Extraterrestrials, UFOs, and the Voyager Golden Record

The wonderful Brains On! science podcast for kids just completed a four part series on "Making Sense of Myths" and the final episode, "Aliens and UFOs," includes an interview with me about the Voyager Golden Record! Listen above! Of course the Voyager Golden Record is the iconic message for extraterrestrials attached to the Voyager I and II space probes launched by NASA in 1977. The Voyager Record tells a story of our planet expressed in sounds, music, images, and science, from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to Chuck Berry, to greetings in dozens of human languages (and one whale language).

A few years ago, my friends Timothy Daly, Lawrence Azerrad, and I released the Voyager Golden Record on vinyl for the first time, as a lavish box set. Our project's resonance with the public, and the Grammy that we were honored to receive for it, are really a testament to the majesty of the original record and brilliance of its creators.

I hope the story of the Voyager Record included in this Brains On! episode sparks kids' imaginations and instills a sense of wonder about humanity's place in the universe! It certainly does for me.

The Voyager Golden Record 3xLP Vinyl Box Set and 2xCD-Book edition is available from Ozma Records.

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Astronaut Helen Sharman: extraterrestrials exist and they may be here now

Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut and in 1991 became the first woman to visit the Soviet Mir space station. In an interview published in The Guardian yesterday, she made a comment about extraterrestrials, the latter part of which is an eyebrow raiser:

"Aliens exist, there’s no two ways about it. There are so many billions of stars out there in the universe that there must be all sorts of different forms of life. Will they be like you and me, made up of carbon and nitrogen? Maybe not. It’s possible they’re here right now and we simply can’t see them."

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Seeking out extraterrestrials by their stench

One way to determine whether distant worlds may be home to extraterrestrials is to seek out the presence of biosignatures, molecules that indicate the existence of past or present life, in the exoplanet's atmosphere. (The chemical composition of the atmosphere affects its color spectra, observable with telescopes.) According to new MIT research, one biosignature may be a stinky, poisonous gas found in swamps, bogs, and even some animals' bowels. From MIT:

MIT researchers have found that phosphine is produced by... anaerobic organisms, such as bacteria and microbes, that don’t require oxygen to thrive. The team found that phosphine cannot be produced in any other way except by these extreme, oxygen-averse organisms, making phosphine a pure biosignature — a sign of life (at least of a certain kind).

In a paper recently published in the journal Astrobiology, the researchers report that if phosphine were produced in quantities similar to methane on Earth, the gas would generate a signature pattern of light in a planet’s atmosphere. This pattern would be clear enough to detect from as far as 16 light years away by a telescope such as the planned James Webb Space Telescope. If phosphine is detected from a rocky planet, it would be an unmistakable sign of extraterrestrial life.

“Here on Earth, oxygen is a really impressive sign of life,” says lead author Clara Sousa-Silva, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “But other things besides life make oxygen too. It’s important to consider stranger molecules that might not be made as often, but if you do find them on another planet, there’s only one explanation.”

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Watch this far-out Japanese animated "documentary" about UFOs (1975)

"That's a UFO! The flying saucer" (これがUFOだ! 空飛ぶ円盤) is a Japanese "documentary" about unidentified flying objects. It was first screened in 1975 at the annual Toei Anime Festival hosted by the famed Toei Animation studio, creators of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball. The short film features classic UFO encounters like the Betty Barney Hill abduction case of 1961 and the 1948 story of Kentucky Air National Guard pilot Captain Thomas F. Mantel whose plane crashed while he chased a UFO.

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Footage of Dobby the house-elf from Harry Potter caught on home security cam video

Vivian Gomez posted the above home security cam video to her Facebook page. She writes:

"So I woke up Sunday morning and saw this on my camera and am trying to figure out...what the heck?? First I saw the shadow walking from my front door then I saw this thing....has anyone else seen this on their cameras?? The other two cameras didn’t pick it up for some reason."

Internet commenters insist that the mysterious creature is Dobby the house-elf from Harry Potter, but following Occam's razor, the simplest explanation is that it is an extraterrestrial.

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The best evidence for extraterrestrials may be their massive engineering projects

The classic approach to the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is to scan the skies for radio transmissions from intelligent civilizations. While we definitely won't hear anything if we don't listen, SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak urges us to also keep our eyes (and sensors) peeled for another kind of alien technosignature: alien megastructures, "massive engineering works that an advanced society has constructed somewhere in space." We haven't found one yet but the possibility made headlines several years ago when a team of astronomers led by Tabetha Boyajian described a star that periodically dims in a very odd way. Shostak writes:

One explanation was that the star was surrounded by a Dyson sphere. The idea, proposed years ago by physicist Freeman Dyson, is that really advanced aliens would construct a gargantuan, spherical swarm of solar panels in orbit beyond their own planet — sort of the way you might cup your hands around a candle to collect the heat. The swarm would gather enough starlight to energize the aliens’ souped-up lifestyles, and could sometimes get in the way of light from the star, causing it to intermittently dim as seen from afar.

That explanation for Tabby’s star seems less likely today. Astronomical measurements show that it gets redder when it dims, suggesting that it’s surrounded by naturally produced dust, not a gargantuan group of light collectors.

But it’s reasonable to believe that Dyson spheres exist somewhere. In the past, astronomers looked for clues to such massive engineering projects by trawling star catalogs for systems that show an excess of infrared light — produced by the warm backside of the panels.

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The Voyager Golden Record deconstructed on the Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast

The new episode of the always-fascinating Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast is a play-through of the Voyager Golden Record, the iconic message for extraterrestrials attached to the Voyager I and II space probes launched in 1977. Listen below.

The Golden Record tells a story of our planet expressed in sounds, images, and science: Earth’s greatest music from myriad peoples and eras, from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to Chuck Berry, Benin percussion to Solomon Island panpipes to, yes, Mozart's The Magic Flute.

This wonderful episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz features insightful track-by-track commentary by science and philosophy writer Timothy Ferris, producer of the original Voyager Record, and a rare interview with Linda Salzman-Sagan who compiled the greetings on the record.

Two years ago, my friends Timothy Daly, Lawrence Azerrad, and I released the Voyager Golden Record on vinyl for the first time as a lavish box set. Our project's resonance with the public, and the Grammy that we were honored to receive for it, are really a testament to the majesty of the original record and the brilliance of its creators -- Ferris, Salzman-Sagan, Ann Druyan, Frank Drake, and of course Carl Sagan who directed the project.

The Voyager Golden Record 3xLP Vinyl Box Set and 2xCD-Book edition is available from Ozma Records.

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Far out t-shirts that celebrate the SETI Institute!

Is there life out there? That's one of the mind-boggling questions that the SETI Institute explores through its scientific research, all the while inspiring our own curiosity and sense of wonder about our place in the universe. SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the official mission of the organization, founded in 1984, "is to explore, understand and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe and the evolution of intelligence." Support their efforts with these far out new t-shirts from the SETI Institute's Chop Shop Store.

Above, the iconic SETI Logo tee. Below, a graphic expression of SETI pioneer Frank Drake's "Drake Equation" used to estimate the number of technological civilizations that could have developed in our galaxy. And lastly, a design honoring the scientists whose pioneering work underpins the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, and Jill Tarter.

SETI Institute t-shirts (Chop Shop Store)

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Man-on-the-street interviews: Is there life on other planets? (1962)

With NASA's InSight spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars today, it's fun to watch this vintage ABC News Australia segment from 1962: "Is there life on other planets?"

One of my favorite responses: "I hope not. Because they'd be frozen to death."

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Shocking discovery of Strigiformes from planet Sol III!

Video evidence of owl-like extraterrestrials found in an attic:

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Harvard-Smithsonian astronomers: could the mysterious interstellar object be part of an ET probe?

First discovered a year ago, Oumuamua is the strange cigar-shaped object of interstellar origin that flew through our solar system at 196,000 mph. Since it was first spotted, scientists haven't decisively determined whether it's a mildly active comet or something else. Now, astronomers Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have released a scientific paper asking if Oumuamua could be a "lightsail of artificial origin," part of a space probe developed by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Of course this is not a statement of fact but rather a question, albeit a very very interesting one. From CNN:

"'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they wrote in the paper, which has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The theory is based on the object's "excess acceleration," or its unexpected boost in speed as it traveled through and ultimately out of our solar system in January 2018.

"Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment," wrote the paper's authors, suggesting that the object could be propelled by solar radiation.

"COULD SOLAR RADIATION PRESSURE EXPLAIN ‘OUMUAMUA’S PECULIAR ACCELERATION?" (PDF)

(image: artist's impression of Oumuamua, ESO/M. Kornmesser) Read the rest

Laser "porch light" could be a beacon for ETs

A feasibility study in the Astrophysical Journal explains how a powerful laser on an Earth mountaintop, focused through a huge telescope, could shine a light of infrared radiation that would be detectable up to 20,000 light years away. While some scientists are concerned about alerting extraterrestrials to our presence, I agree with something said to me by Ann Druyan -- co-writer of Cosmos and many other works with her husband Carl Sagan -- when we were working on the Voyager Golden Record: 40th Anniversary Edition: It's rather cynical, she explained, to think that a extraterrestrial civilization advanced enough to notice us and make the long trip to Earth would be so emotionally stunted as to purposely destroy us upon arrival. From MIT News:

The findings suggest that if a high-powered 1- to 2-megawatt laser were focused through a massive 30- to 45-meter telescope and aimed out into space, the combination would produce a beam of infrared radiation strong enough to stand out from the sun’s energy.

Such a signal could be detectable by alien astronomers performing a cursory survey of our section of the Milky Way — especially if those astronomers live in nearby systems, such as around Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth, or TRAPPIST-1, a star about 40 light-years away that hosts seven exoplanets, three of which are potentially habitable. If the signal is spotted from either of these nearby systems, the study finds, the same megawatt laser could be used to send a brief message in the form of pulses similar to Morse code.

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Why haven't we heard from any extraterrestrials yet?

In 1960, my friend Frank Drake launched Project Ozma, the first modern scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Frank used the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (image above) in Green Bank, West Virginia to listen for interstellar radio transmissions that might be a signature of ETs. Nearly 60 years and countless scans later, we still haven't heard anything. Why? Space is big. Massive. In a 2010 paper, the SETI Institute's Jill Tarter and her colleagues described their ongoing calculations of a “cosmic haystack" where we're searching for an extraterrestrial needle.

"If you build a mathematical model, the amount of searching that we've done in 50 years (as of 2008) is equivalent to scooping one 8-ounce glass out of the Earth's ocean, looking and seeing if you caught a fish," Tarter told NPR. "No, no fish in that glass? Well, I don't think you're going to conclude that there are no fish in the ocean. You just haven't searched very well yet. That's where we are."

Now, Penn State astronomer Jason Wright and colleagues have refined the "cosmic haystack" model to include additional factors involving likely frequencies and bandwidth along with the latest large SETI searches. Even still, they "conclude that the fraction of it searched to date is also very small: similar to the ratio of the volume of a large hot tub or small swimming pool to that of the Earth's ocean."

From Science News:

Converting the volume to liters for the sake of analogy, the researchers concluded that SETI has covered the equivalent of 7,700 liters out of 1.335

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Mysterious repeating radio bursts from distant galaxy could be sign of extraterrestrial technology

Researchers from extraterrestrial research initiative Breakthrough Listen, the SETI Institute, and UC Berkeley used machine learning to detect mysterious repeating radio bursts from a galaxy 3 billion light years from Earth. As of now, the source of the fast radio bursts (FRBs) is unknown and, yes, the bursts "could be the signatures of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligent life," according to the scientists. From the SETI Institute:

In August of 2017, the Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley SETI Research Center observed FRB 121102 for five hours, using digital instrumentation at the GBT. Combing through 400 TB of data, they reported (in a paper [pdf] led by Berkeley SETI postdoctoral researcher Vishal Gajjar, recently accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal) a total of 21 bursts. All were seen within one hour, suggesting that the source alternates between periods of quiescence and frenzied activity.

Now, (UC Berkeley doctoral student Gerry) Zhang and collaborators have developed a new machine learning algorithm, and reanalyzed the 2017 GBT dataset, finding an additional 72 bursts that were not detected originally...

Additional FRB research may provide clues about whether or not they are signatures of extraterrestrial technology.

More at UC Berkeley news: "AI helps track down mysterious cosmic radio bursts" Read the rest

The secret history of Marxist alien hunters

From the early days of the Russian Revolution through the space race and Cold War, a small but dedicated collection of communist UFOlogists believed in and sought out signs of extraterrestrial life, believing that discovery aligned with their goals of raising up the worker. Read the rest

Are cosmic gorillas limiting our search for E.T.?

Remember the fantastic attention experiment in which you have to count the times the basketball is passed? (If you don't know it, watch the video before reading the rest of this post.)

In a recent paper in the scientific journal Acta Astronautica, University of Cadiz psychologists suggest that like the gorilla experiment, "selective attention" based on our preconceptions about possible extraterrestrials and how they may communicate may cause us to overlook evidence of their existence. Over at the SETI Institute blog, BB pal and astronomer Seth Shostak likens their argument to the gorilla experiment and counters that right now, the best thing to do is what we know how to do. And that's scanning the skies with antennae listening for signals:

It would be heavy-duty hubris to claim that we have considered every possibility in our efforts to find aliens. We’ve certainly been myopic in the past. During the nineteenth century, European physicists suggested we could establish contact with Martians by turning gas lanterns in the direction of the Red Planet. The plan was hopeless, but not because the scientists were ignoring other possibilities. They simply didn’t know about radio or much about Mars, and proposed a reasonable experiment given the science understanding of the time.

Sure, our preconceived notions of what would be good evidence of aliens — including radio signals, flashing lasers, or megastructures — might be blinding us to clues that, like nitrogen in the air, are all around us and yet overlooked. But to quote Dirty Harry, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

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Genetic analysis reveals that bizarre extraterrestrial skeleton isn't extraterrestrial

This is Ata, a bizarre, tiny mummified skeleton found in a deserted mining town in Chile's Atacama Desert in 2003.

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