Saturday, October 2, 2010

What's Up? UFOs = Alien Spacecraft and Abductions?

Welcome back to What's Up?

When looking up at night, one of the first questions that may come to mind is "Are we alone?" Since the ancient Greeks, people have asked that very same question. Although most astronomers today would say there is life on other worlds, there is no definite evidence pointing toward a simple yes or no.
A typical image of an Unidentified Flying Object claimed to be an alien spacecraft.
The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) involves searching through radio telescope observations for signals from distant aliens. While sometimes associated with pseudoscience, SETI doesn't jump to conclusions without solid proof of a signal.

There is a wide-spread belief that intelligent life has been visiting the Earth on a regular basis. This belief is almost non-existent among professional astronomers for many reasons. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," as Carl Sagan, who pioneered the field of astrobiology, once said while discussing the possibility of alien visitation.

UFO, which stands for Unidentified Flying Object, has become synonymous with alien spacecraft in recent decades. The vast majority of UFO sightings can be explained fairly easily.

For example, Venus low in a turbulent evening sky can appear to flash and change colour very rapidly and is a very common explanation for a lot of UFO phenomena.

The Moon has been mistaken for a UFO many times. When low on the horizon it appears as a very deep red and if clouds block out certain parts, it can appear to be some very strange shapes. When a crescent Moon is setting it can look like a burning sailboat sailing away from you.

An image I took of the Moon low
on the horizon.
During the day, clouds and reflections of the Sun off of clouds can look very odd. Sun dogs, which are bright spots in the sky can appear orb-like or as large arcs, near and around the Sun.

There are many other natural explanations for weird phenomena in the sky, but what about the flying saucers?

As it turns out, lenticular clouds, can be quite disk-like, although they usually only form near mountains. Other sources of flying saucers in photographs (especially the blurry ones) are dirt or water drops on the camera lens, a fast moving object being blurred in the frame, or are photoshopped.

Sightings by spacecraft of objects entering the atmosphere and shooting back off into space have been reported. Something that can do that must be aliens, right?

Well, not quite. As it turns out, if a meteor comes in at a shallow angle it can bounce off the atmosphere just like a when you skip stones at the beach.

Shortly after the release of the X-Files, UFO sightings spiked. Whether or not that is because of imagination or more people looking up at the sky can't really be said.

Speaking of the X-Files, there are also "alien abductions." At first glance it can seem very unlikely that so many different people could have such experiences if abductions weren't really happening. But, upon closer inspection, these abductions can be explained by how the human brain works.

The human brain is not a perfect machine for interpreting reality and abduction stories can be explained by hallucinations, near-sleep states, temporary schizophrenia, epileptic seizures, and even false memories. What people experience largely depends on the culture they are brought up in.
Are the rows of equal thickness?
An example of one of the many
ways our mind can trick us.

Have aliens visited Earth recently? They most likely have not. The majority of presented evidence is anomaly hunting, which is looking for anything odd and then jumping to the conclusion that it must be aliens. It can't be said for certain that there isn't alien visitation, but until solid proof is available, we won't have to rename our laws concerning illegal aliens.

While we're still thinking about what may be lurking above, let's see what's up in this month's skies.

The new Moon will be on Oct. 7 while the full Moon will be on Oct. 23.

Jupiter will shine brightly throughout the month in the southwest shortly after sunset.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club will have its monthly meeting on Sunday, October 24. The meeting runs from 7pm to 9pm at the Wilmot Community Centre. Guests are always welcome.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...
Did you know that Mercury, that toasty planet closest to the Sun, has a tail? It's not much of a tail, but it's definitely there. Most of the tail is from sodium, what you may know as salt, getting blown off Mercury by the solar wind. It turns out that there is a little mystery as to what else it is made of. This just proves that you can discover something hiding in plain sight. All you have to do is ask lots of questions and be on the lookout for anything new and exciting.

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