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

The Road to the Heavens

Sometimes Alone, by Ben Canales

I love this image by astrophotographer Ben Canales, as it really illustrates how the Milky Way was sometimes seen by ancient people as the road (or waterway) to the stars (much like this image). Like catching a rainbow, you almost feel that if you walked far enough in that direction you could find the junction from where you could ascend to the heavens.

You can view a larger version, and also purchase a high-res version or print, by clicking on the image or right here.

Ben Canales on 500px

Swirling Vortex of Saturn

Saturn's Hexagon

At the centre of the famous 'pentagon' situated at Saturn's north pole (pictured above) lies a swirling vortex of cloud, and yesterday (November 27, 2012) the Cassini space-probe took a series of 'close-up' photos (that is, from just 361,000 kilometers away). I threw together a quick (non-real time) animation from Cassini's raw images archive - click on it if you want to see the bigger version (6MB):

'Looking down' upon the turbulent surface via these images, I couldn't help but be reminded of more than a few planetary descents in science fiction novels and movies, most notably the Prometheus capsule in Stanislav Lem's Solaris, the 'express elevator to hell' from Aliens, and definitely Operation Deep Sounding in Paul McAuley's The Quiet War. Imagine navigating your ship into the jaws of that maelstrom...

(via @elakdawalla / The Planetary Society)

James Moseley, 1931-2012

James W. Moseley, one of the pioneers in the field of ufology, has died aged 81. He was undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus in a Florida hospital when he died on November 16.

Jim Moseley entered the world of ufology at the very beginning, with his first two magazines devoted to the topic, Nexus and Saucer News, being published in the 1950s. Jim MoseleyHe was an associate of many 'legends' in the Fortean field, from Gray Barker to James Randi - and like those two individuals was somewhat of a trickster figure, often straddling the line of truth that separates researcher from raconteur. He was most well-known in recent decades for his newsletter Saucer Smear, a much-loved (and also often hated) 'gossip rag' that explored the rumours and politics of everything related to the UFO field (from feuds between ufologists through to opinions on skeptics) with a large helping of humour and snark.

No doubt there will soon be a number of testimonials from those who knew him best. Patrick Huyghe of The Anomalist described him as "one of the last remaining old timers from the golden age of flying saucers." Longtime researcher Jerome Clark, who considered himself a friend of Moseley's, wrote that, despite his massive presence in the field, "he was less interested in UFOs as such…than in the social world of persons concerned, intelligently or otherwise, with UFOs. His role in the UFO subculture cannot be captured in a single word. And if one has to use two, It was sui generis." Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman has posted his own obituary.

For those wishing to learn more about the man, and some eye-opening (though perhaps sometimes embroidered) tales from the history of ufology, look no further than his autobiography Shockingly Close to the Truth : Confessions of a Grave-Robbing Ufologist (Amazon US or Amazon UK).

Split Decision on Chilean UFO Case

Earlier this year I mentioned a new UFO case from Chile, based on footage taken at an air show over a military base in 2010. The footage was subsequently reported and handed over to CEFAA, the Chilean government agency in charge of investigating anomalous aerial phenomena. UFO researcher Leslie Kean was taking the lead in reporting on this case, and this is what she noted when it first came to light:

CEFAA officials collected seven videos of the El Bosque UFO taken from different vantage points. Bermúdez commissioned scientists from many disciplines, aeronautical experts, and air force and army photogrametric technicians to subject the videos to intense scrutiny. They all came to the same conclusions.

Each video included three different, mainly horizontal loops flown by the UFO within seconds of each other. The object made elliptical passes either near or around each of three sets of performing jets. It flew past the Halcones, F5s and F16s at speeds so fast it was not noticed by the pilots or anyone on the ground below.

In my original post I noted that I thought - with no further information, and speaking as a layman - that it looked like bugs not far from the camera. But given the talk that the objects had been caught from multiple angles, on multiple cameras, I said "we might just have something here" that would allow definitive analysis (and placement of the object in space), and I looked forward to that taking place.

Well, the analysis has happened, but it isn't definitive. Two reports have recently been released, analysing the footage, but they disagree in their findings. Each was done by a well-respected, long-time UFO researcher: Richard Haines, chief scientist for the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP), and retired Navy physicist Bruce Maccabee, an expert on photographic analysis of UFOs.

In his report (downloadable in .doc or .pdf from his website), Maccabee pointed out the approach taken in trying to map the location of the objects in space, and why he found this an impossible task:

The way to determine whether or not the object is nearby and small or distant and large is to perform a triangulation, but this requires that the object be videoed from two locations at the same time. This investigation was carried out with the hope that at least two videos would provide image data that would allow for a triangulation and subsequent calculation of distance and size. Unfortunately, the two most promising videos did not show the same object at the same time from two locations.

In his estimation, the lack of proof (by triangulation) that the object was distant and large, and the fact that there is no evidence suggesting that flying insects couldn't be to blame, "one may conclude that the 'anomalous phenomena' images were, in fact, images of insects." Maccabee did note that this was a provisional conclusion, and with the benefit of further evidence could be changed or reversed. But, based on the evidence before him, he says a bug is to blame (and not the Starship Troopers kind).

On the other hand, Richard Haines - who writes very much from an air safety position, and the need to analyse UFO/UAP reports in that framework – disagreed completely with Maccabee's conclusion in his own report (available from the NARCAP website). According to Haines, analysis of video images taken from two cameras actually shows that "at least one of these UAP was not a flying insect near the cameras":

Both reports are detailed, and include plenty of complex analysis, but I highly recommend taking a look at them if this case interests you at all. You might also want to take a look at Leslie Kean's own thoughts on the matter at the Huffington Post. Personally, on the balance, given the objects at times 'changed shape and colour', and given Maccabee's thoughts, I'm happy (for now) to go with the bug explanation as it seems the best (and most parsimonious fit), but as always am open to further evidence.

Regardless of your own conclusions, I think we can all agree it's great to see these sorts of in-depth analyses of UFO cases, rather than point-blank statements based on YouTube videos.

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In Space, No-One Can Hear You Tripping Balls

A nice little twist on those jaw-dropping time-lapse films created from images taken by the International Space Station: this one layers the images to create a truly trippy effect. Created by Christoph Malin from images available at NASA's "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth".

HD and full-screen the heck out of this one folks.

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A New Planet 'Nearby'

Hot Exoplanet

Could aliens just be four 'short' light-years away? That's the question being thrown around today after the announcement that scientists have discovered a planet orbiting Centauri B, which is a part of our nearest neighboring star/sun system. By far the best run-down on this news is Lee Billing's article "Alpha Centauri and the New Astronomy":

[T]oday a European planet-hunting team announced their discovery of an alien world about the same mass as Earth. This alone would be noteworthy, for of all the “exoplanets” now known beyond our solar system, only a very few, and very recently, have been shown to at all resemble our own. But there is more to the story. This particular exoplanet resides in a three-day orbit around the dusky orange star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the Sun’s closest neighboring stellar system. There are two other stars in the system as well, the yellow Sun-like star Alpha Centauri A and the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri.

At a distance of just over 4.3 light years, the stars of Alpha Centauri are only a cosmic stone’s throw away. To reach Alpha Centauri B b, as this new world is called, would require a journey of some 25 trillion miles. For comparison, the next-nearest known exoplanet is a gas giant orbiting the orange star Epsilon Eridani, more than twice as far away. But don’t pack your bags quite yet. With a probable surface temperature well above a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Alpha Centauri B b is no Goldilocks world. Still, its presence is promising: Planets tend to come in packs, and some theorists had believed no planets at all could form in multi-star systems like Alpha Centauri, which are more common than singleton suns throughout our galaxy. It seems increasingly likely that small planets exist around most if not all stars, near and far alike, and that Alpha Centauri B may possess additional worlds further out in clement, habitable orbits, tantalizingly within reach.

Australians (and other people of low enough latitudes) will know the Centauri star system as the left-hand (eastern) pointer star associated with the Southern Cross constellation. And speaking of constellations, Lee Billings points out the breath-taking fact that in galactic terms, the newly-discovered exoplanet "is so very near our own that its night sky shares most of Earth’s constellations" - excepting the constellation Cassiopeia, which would gain a sixth star, six times brighter than the other five: our own Sun.

Some of the other interesting tweets seen shortly after the announcement:

For the academically-inclined, you can download the original scientific paper on the discovery here.

Gary 'UFO Hacker' McKinnon Will Not Be Extradited

Gary McKinnon

After a decade of legal back and forth, the British Home Secretary has announced that Gary McKinnon - the hacker arrested for damaging U.S. military computer systems, during what he says were searches for secret UFO documents - will not be extradited to the U.S. to face charges.

The British computer hacker Gary McKinnon is not to be sent to stand trial in the United States, on human rights grounds, the home secretary, Theresa May, has announced.

She said that there was such a high risk of McKinnon, 46, who has Asperger's syndrome and suffers from depressive illness, ending his life that it was incompatible with his human rights.

...The home secretary's dramatic decision, which is the first time an extradition has been halted under the 2003 treaty, prompted immediate delight from those who campaigned to prevent McKinnon's removal. "Thank you, Theresa May, from the bottom of my heart – I always knew you had the strength and courage to do the right thing," said his mother, Janis Sharp. His MP, David Burrowes, tweeted: "Compassion and pre-election promises delivered today."

McKinnon may still yet be prosecuted in Britain for his crimes, with the final decision lying in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Some will no doubt say that the last 10 years has been punishment enough, while others will feel justice is yet to be done.

Video of the Home Secretary's statement in British parliament is available at the BBC.

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USAF's Flying Saucer Schematic

USAF Flying Saucer Schematic for Project 1794

The National Archives have released recently declassified records from the USAF's Aeronautical Systems Division which feature a project aimed at creating a military-grade flying saucer:

The above illustration was discovered in the pages of a document titled “Project 1794, Final Development Summary Report” (d.1956) The caption reads “USAF Project 1794”. However, the Air Force had contracted the work out to a Canadian company, Avro Aircraft Limited in Ontario, to construct the disk-shaped craft. According to the same report, it was designed to be a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane designed to reach a top speed of Mach 4, with a ceiling of over 100,000 feet, and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles.

This project is not a new revelation to UFO researchers - Look Magazine had this scoop in 1955, before this report was even released:

UFO Schematic from 1955 Look Magazine

Though I'm sure serious UFO researchers would be encouraged to further investigation by the National Archives' mention that "the images here are from selected reports in just two boxes of this collection. The entire series is available for historians to research".

The two main questions that arise out of Project 1794 though are (a) what was the specific inspiration for creating a flying saucer, and (b) what became of the project?

In the case of the latter question, opinions vary. On Wikipedia you'll find mention of a number of research accidents, suggesting that the prototype craft was so dangerous that staff "were afraid of the machine". On the flipside, in his book Mirage Men (Amazon UK and as a pre-order from Amazon US), Mark Pilkington wonders whether the project went 'dark':

So what happened to America's flying saucer? Aviation historians Bill Rose and Tony Butler see the confusing use of multiple project names for essentially the same aircraft as deliberate obfuscation, and suggest that MX-1794 went 'black' in its final stages. The authors claim to have seen US documents from 1959 discussing an ongoing flying saucer development programme, with Lockheed's famous Skunkworks, home of the U-2 and Stealth planes, as a likely location.

…in 1958, just as the MX-1794 vanished from sight, Avro announced a new project, the VZ-9AV, best known as the Avrocar, an eighteen-foot-wide, three-foot high, single-pilot flying saucer. Intended as a hovering jeep for the Army, the Avrocar turned out to be a juddery, unstable and ultimately useless dud whose only role seemed to be providing comic turns in newsreels - a deliberate distraction, some say, from the real and top-secret MX-1794.

And here, for your entertainment (dare I say distraction!), is some video of the Avrocar. Accompanied by some hypnotic psytrance, allowing me to say slowly in a mantra-like fashion: "repeat after me: the USAF has no flying saucer technology"...

(via Wired)

Ancient UFOs Detailed

Yesterday we looked at a debunking of the Ancient Aliens series on History Channel. Today we'll swing the other way, and check out an interesting paper on sightings of UFOs in ancient times: "Unidentified Flying Objects in Classical Antiquity" (PDF), a 2007 paper by NASA scientist Richard Stothers, who sadly passed away last year:

This collection of what might be termed ancient UFO reports has been culled from a much larger number of reports of aerial objects, most of whose identifications with known phenomena are either certain or at least highly probable. Embedded in the mass of relatively explicable ancient reports, however, Christ Under a UFOis a small set of unexplained (or at least not wholly explained) reports from presumably credible witnesses. If these reports are examined statistically, essential features of what I will, for argument’s sake, call the ancient UFO phenomenon can be extracted…

…In at least one instance, the presence of “occupants” covered in shiny white clothing is reported. Encounters range from distant views to possibly actual contact; the preferred place and time of observation seem to be rural areas in the daytime. Physical evidence is generally lacking.

Greek and Roman scientific thinkers, who were never at a loss for theories, usually regarded these types of aerial phenomena as stars, clouds, atmospheric fires, light reflections or moving material bodies. Since most of the original theories hark back to Aristotle and his predecessors, with none being later than Posidonius, they generally predate the reports collected here, none of which is earlier
than 218 BC. It is accordingly impossible to know whether the later observers (mostly practical Romans) interpreted the phenomena literally as they described them or were simply using the best descriptive language they were capable of, while holding back on theoretical speculation. But any viable theory must reckon with the extraordinary persistence and consistency of the phenomena discussed here over many centuries. Whether one prefers to think in terms of universal recurrent visions from the collective unconscious, misperceptions of ordinary objects, unusual atmospheric effects, unknown physical phenomena or extraterrestrial visitations, what we
today would call UFOs possess an intrinsic interest that has transcended the passage of time and the increase of human knowledge.

If the topic interests you, some further reading can be found in Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects From Antiquity To Modern Times, by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK).

Ancient Aliens Debunked

Speculating on ancient mysteries is good fun - the jaw-dropping megalithic constructions of cultures around the world often inspire awe, and attempting to solve the puzzle of how and why they were built can lead to both fresh insights into human history, and sometimes not-so-useful ones (though exploring these cul-de-sacs can sometimes be helpful in other ways). The History Channel series Ancient Aliens anchors much of its premise - that aliens visited the Earth in ancient times, and inspired or built these structures themselves - on megalithic mysteries. But how much of AA's claims are solutions to puzzles, and how many are intellectual dead-ends?

A new 3-hour(!) documentary, Ancient Aliens Debunked, takes the series apart, fact-checking individuals claims on topics including pyramid construction, the Temple of Baalbek, Incan sites, Easter Island. Pacal's "rocket", the Nazca lines, and the Egyptian "light bulb". Produced by Chris White, and made available freely online (embedded at the top of this post), Ancient Aliens Debunked offers clarifications, corrections, and background information that certainly removes much of the superficial gloss from Ancient Aliens.

Ancient Aliens is an American television series which premiered on April 20, 2010, on the History Channel. The program presents the so-called 'ancient astronaut' theory, which is the idea that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in the ancient past, and that historical texts, archaeological records and various legends contain evidence of this contact. I used to believe that the ancient astronaut theory was true. I spent years learning about it from the popular authors, from video presentations and radio shows. I was an enthusiastic promoter of this idea to my friends and family. Although I no longer feel that way, I want you to know that I have no personal reason to reject this theory. My current worldview could easily accommodate the existence of extraterrestrials. I hope you will come away from this film, even if you disagree with it, saying that I fairly reviewed the claims of Ancient Aliens without bias, and with respect.

I think it's a shame actually that the title of the documentary includes the word "Debunked" - it's a negative word, guaranteed to set many of those interested in this topic at odds with the film before they even view it. In reality, there is a wealth of information about ancient construction and artworks that most open-minded people will appreciate greatly. Additionally, the documentary doesn't shy away from noting actual mysteries, and speculative attempts to solve them, such as the theory of French architect Jean Pierre Houdin on how the Great Pyramid was built. A far better title for the film (IMHO) would have removed the negativity and focused on the positive aspects of what is a very well-researched, informative piece on ancient mysteries - something along the lines of "Exploring the Claims of Ancient Aliens". In short - don't be turned off by the title, it's well worth your time.

Also: if the full 3 hours is too much for you, you can watch (or read transcripts of) individual 'episodes' on separate topics ('The Pyramids', 'Easter Island' etc) at the Ancient Aliens Debunked website, where you'll also find references for each rebuttal for further research. An excellent - I might even say necessary - resource for anybody interested in this fascinating topic.

Addendum: As SecretSun points out in the comments, the producer of this documentary, Chris White comes from a fundamentalist Christian point-of-view, with the added colour of anti-Christian conspiracy theories. However, the documentary above is almost completely free of these elements (you will notice some strange flavours in sections such as 'The Nephilim'), and is presented in a very sane manner - and I can only judge it by its content. But it is worth keeping in mind that all presenters - be they Christians, 'skeptics', or ancient alien theorists, are working within a frame of reference, and often pushing a barrow of their choice. So as always, I recommend that you keep your wits about you and employ skepticism, objective judgement, and further research in understanding any topics presented on this site.