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

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:

Keeping Up with the Open Mindians: Alejandro Rojas Takes the Kardashians to Area 51

Are you a fan of Reality TV shows involving the obscenely-rich & famous? Hardly the kind of question you'd expect to find at The Grail, I know --We all have our guilty pleasures, don't we?-- because if you are, then you might have seen the latest episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, in which the celebrity family took a little road trip adventure to the (now officially acknowledged) Area 51, with Open Mind's Alejandro Rojas & Travis Walton --yes, THE Fire in the Sky Travis Walton!-- as their chaperones.

In the video below, Rojas explains how this surreal juxtaposition of the mundane & the other-worldly came about, and his overall opinion of rubbing elbows with the Beverly Hills jet set. You'll also hear why Walton decided to go along for the ride as well:

Personally, I don't know if looking for more exposition to the UFO phenomenon by way of involvement with celebrities is such a good idea. After all, it's not as if there aren't plenty of famous actors & singers willing to publicly reveal their interest in the topic; but has that had any actual impact in the overall acceptance of UFOs in our culture? At the end of the day, most of these individuals haven't attained their popularity & lofty status because of their opinions ...or even their intelligence.

And there's also the risk that having a celebrity on your team can seriously backfire --just ask Stuart Stevens, one of the top advisers in Mitt Romey's presidential campaign in 2012. Empty chair anyone?

Then again, I've always been of the opinion that one of the main problems with UFOlogy as a movement, is that it tends to take itself too damn seriously. Sure, a show like Keeping Up... is hardly Emmy winning material, but it helps to give a lighter & more approachable aspect to the phenomenon, and who knows? maybe it would even prompt some N00bies to search about the subject as a bonus.

Hey, at least there weren't any night-vision scenes involved, right?

The Weather on Jupiter and Saturn: Cloudy, With a Chance of Diamonds

A Diamond Rain Is Gonna Fall...

Gentlemen, if you're looking for a nice rock to put on your lady's finger, you might be on the wrong planet: scientists have hypothesized that on Jupiter and Saturn it may just rain diamonds, and form oceans of the stuff:

Astrophysicists have calculated that the conditions on the two biggest planets of the solar system are enough to produce stable oceans made from diamond.

They claim that powerful lightning storms in the planets’ atmospheres cause particles of carbon to form, which then drift down though the gas. As the carbon falls, it is crushed by the enormous pressures that exist on the two planets, causing them to form dense chunks of diamond.

At even greater depths, the scientists say the diamond will eventually melt to form liquid diamond, which may then form a stable ocean layer.

Full article: Diamonds May Fall as Rain on Jupiter and Saturn

The Rise of Xenoarchaeology: Searching for the Ruins of Extraterrestrial Civilizations

Death Star

Forget that controversial History Channel show: the ruins of ancient alien civilisations may well exist beyond our atmosphere, and scientists are keen to go and search for them. The field of xenoarchaeology - the search for the material remains of extraterrestrial cultures - was once mainly a science fictional concept, but in recent times there has been much progress in nailing it down firmly to the realm of science present. Over at Aeon Magazine, Paul Gilster (of the Centauri Dreams blog) has posted a wonderful essay documenting some of the efforts being made to search for such 'relics', from Dyson spheres through to asteroid mining ventures. He also touches on the philosophical side of the search, noting the difficulty in predicting what these relics might be, when we are searching for something that is, quite literally, alien to us:

All of these searches ask us to put ourselves in the minds of beings about whom we know absolutely nothing. The physicist David Deutsch has flagged this as a problem for prediction of all kinds, not just those involving SETI. According to Deutsch, we can distinguish between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prediction’, with prophecy being the discussion of things that are not knowable, while prediction deals with conclusions that are based on good explanations of the universe. As prognosticators from Thomas Malthus to the Club of Rome have demonstrated, we may be able to identify problematic trends in the present that can be extended into the future, but we cannot know what knowledge we will acquire in the future to manage those problems. This is why no scientific era has succeeded in imagining its successor. The scientists of the late 19th century discovered this firsthand, when confronted with the emergence of quantum theory and relativity early in the early 20th. Both theories raised questions earlier theorists couldn’t have even formulated.

In the context of interstellar archaeology, the problem is that we have no analogues in our experience for what advanced cultures might create. Patience is the byword as the effort proceeds, the same patience that Heinrich Schliemann’s successors have used to master the art of sifting through rubble, with careful digging and delicate brushwork sweeping aside soil to uncover the shape of a fragmentary artifact. Interstellar archaeologists are tasked with sifting through gigabytes of data, not layers of soil, but the principle is the same.

Where do you think the best place to look for alien ruins might be? Earth, our Solar System, or distant suns and galaxies? And what should we be looking for? A fascinating topic.

Link: Distant Ruins: Scientists used to scan the skies for messages from alien civilisations. Now they go looking for their ruins

Comet ISON is not a UFO Armada

Comet ISON

History never repeats, right? Longtime Forteans will remember well the tragic Heaven's Gate cult, in which members committed mass suicide in 1997, hoping to release their souls so that they could travel to an alien spacecraft that was said to be accompanying Comet Hale–Bopp. Well, with the impending arrival of the much-anticipated Comet ISON, a number of websites have gone into overdrive (e.g. this one) claiming that the new comet is accompanied by...alien spacecraft.

Thankfully, NBC science reporter Alan Boyle has set the record straight over at his Cosmic Log blog:

It all started with a series of images captured by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 UVIS instrument on April 30. Various exposures were combined to produce a widely distributed color picture of Comet ISON against a background field of stars. When Internet sleuths took a close look at the archived image, it looked as if there were three separate objects hiding in the glare of ISON's coma.

Was ISON breaking up? Was the comet being escorted by two alien spacecraft? No. Just no.

Richard White, principal investigator for the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, explained that the image was a composite, created by averaging the data from three separate camera exposures. The three objects are just different views of Comet ISON's nucleus.

"The comet itself does not have three pieces," White wrote. "They are an artifact from adding up the separate exposures. The comet does not look the same in each exposure because both the comet and the Hubble telescope are moving during the exposure. The comet is blurred, just as a picture taken out the window of a moving car will be blurred."

Although for those that want to believe, this will probably just be part of the conspiracy. If so, don't listen to those Illuminati-NASA mouthpieces...listen to history - comets have always caused humans to start the doom-talk, so perhaps this time around let's dial back the hysteria a bit and enjoy the sky show instead? At least until high-ranking politicians start boarding rockets...

Link: Is Comet ISON a UFO? Hubble's scientists do a reality check

Vale Pedro Ferriz (1921-2013)

Pedro Ferriz Santa Cruz has passed away today at the age of 92.

I'm aware that to most people visiting this site that name is unfamiliar, yet to many UFO enthusiasts in the Spanish-speaking world, Ferriz is nothing short of a legend. Not only was he one of the first to investigate & popularize the topic in Mexico with his TV program Un Mundo nos Vigila (A World is Watching Us), but he was also a pioneer in Latin American telecommunications. During his long career he managed to interview many of the most important figures of the XXth century --among them Werner Von Braun-- and he was also responsible for covering the lunar landing of Apollo XI.

In the field of UFOlogy he was a close friend & associate of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, and in 1977 he organized the 1st international UFOlogy congress in Acapulco, Guerrero, which managed to gather the leading investigators in the field --Jacques Vallée, John Keel, Salvador Freixedo, Fabio Zerpa, Enrique Castillo Rincón, Walter Andrus, Hynek, William Spaulding & Ray Stanford.

Ferriz never shied away from expressing his opinions with regards to UFOs, even at the expense of the warm-hearted puns he would occasionally receive in the Mexican media; although nothing as mean-spirited as the way the subject is often ridiculed in the United States or the UK.

There's an anecdote Don Pedro was fond of telling that illustrates this point perfectly: In 1974, during a brunch organized by Mexico’s National Association of Broadcasters in which president Luis Echeverría had been invited as the guest of honor, a few of the attendees started teasing Ferriz with some UFO jokes; but the teasing stopped altogether, when president Echeverría raised his voice and said "I have seen a UFO" in front of the whole perplexed audience. He then proceeded to describe the sighting of a pencil-like 'mothership' which allegedly caused a blackout in the city of Cuernavaca in 1965 [Head over to Open Minds to read the rest].

In fact, when in 1978 Grenada was trying to lobby a UN resolution for the organization of an international effort to study UFOs, Mexico was being informally proposed by some members as the nation to head the initiative. In the preamble of his co-authored book Los Ovni y la Arqueología de México (UFOs & Mexico's Archeology) Don Pedro describes the meeting he had with the next president of Mexico (José López Portillo) who asked him if he would be interested in leading the UN project [See EDIT below]. We all know the initiative fizzled out when Gairy was ousted in Grenada, but this goes to show just how much respect Ferriz enjoyed in the highest echelons of Mexican politics --Srsly now: how many UFOlogists can you name who have received messages of condolences from presidents when they passed away?

Go on, take your time.

Some 28 years or so ago, due to those inscrutable forces that shape the destinies of men, the book I mentioned above fell on my hands. And my life was never the same*.

Now that I'm about to turn 40, I find myself still immerse in the search for answers to questions which governments & scientific organizations still refuse to acknowledge, either because of sheer ignorance or cowardice. I still keep raising my eyes to the stars up above, and feel myself in awe by its sheer vastness. It's in those moments of humbling realization when it's easy to imagine that another world is keeping an eye on us.

Descanse en Paz, Don Pedro. Thank you for opening my eyes, my mind --and my heart.


(*): Head over to the Intrepid Blog, where you can find an essay I wrote about Los OVNI y la Arquelogía de México, a jewel of a book which should be reprinted & translated to other languages.


[EDIT] Tonight I went to pick my copy of Los OVNI y la Arqueología de México, and I realized I made a serious mistake: It was in 1972 when a group of Americans requested the intervention of Mexico to launch an international effort to study UFOs. The president at that time was Díaz Ordaz, although Don Pedro does not specify the reason why the initiative didn't prosper.

The reason I became confused is because in that paragraph UN Secretary General U-Thant gets mentioned --U-Thant was particularly interested in the UFO phenomenon, and believed "it stood second in international scientific importance only to Vietnam" [Reference]. In any case, my error illustrates how Don Pedro enjoyed the friendship of several presidents of Mexico.

Solar Wind Chime - Listening to Real-time Spacecraft Data Here on Earth

Our Sun emits a constant stream of charged particles from its upper atmosphere that is known as the 'solar wind'. This supersonic stream of particles, which creates our Solar System's 'heliosphere', varies in speed and density over time, and designer Helen White has created a novel way of experiencing this solar phenomenon. She has created a 'solar wind chime' using real-time data from an instrument aboard a NASA spacecraft launched 16 years ago:

Solar-wind Chime turns solar wind data into sound. The sound is generated by electromagnets oscillating a series of tuned aluminium tubes at their resonant frequencies. The 12 electromagnets are powered by driver boards controlled by an x-OSC...

...Solar wind speed is measured by the Solar Wind Electron, Proton and Alpha Monitor (SWEPAM) instrument aboard Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft currently observing the Sun. The data is sent back to groundstations and published by NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre in a text file on an FTP site with only a few minutes delay.

...As the sun’s activity ebb’s and rises over the course of hours, days and months the chimes ambiently reflect this.

Link: "Solar-wind Chime: Listening to the sun using spacecraft, electromagnets and x-OSC"

CIA Officially Admits to Existence of Area 51 (But Not to Aliens)

Area 51 Warning Sign

The CIA has 'officially' recognized the existence of the secretive 'Area 51' base (also known as 'Groom Lake', 'Dreamland', 'Paradise Ranch' etc) via the release of a 1992 document recording the history of two key aerial reconaissance programs. "The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs" (PDF) was written by CIA historians Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach more than two decades ago, and has just now been released to the public in response to a Freedom of Information request made in 2005 by George Washington University's National Security Archive (though a heavily redacted version of the U-2 portion of the document was published way back in 1998).

A number of media reports (and some skeptical sites) have immediately noted how this 'new' information about the U-2 and Oxcart (Lockheed A-12) programs puts the kaibosh on UFO enthusiasts' claims about alien spacecraft at Area 51; CNN reports that "the release of these reports seem to put the theories about aliens and flying saucers to rest for the time being". But while there is no shortage of hype and spurious mythology surrounding the possible craft at 'Dreamland', this is an ignorant view - the testing of the U-2 spyplane at Area 51 has been known for some time, both in military history circles and UFO research. Dr. Gerald Haines noted back in the 1990s that, "according to later estimates from CIA officials who worked on the U-2 project and the OXCART project, over half of all UFO reports from the late 1950s through the 1960s were accounted for by manned reconnaissance flights (namely the U-2) over the United States". UFO historian Richard Dolan rebutted that claims somewhat in his 2002 book UFOs and the National Security State, while also acknowledging the testing of experimental aircraft at Area 51, including the U-2's maiden flight:

There are objects being tested and flown today of staggering technology. The fabled Aurora spacecraft, an open secret flown out of Area 51 in Nevada, possesses extraordinary speed, maneuverability, and stealth capabilities, and is rumoured to incorporate revolutionary principles in propulsion technology. Regarding the early years, CIA historian Gerald Haines argued recently that most UFO sightings in the 1950s and 1960s were actually of classified aircarft such as the U-2 and SR-71 planes. There is no doubt that some of those UFO reports were of these aircraft. A closer inspection of the facts, however, reveals his claim to be specious. The U-2, for instance, did not fly until 1955. Its altitude was typically eighty thousand feet, and it flew straight as a string. It did not hover, no accelerate instantly, no land vertically, nor do any of the other things thousands of witnesses attributed to UFOs. The same can be said for the rest of America's cutting-edge technology of the cold war.

Regardless of misinformed views, this new release is a welcome one, giving more details about the mysterious site and some of the operations that originated there. Though of course, the government and intelligence agencies will always fill in the picture how they want it filled in, so keep a handy dose of skepticism as to how much of the full picture you're seeing, and if the colours are genuine!

(And for some fun tales about Area 51, make sure you check out Blair MacKenzie Blake's Darklore 7 article about his adventures exploring the outskirts of Groom Lake with his good friend Danny Carey, drummer for Tool.)

Link: "The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs>" (PDF)

Pale Blue Dot Redux: Space Probe Photographs Saturn and Earth in the Same Shot

Saturn and Earth, as seen from Cassini

On July 19, the Cassini space probe - in orbit around Saturn - use its wide angle camera to capture a spectacular view of our own planet as a speck in the distance, past the looming view of the ringed giant. Taken from the 'dark side' of Saturn, the photo shows a distant Earth, (898 million miles/1.44 billion km away) as a blue dot at center right - our Moon can just barely be seen as a fainter protrusion off the Earth's right side (this narrow angle shot shows the two more clearly).

And just in case you only glanced at it quickly before moving on to more pictures of cats and gossip about the royal baby, some perspective from Carl Sagan (written in 1994 regarding the original 'pale blue dot' image taken by Voyager 1):

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

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

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

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

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

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

'Fast Radio Bursts' Mystify Astronomers

Radio Telescope Scans the Sky

Over at Scientific American, science writer @LeeBillings has an excellent article about a newly discovered astronomical anomaly, 'Fast Radio Bursts' (FRBs), that in the words of one scientist will herald "the birth of an entirely new area of research":

Every now and then things go "bump!" in the cosmic night, releasing torrents of energy that astronomers can't easily explain. Not that they mind: most times an energetic riddle flares up in their view of the sky, major epoch-setting discoveries are sure to follow. This was the pattern for pulsars—rapidly spinning city-size stellar remnants that steadily chirp in radio. It was also the pattern for gamma-ray bursts—extreme explosions at the outskirts of the observable universe thought to be caused by stellar mergers and collapsing massive stars. Now the pattern is playing out again, with last week's announcement that an international team of researchers has detected brief, bright bursts of radio waves washing over Earth from mysterious sources that may be billions of light-years away. The findings, reported in the July 5 Science, could open an entirely new window on the universe by allowing scientists to measure the composition and dynamics of the intergalactic medium—the cold, diffuse plasma that lies between galaxies.

Using a year's worth of data gathered from some 10 percent of the sky by the 64-meter Parkes radio telescope in Australia, the team detected four bursts from far outside the galactic plane, each occurring only once and lasting a few thousandths of a second. According to Dan Thornton, a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester in England who led the study, the results suggest that these "fast radio bursts," or FRBs, probably occur as often as every 10 seconds or so, nearly 10,000 times a day. "If we had radio telescopes watching the entire sky, that's how many we think we'd see each day," Thornton says. "We haven't seen more of these until now only because we've been looking at small regions of the sky for small amounts of time."

Link: Full article at Scientific American