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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Things that might be due to aliens, part 3: 1991 VG

When we talk about the idea of finding alien life – whether that’s a galactic empire or a single microbe – people often get frustrated by the prevarications and grey-area language scientist use. There’s a good reason for that though: Every time a mistaken or false claim gets into the papers it damages the reputation of all scientists. 

So making a claim as big as first contact, only to have someone else prove you wrong, can end a career. That means research into anything remotely connected to the idea of alien life gets super, super, cautious. But there are a few odd, unsolved, mysteries in space that researchers will admit might – just might as an outside chance – turn out to be alien in origin. Over the upcoming posts I'll take a look at each of the four most tantalising in turn...


VG 1991: 

If a possible alien signal is interesting, a possible sighting of an alien space probe is much more so – although I’ll heavily emphasise that I say ‘possible’*, not ‘probable’. 

Found in 1991, 1991VG is a 10 meter wide object that follows Earth’s orbit with an eerie – almost artificial – precision. That’s unusual, because sharing an orbit with a large world like Earth isn’t a stable situation: If a natural object did find it’s way onto such a path it wouldn’t stay there for long, as the perturbing effect of Earth’s gravity would throw it off course, or pull it in.


Like this one....

Because of this the initial batch of explanations were centred around the idea that this was some sort of spent rocket stage, or other piece of space junk from Earth. That would also explain why 1991 VG is spinning so rapidly, without showing any signs of breaking up: A rubble pile or space rock would tend to fly apart over millennia, due to centripetal force, but a man made object would be stronger and younger. 

Yet matching the object definitively to a mission from Earth has proved difficult, which has left the door open for (as yet un-debunked) speculation that this could be a probe from an alien civilisation, shadowing Earth to observe it. 


If so, then it's a good bet the Empire knows we're here (ahem, sorry, Star Wars reference there...)

It’s a tantalising possibility, but since then it’s been discovered that small fast spinning asteroids of a definitely natural type do exist. The mystery of it’s perfect Earth-tracking orbit remains however. 

It’s discoverer, James Scotti, never raised the idea of an alien space probe. But another researcher, Duncan Steele, noted that the fact that.... 

“...none of the handful of man-made rocket bodies left in heliocentric orbits during the space age have purely gravitational orbits returning to the Earth [in November of 1991]... ...it might be argued that 1991 VG is a candidate as an alien probe observed in the vicinity of our planet.” 

An artists impression of a probe approaching a star system.

Steel was just raising the explanation as one that hadn’t  been entirely ruled out, so that the scientific community could debunk it. 

“I do not think [1991VG] is of extraterrestrial origin,” Steel said in an email. “I do think that we should take seriously the possibility that there are alien artefact's in the solar system, although I very much doubt that there are any, based on what we know so far." 

But, so far, no-one has done what Steel hoped and definitively ruled it out.

1991VG will be making a close approach to Earth in 2017, so maybe someone with a powerful telescope will find time to investigate this odd object and identify it once and for all.  But failing that a probe, the Near Earth Asteroid Scout, is scheduled to fly there in 2018.


 

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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Things that might be due to aliens part 2: The Wow signal....

When we talk about the idea of finding alien life – whether that’s a galactic empire or a single microbe – people often get frustrated by the prevarications and grey-area language scientist use. There’s a good reason for that though: Every time a mistaken or false claim gets into the papers it damages the reputation of all scientists. 

So making a claim as big as first contact, only to have someone else prove you wrong, can end a career. That means research into anything remotely connected to the idea of alien life gets super, super, cautious. But there are a few odd, unsolved, mysteries in space that researchers will admit might – just might as an outside chance – turn out to be alien in origin. Over the upcoming posts I'll take a look at each of the most tantalising in turn...


The Wow signal: 

Probably the most famous of putative alien contacts, the Wow signal was a signal from an unremarkable part of the sky, picked up by the ‘Big Ear’ antenna in 1977. 

Above : The Big Ear at Ohio University.

Big Ear wasn’t designed for hunting down distant signals that precisely, so the exact source of the signal was never pinned down. Subsequent searches of the general area never turned anything up, but the signal showed hallmarks of a man made radio beacon - just from far, far further into space than any human spacecraft has reached. 

Lots of non- ETI explanations have been put forwards, and there is still research going on into them. Some, like an Earth based signal reflecting off space debris, have more or less been ruled out. 

Above: A zoom in showing the (two) possible  areas of the sky that the Wow signal might have come from.

But professor Antonio Paris, formerly of the US department of defense, has launched a crowdfunded investigation into the idea that a passing comet with a hydrogen rich atmosphere could have caused the signal – there were two comets in roughly the right part of the sky on that date

Above: Could a comet be the source? Image courtesy of solarviews.com

Some are sceptical of this explanation, but as Paris points out: Even if he turns out to be wrong, it’s still good science because we are learning something about comets....
 

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Things that might (possibly) be due to aliens, part 1: Martian micro tunnels...

When we talk about the idea of finding alien life – whether that’s a galactic empire or a single microbe – people often get frustrated by the prevarications and grey-area language scientist use. There’s a good reason for that though: Every time a mistaken or false claim gets into the papers it damages the reputation of all scientists. 

So making a claim as big as first contact, only to have someone else prove you wrong, can end a career. That means research into anything remotely connected to the idea of alien life gets super, super, cautious. But there are a few odd, unsolved, mysteries in space that researchers will admit might – just might as an outside chance – turn out to be alien in origin. Over the upcoming posts I'll take a look at each of the four most tantalising in turn...




Microtunnels in Martian meteorites:

Intelligent aliens sending signals or probes makes for compelling blogging and sci-fi. But a much more prosaic piece of evidence for alien life comes from meteorites recovered from the ice of Antarctica


Above: Meteorite hunter's at work in Antarctica. Courtesy of ANSMET.

A very rare few meteorites come from the planet Mars, blasted into deep space by asteroid impacts to wander until they fell on Earth (the reverse has happened to rocks from Earth in the distant past). These rocks are the only samples of Martian material we have access to here on Earth, so naturally we study the hell out of them. And, in two such meteorites, something odd has been seen: Minute tunnels, bored through the solid rock in the heart of the meteorites

Above: These tiny parallel branch tunnels, bored into the solid rock of a martian meteorite, might just be down to alien microbes

Meteorites from other parts of the solar system don’t have tunnels like these, suggesting a specifically Martian phenomena is responsible – and the tunnels bear a remarkable resemblance to tunnels bored by a group of terrestrial microbes called autolithotrophs. 

Tunnels like these could also have been formed by some other, unknown method on Mars – this isn’t a smoking gun, more a whiff of cordite on a suspect’s coat. But, where for other mysteries an alien life explanation is very much a distant outside chance, a microbial origin for these tiny tunnels is given serious billing by scientists: We know Mars once hosted habitable conditions, and these particular rocks have been proved to have been soaked in liquid water, have organic compounds in their interiors. 

So, just maybe...
 

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Where is the most distant statue?

Human beings love to put up statues, effigies, busts, and monuments. They’re such a feature of modern civilisation that we don’t even see them really. But we also use them as markers, and place them out in the wilderness to show that well, we’ve come out here. 

So... have you ever wondered where the furthest statue from civilisation is? 

Well this is the Fallen Astronaut:


The teeny statue is a memorial to the astronauts and cosmonauts who died during the space race. Sculpted in aluminium by Paul Van Hoeydonck, the Apollo 15 crew placed it on the Moon's Hadley Rille on August 1, 1971 without fanfare.

It’s only 8.5 centimetres long, but as memorials go it is spectacular for its location alone - and it is truly alone: The next nearest human structure is the remains of the Luna 2 probe, hundreds of kilometres away. 

Above: A map of all th landngs onthe Moon's near side, courtesy of Forbes magazine.

So, next time you look up at the Moon, remember the fallen astronaut looking back at you for eternity – I wonder when it will see a close up visitor again....?
 

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Saturday, 16 July 2016

What was the first object into space?

There is a story that, in 1956, a nuclear bomb test in an underground vault blew the vault door clear into space. It’s almost certainly a myth - even if the door were going fast enough, the atmosphere would have slowed it down, and even melted it, like a reversed meteor.

There are worse uses for a nuclear omb though... like, actually aiming them at people....

But it got me wondering: Did anything from Earth reach space, intentionally or not, before the USSR launched Sputnik 1?

The Nazi V2 missiles spring immediately to mind: They reached up to 108 km high, which is beyond the accepted modern boundary of space. Before that... it seems fairly sure that no human built object ever got into space - but that’ not quite the same as nothing.....

Of all the violent natural events planet Earth sees, an asteroid impact is right up there. Ironically, some are so big  they throw things back into space: Around the edge of a gigantic asteroid impact is a ring called the spallation zone, where the shockwave movng through the ground returns to the surface and blasts the surface into into space. It’s estimated that, via this spectacular launch method, millions of tons of Earth rocks have flown to the Moon, and some have even reached Mars.

Above: This is an iron meteorite on the surface of Mars - iron meteorites form in the cores of geologically active worlds (that then get blown to pieces by gigantic impacts) so we know ths kind of thing does happen. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

The reverse is also true: We have chunks of rock here on Earth that were blown free from Mars and the Moon by giant impacts, and have landed here on Earth.

So are these the first thing from Earth to fly through space…?

No.

4 Billion years ago the biggest impact in Earth's history happened: A protoplanet called Theia came barrelling out of deep space, and the blast melted the entire Earth, pole to pole, crust to core. The molten debris from the blast was flung into orbit... where it eventually coalesced into the Moon.



Above: A computer simulation of the impact that formed the Moon...

So, if you want to be really, really, picky: The first object ever to fly from Earth into space.... was the Moon.
 

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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Where is the biggest man made structure?

If we're talking about huge things built by people the knowledgeable among you will be pointing to the Three Gorges Dam, or the Burj Khalifa

This thing.
If we include things composed of many interlinked structures you might well point to the worlds great cities: New York, Baghdad, Tokyo. Then there are road networks: The worlds largest road network is America’s, at over six million kilometres long... Pretty impressive, but there is a very large structure built by humans, which is not only bigger than a city, but bigger than our entire planet - and almost perfectly circular: The geostationary satellite arc


Above: A map of the geostationary arc (and a bunch of other satellites too).

The arc is a ring of satellites in the most prized of all orbits, geostationary orbit. Here a satellite will take 24 hours to orbit the Earth once – so, in effect, it hangs motionless in Earth’s sky. That’s a pretty useful property to have, whether your space platform's job is communication, navigation, surveillance, weather monitoring, or… well, anything.  
Famously made known by Arthur C Clarke, this magic orbit only has limited space , and satellite operators pay heavy fees for a slot in it. The satellites there hold a huge, co-ordinated ring formation 35,786 km above the Earth's surface, encircling it

 
Above: The view from one point on the arc, the Echostar 11 satellite.

True, it’s a bit of a cheat: The belt isn’t a single, solid structure – although it’s members do hold a constant pattern. But then, many things we regard as structures aren’t one piece: The stones of stone circles don’t all connect to each other, nor do all the houses in a city or all the trees in the forest. And the GEO ring is definitely going to last to last as long as any stone circle: With no weather, nor oxidising atmosphere to attack them, and orbits that stay up for millions of years, the satellites in the ring will be a permanent trace of our civilisation – perhaps for far longer than our civilisation will exist…
 

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Saturday, 9 July 2016

Why does the JUNO probe have a 'vault'?

The JUNO space probe has pulled into orbit around Jupiter. It’s mission? Study the giant planet itself, analyse it’s gravity for patterns and look beneath its cloud tops. 

Above: An infographic of the Jupiter system of moons and rings, courtesy of  Wikpedia.


But why does the space probes design include a vault? Is NASA hauling bullion out there? 

No. 

Although there’s the seed of an awesome conspiracy theory in there.

Above: The real reason for the credit crunch? Bribes for aliens....

It’s not that kind of vault. It’s a radiation vault, specifically built for JUNO’s electronic brain, because:

  • The radiation environment around Jupiter is ferocious, to say the least: A hugely powerful magnetic field, that traps charged particles and accelerates them to enormous speeds, emenates from the planet.
  • On top of that, immense electric currents run between each of the four major moons and Jupiters cloud tops, stirring up even more high speed particles. 

So the whole volume of space around Jupiter is seething with radiation, concentrated around two immense radiation belts.

Above: A map of Jupiter's radiation belts.

Inside these belts organic matter (i.e. you and me) would quickly break down, and even on the surface of Jupiters moon Europa an astronaut would be dead of radiation poisoning pretty damn fast. The radiation is so intense that even robots are affected. Each of those high speed charged particles can not only destroy human DNA, it can damage the workings of a space ship’s computer. JUNO’s orbit puts it on a path that avoids the worst of it, but even so it’s brain is nestled in a heavy-armoured vault that will reduce radiation levels by 800 times, in order to make sure the probe can carry out it’s 18 month mission. 

Above: NASA gives us the low down on JUNO.

As for what the details of that mission are, I’ve got a nice post already worked up. Juno is still adjusting it’s course, but when it gets into its final science orbit there will data aplenty for science types, and stunning images aplenty for everyone else.
 

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