proposal to regard the phenomenon as a 'control system' instead of merely the occasional visits of interplanetary interlopers, helped catapult UFOlogy into a whole different level.

As we all know, Jacques is no longer an active figure in this wacky field polluted with self-promoters, hoaxers & unaware disinformants —which, frankly, speaks volumes about his sanity— so it was an incredibly pleasant surprise to find that our friends at Open Minds had posted a recent e-mail interview with Vallee, conducted by a group of French UFOlogists who were kind enough to translate it into English. In the lengthy Q&A monsieur Vallee offers plenty of valuable insights —along with caustic criticism!— not only about the nature of the phenomenon and the current state of the field in general, but also how the undeniable existence of UFOs should move us to question the very nature of Reality itself.

Below are some of my favorite portions of the interview:

Q5: Do governments (and especially the USA) hide information about Ufos on the public (according to you and your experience)?

There are two levels to that question: (1) governments (and not only the USA) keep some information they think most sensitive, especially reports which come from the military. It seems that since 1947 this policy has been viewed as legitimate, in the interest of populations and in the hope of discovering technological breakthroughs. (2) The most difficult question is to know if breakthroughs have actually taken place. To my mind, the phenomenon has probably resisted all analysis, classified or not. The issue of opening all the files is going to arise again but it’s not as simple to understand the Ufo phenomenon as to dismantle a MIG or to secretly copy the space shuttle.

Q6: What advice would you give to the ufology community?

I don’t think I have personal advice to give. It is obvious that we won’t make real progress in an environment of petty squabbling. It would be best to avoid accusations that discourage researchers from working together. The phenomenon is accessible at a local level, so the possibility of field study and fast exchange of data is wide open. That would be more useful than speculating on inaccessible, hypothetical secrets in the drawers of governments.

Q1: In your books, you propose the hypothesis that manifestations of the Ufo phenomenon could correlate with a learning program for humanity. This system could be the same type as psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s training process. Would you explain this hypothesis and show that the manifestations of the Ufo phenomenon follow a program?

This hypothesis comes from data processing compilations made during the 60s and 70s, which lead to a frequency curve of the phenomenon which looks like a learning program (a “schedule of reinforcement” according to Skinner), that is to say, a sequence of stimuli which is pseudo-periodical. According to Skinner, such a program leads to irreversible learning. It is also difficult to detect unless we study a long series of observations.

Let’s notice at the same time that military studies like the US Air Force Blue Book Project, or academic analyses like that of Professor Condon at the University of Colorado have always treated Ufo cases one by one, without any global perspective, which obviously hides such a program if it exists. The often-recycled statement in the declarations of governmental agencies that Ufos are not a threat, has never taken into account the structure of the global evolution of the phenomenon.

To prove or disprove that hypothesis, we should review recent data and update former cases in order to expand the study in a longer period. I have had the opportunity to talk it over with computer scientists from CNES. It is possible that many hypotheses would converge within such an analysis.

Q2: What is your opinion about current evolutions of quantum physics ? According to you, would we be close to discoveries which can help partly to explain some phenomena related to Ufos?

The question is legitimate, especially as reliable researches about psychic functioning are facing the same problem. From the non-locality principle, we must wonder whether thought is not transmitted immediately (rather than electromagnetic waves, as in Soviet researches from 1930 to 1940 or French and English scientists’ works in the beginning of the last century with the “mental radio” concept). If so, it might be theoretically possible to get into contact with other forms of consciousness, while beings capable of moving in space might influence us at a distance, or even make us perceive imaginary scenes.

However, to tell the truth, it seems to me that in their enthusiasm some researchers use quantum physics a little bit too much: since these mechanisms remain mysterious, they can be stretched to explain a lot of phenomena in an exaggerated way. I am more interested in new ideas on the physics of information, as I said earlier. If space and time are a side effect of our consciousness and a physical illusion, we should face the problem of phenomena related to Ufos in a more fundamental way.

Link: Interview with UFO researcher and author Jacques Vallée

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Our Alien DNA

DNA Coding

In 1960, a young astronomer by the name of Frank Drake pointed the Green Bank radio telescope at the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani…and listened for the sounds of an alien civilization. Drake's little experiment marks the official beginning of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Since that time, SETI has continued to scan greater parts of the sky, listening over wider and wider bands of the radio spectrum, but the silence has been deafening. While many have taken this as a likely sign that the cosmos is largely empty, it may be more likely that SETI's search has been far too restricted in its scope, relying on just one particular 20th century technology that is already fading in use. As the psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna once dryly noted, "To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant".

To broaden the search, other technologies of transmission have been suggested, such as lasers. But even those ideas seem limited to our cultural ideas of an 'advanced', artificial technology - but which seem likely to be considered as quaint just a century or two into our future. What if, however, aliens had already left a message for us, 'hidden in plain sight', since the dawn of history? What if we only had to look within ourselves?

A paper published last year in Icarus, the prestigious journal of planetary science, asked if it was possible that terrestrial life on Earth had been 'seeded' from beyond the Earth - and if so, does the building block of that life, DNA, contain any sort of message from our alien creators. Using mathematics, the authors of the paper - "The "Wow! signal" of the terrestrial genetic code" - looked for evidence of a statistically strong 'informational' signal in the genetic code, with surprising results:

Here we show that the terrestrial code displays a thorough precision-type orderliness matching the criteria to be considered an informational signal. Simple arrangements of the code reveal an ensemble of arithmetical and ideographical patterns of the same symbolic language. Accurate and systematic, these underlying patterns appear as a product of precision logic and nontrivial computing rather than of stochastic processes (the null hypothesis that they are due to chance coupled with presumable evolutionary pathways is rejected with P-value < 10–13).

The signal displays readily recognizable hallmarks of artificiality.

(For counter-comments against the claims of the paper, see this Pharyngula blog post).

Interestingly, this was not the first time that Icarus had featured a paper entertaining the idea of 'biological SETI'. In 1979 the journal - under editor Carl Sagan - published a paper titled "Is bacteriophage φX174 DNA a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence?", written by Japanese biochemists Hiromitsu Yokoo and Tairo Oshima. Given how crazy the idea sounded, Sagan asked a young protégé, David Grinspoon (now a prominent astrobiologist in his own right), to check out the paper to assess whether it was legitimate. Here's how Grinspoon describes the paper in

Buzz Aldrin Clarifies Apollo 11 'UFO'

Buzz Aldrin

One of the long-running stories in ufology touches on UFOs allegedly seen by astronauts on the Apollo Moon missions, with one of those being Buzz Aldrin's supposed confession that he saw a UFO outside the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the way to the Moon. The legendary American astronaut participated in a Reddit AMA yesterday, and during that question and answer session clarified what the 'UFO' likely was:

On Apollo 11 in route to the Moon, I observed a light out the window that appeared to be moving alongside us. There were many explanations of what that could be, other than another spacecraft from another country or another world – it was either the rocket we had separated from, or the 4 panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket and we were nose to nose with the two spacecraft. So in the close vicinity, moving away, were 4 panels. And i feel absolutely convinced that we were looking at the sun reflected off of one of these panels. Which one? I don’t know. So technically, the definition could be “unidentified.”

We well understood exactly what that was. And when we returned, we debriefed and explained exactly what we had observed. And I felt that this had been distributed to the outside world, the outside audience, and apparently it wasn’t, and so many years later, I had the time in an interview to disclose these observations, on another country’s television network. And the UFO people in the United States were very very angry with me, that i had not given them the information. It was not an alien.

Link: Buzz Aldrin Reddit AMA

This UFO is Real, According to a Government Agency

After the US Air Force used the conclusion of the Condon Report as an excuse to officially close down its involvement in the investigation of UFOs, Blue Book abandoned all concerned citizens wishing to file an official report of a sighting. That void was unevenly filled by civilian organizations like MUFON, and more recently with social channels like Youtube, which allows the almost instantaneous dissemination of audiovisual content purportedly showing anomalous objects in the sky. The convenience & ubiquitousness of the Internet has turned into a double-edge sword, though: Even if the photo or video doesn't appear to be a blatant hoax, if the poster doesn't bother to include pertaining information about the circumstances of the sighting --location, date, duration, etc-- barely nothing of true value can be learned from it.

But some countries still take UFOs seriously, and they have even established official agencies in charge of gathering & analyzing all reports of unidentified aerial phenomena occurring within their national territory. Such is the case of CEFAA (Commitee of Studies of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena), the Chilean agency subordinate to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC). It's mission statement according to their webpage, is to study such cases "through a serious, scientific and objective investigation, with the purpose of determining if the security of aerial operations has been compromised, thus contributing to aviation safety in Chile" [My translation].

The latest case CEFAA investigated --which has received a lot of attention from the Spanish-speaking media this week-- was a series of 2 photographs taken during the mid of April of 2013 at the Collahuasi mine in the north of Chile, located 4,300 meters above sea level. The images, taken by a digital Samsung camera model Kenox S860, show a silvery 'flattened disk' of approx. 5 to 10 meters in diameter at an altitude of around 600 meters, which was observed by several witnesses (35 technicians & mine workers) performing a series of aerial maneuvers --vertical & horizontal displacements, showing sometimes the disk as a lenticular object, other times as an ovoid-- for a span of 1 to 2 hours, denoting some sort of intelligent control or predetermined flight.

A meteorologist concluded the object could not have been a lenticular cloud, and after an expert analyzed the photographs using a series of filters, the official conclusion of the agency is that the object is a real UFO --which does NOT mean they're saying the disk is an interstellar alien ship; it simply means the object is not a conventional aeoronautical craft, nor a known meteorological event.

In her best-selling book UFOs: Generals, Pilots & Government Officials Go on the Record --the kind of book you need to keep a copy in your library, in order to shut the mouth of lazy debunkers claiming the phenomenon is not taken seriously by anyone other than woo woo peddlers-- Leslie Kean included the testimony of General Ricardo Bermúdez Sanhueza (ret), who was the director of CEFAA from 1998 to 2002. In it, Bermúdez stated that of all the cases analyzed by the agency, approximately 4% remained unexplained. He also went as far as to affirm that although there wasn't sufficient evidence to support the Extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) in his opinion the possibility should not be discarded beforehand "just because it may sound harebrained."

In this age of Photoshop & digital manipulation, photographic evidence is barely evidence of anything. Yet it is still comforting to know there are still researchers out there, committed to apply scientific rigor in the analysis of an image showing what very well may be a truly extraordinary phenomenon. Even more comforting, is knowing there are nations not willing to let the United States dictate them what is or isn't of significance to their national security; and if the USA wishes to retain their position as leaders of the world perhaps they should start by getting their head off the sand and acknowledge that, no matter how much they refuse to look up, the UFOs are not going anywhere.

They should also improve their performance at the World Cup, while they're at it --I mean, srsly guys.

Link: Ovni visto en Chile; científicos confirman autenticidad
Original CEFAA file: Informe Caso Collahuasi (Power Point)


UPDATE: Leslie Kean wrote about the Collahuasi photos for the Huffington Post. He also contacted Ret. General Bermúdez for comment, along with veteran UFO researcher Bruce Maccabee:

"This is clearly not a normal thing seen in the sky (bird, plane, cloud, etc.)," added Dr. Maccabee in an email. "That makes it either the real thing - UFO - or a hoax, and it doesn't appear to be a hoax, although the inability to question witnesses does reduce the credibility. Certainly this case is worthy of further study."

Ufologist Stanton Friedman Suffers a Heart Attack

Stanton Friedman

Cryptozoology legend Loren Coleman informed me today of the concerning news that well-known ufologist Stanton Friedman suffered a mild heart attack last Friday night. Thankfully, Stan survived the emergency and is making good progress. Here's the latest update from one of his close friends Kathleen Marden, with whom he has co-authored multiple books:

I spoke with Stan Friedman this morning and am very pleased to report that he is feeling strong and chipper. His heart enzymes have declined, so he has turned the corner. He wants me to make it clear that he will be transported to a larger hospital, only because his local facility doesn't have the equipment to do a dye test and an echo cardiogram. This will probably occur today or Wednesday, as July 1 is a national holiday in Canada.

"Well wishers can send cards to Stan at P.O. Box 958, Houlton, ME 04730. He appreciates everyone's thoughts and prayers.

Stan's medical issues will sadly stop him from attending this year's Roswell UFO Festival, but hopefully his good medical outcome will allow him to spend many more future years there. We send our best wishes for a speedy recovery to him.

UFOs Explained: It's the Alcohol Silly!

UFO Chart

A new low in UFO debunkery from The Economist, with the chart above suggesting that UFO sightings are simply a function of people drinking too much alcohol.

[T]he National UFO Reporting Centre, a non-profit, has catalogued almost 90,000 reported sightings of UFOs, mostly in America, since 1974. It turns out that aliens are considerate. They seldom disturb earthlings during working or sleeping hours. Rather, they tend to arrive in the evening, especially on Fridays, when folks are sitting on the front porch nursing their fourth beer, the better to appreciate flashing lights in the heavens (see chart). The state aliens like best is Washington—a finding that pre-dates the legalisation of pot there. Other popular destinations are also near the Canadian border, where the Northern lights are sometimes visible. UFOs tend to shun big cities, where there are lots of other lights, and daylight hours, when people might think they were just aeroplanes.

The numbers obviously have nothing to do with the fact that 'drinking hours' strangely coincide with the time of day that most people would notice something in the sky (night-time), but are not yet asleep. I totally expected that the highest number of sightings of things in the sky would be when people are asleep in their bedrooms... (/snark).

Flying Saucer Origins: Debunking Debunkery

NASA&#039;s Flying Saucer

Last week's planned testing of NASA's flying saucer lookalike, the 'Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator' (LDSD, pictured above), has inspired a few news stories discussing the iconic nature of the alien saucer image (see for example the BBC's "The Lasting Allure of the Flying Saucer"). On Sunday The Atlantic joined in with "The Man Who Introduced the World to Flying Saucers", a look back at the seminal Kenneth Arnold sighting in 1947 and the idea that the flying saucer mythos has its origins in a misquote:

On June 25, Arnold ended up at the offices of the East Oregonian, a Pendleton newspaper. He told reporters about his sighting. He emphasized the “unidentified” as much as the “flying objects.” He described their movements, saying that they flew “like a saucer if you skip it across the water.”

...Arnold himself, however, would say that he was misquoted — or, at least, taken out of context. Some argue that the entire idea of a flying saucer was based on a reporter's misunderstanding of Arnold's "like a saucer" description as describing a saucer itself—making it "one of the most significant reporter misquotes in history." A 1970 study reviewing U.S. newspaper accounts of the Arnold UFO sighting concluded that the term had been introduced by an editor or headline writer, since the bodies of the early Arnold news stories didn't mention "flying saucers" or "flying discs."

...Was it a "historical misquote," or the second thoughts of reluctant source? (Just after the sighting, on June 27, Arnold would tell reporters that "I haven't had a moment of peace since I first told the story.") More than a half century later, it's even more difficult than it was back then to determine the lines between phantom and fact. The first draft of history can be a rough one.

What is clear, in retrospect, is that, starting on June 26, the flying saucer—as an idea, if not an object—was introduced to Americans. Newspapers began using the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disk" (occasionally: "flying disc") to describe the objects Arnold had seen. And the concept spread; once the idea had been planted in people’s minds, they, too, began seeing saucers.

Readers of our Fortean anthology series Darklore would know that this 'debunking' of the Arnold flying saucer story is itself a bit of a myth. In "Return of the Flying Saucers" (in Volume 5 of Darklore, also available as a free PDF download on the DL site), Martin Shough examines the history of the sighting in detail and comes to the conclusion that Arnold probably did see (or at least, thought he saw) something disk-shaped - though not perfectly circular - on that day:

Arnold himself used both “saucer like objects” and “saucer-like discs” as shape-similes in his own original Air Force report typed by his own hand on or about July 08 1947. Once again, just as important as the fact that Arnold uses these phrases is the conspicuous fact that he does not use these terms in the context of any motion simile.

The Oregon Journal, June 27, said that Arnold “clung stoutly to his story that he saw nine shiny crescent-shaped planes”, but these words are not in quotes from Arnold, they are the writer’s. Where Arnold is actually quoted in the same article he says, “They were
half-moon shaped, oval in front and convex on the rear. I was in a beautiful position to watch them...they looked like a big flat disk [emphases added].” This describes the sort of shape Arnold drew for the Army Air Force, a flat plate with a trimmed off or tapered rear edge, and the “half-moon” clearly plays the same role here as the
“half pie-pan” in the description used by Arnold elsewhere: “half a pie-pan with a convex triangle in the rear”. The shape in Arnold’s drawing suggests that he may have had in mind a gibbous moon, i.e. between half and full; howsoever the reporter has interpreted “half ” to mean “crescent” (in some people’s imaginations “moon” and “crescent” might be almost synonymous) and neglected the rest of the description.

Kenneth Arnold Saucer Drawing

Shough argues that the morphing of Arnold's memory of the objects into 'boomerang-shaped' may have had its origin in a meeting with military officials a month after his sighting:

On July 31 1947 Army CIC officers Brown and Davidson exposed Arnold to what they called a “flying wing” photographed by William Rhodes in Phoenix, intimating that it was “genuine”. Arnold’s reaction is consistent with a tendency to seek the endorsement of conservative military authorities.

It's certainly a story that can be interpreted in various ways, but Martin's essay in Darklore 5 I think is one of the most authoritative histories available.


Beyond Planet X - Are There Actually Two Undiscovered Giant Planets in the Outer Solar System?

Movie still from &#039;Another Earth&#039;

Back in March some astronomers were touting a new discovery that hinted at the existence of a 'Planet X' lurking in the outer Solar System, far beyond our ability for direct observation. Now, in a paper on arXiv.org, Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain have asked whether strange patterns in the orbital alignments of the dwarf planets beyond Pluto suggest the existence of not one, but two giant planets:

Small groups of the objects have very similar orbital paths. Because they are not massive enough to be tugging on each other, the researchers think the objects are being "shepherded" by a larger object in a pattern known as orbital resonance.

For instance, we know that Neptune and Pluto are in orbital resonance – for every two orbits Pluto makes around the sun, Neptune makes three. Similarly, one group of small objects seems to be in lockstep with a much more distant, unseen planet. That world would have a mass between that of Mars and Saturn and would sit about 200 times Earth's distance from the sun.

Some of the smaller objects have very elongated orbits that would take them out to this distance. It is unusual for a large planet to orbit so close to other bodies unless it is dynamically tied to something else, so the researchers suggest that the large planet is itself in resonance with a more massive world at about 250 times the Earth-sun distance – just like the one predicted in the previous work.

Read more: Two giant planets may cruise unseen beyond Pluto

Paper: "Extreme trans-Neptunian objects and the Kozai mechanism: signaling the presence of trans-Plutonian planets?"

Something Just Went BOOM* in the Galaxy Next Door

Gamma Ray Burst

There are a lot of very excited astronomers about today with the possible detection of a gamma-ray burst (GRB) in the closest galaxy to us, Andromeda (known under the Messier catalogue designation 'M31'). GRBs have been detected before, but never this close (Andromeda is 'just' 2.5million light years away). It's thought that the explosion has likely been caused by two colliding neutron stars (another possibility is a supernova, but the stars in that area are not thought to be large enough to nova).

But what are GRBs, and should we be concerned? After all, what happened to Bruce Banner actually paints GRBs in a *good light*...

Gamma rays are blamed for making Bruce Banner the Incredible Hulk. But what are gamma rays and what can they really do?

Gamma rays are the highest energy form of light. The rainbow of visible light that we are most familiar with is just part of a far broader spectrum of light, the electromagnetic spectrum. Past the red end of the rainbow, where wavelengths get longer, are infrared rays, microwaves and radio waves, while beyond violet lie the shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet rays, X-rays and, finally, gamma rays.

A gamma ray packs at least 10,000 times more energy than a visible light ray. Unlike the Incredible Hulk, gamma rays are not green — lying as they do beyond the visible spectrum, gamma rays have no color at all that we can describe.

Exactly how Bruce Banner survives his transformation is unclear. Just as high doses of X-rays are typically lethal, so too would an explosion of gamma rays kill the average person.

Gamma rays can knock electrons around like a bowling ball would bowling pins. These charged particles can then disrupt any chemical bond they come across, wreaking havoc on the delicate chemical machinery of the cell and generating molecular fragments that can act as toxins.

To put it gently, a gamma bomb in the real world would not turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. Rather, it would likely quickly turn him into a corpse dead from radiation sickness, if not incinerating him instantly.

In short: if a GRB hit us hard, it would kill all life on planet Earth. Gulp. Doesn't sound too good does it? Fortunately, GRBs are highly directional, and this one wasn't pointing at us (and additionally, even the galaxy next door is still a long distance away from us). As astronomer Robert Rutledge responded to a concerned person on social media, the basic rule of thumb with GRBs is "if you can get to the end of the sentence, 'Hey, what's going on?' You're gonna be fine".

Astronomers are awaiting detection of neutrinos here on Earth to confirm the event as a GRB - another possibility is that it is an ultra-luminous X-ray source (ULX) - it's still very early days (it was only detected a couple of hours before the writing of this post). The Heavy Metallicity blog is one of the first reporting this in layman's terms (as opposed to the more science-directed releases), and will be updated as more is known, so keep an eye on it and the Twitter hashtag #GRBm31 for new developments over time.

(* And by "just went BOOM", I mean "went BOOM about 2.5 million years ago...like I said, the galaxy next door is still a loooong way away)

Update: False alarm folks. If it's any consolation, we may still be obliterated by a gamma-ray burst anytime now.