Of UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence and Oumuamua. We’re alone? When the night sky inspires awe

When I set up my telescope for public stargazing events, I enjoy talking to the people who gather around. They mostly ask me about the telescope objectives we are looking at. How big is the moon? How far away is Jupiter? What are Saturn’s rings made of? Three other topics come up with surprising frequency: astrology, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI).

I will leave astrology in the able hands of my freelance colleague Stefan Piscitelli. While there is some topical overlap with astronomy, astrology is an ancient discipline in its own right. It’s not my department.

You can imagine that since I am a follower of the facts, I would leave out the UFOs and the ETI. But both are of interest to me, and also to many scientists.

The two terms cover a wide range of subtopics. That they include strange lights in the sky, reports of abductions (even in Truro), and radio messages from advanced alien civilizations can make it difficult to know where reality ends and science fiction begins. But sometimes, it’s worth noting, the latter comes first.

Knowledge of astronomy can help make sense of things that might otherwise seem fantastic, especially UFOs. The planet Venus is amazingly bright in our sky. Due to its constantly changing position relative to Earth, it is sometimes visible just before sunrise (when it is known as Lucifer, Latin for light-bearer, or the morning star) and sometimes during an hour or so after sunset, when it is called the vespertino. Star. A casual observer might look up one night and see an extremely bright object low in the west that was not there the last time he looked up. Or perhaps there was a period of bad weather between Venus’s transition from Morning Star to Evening Star. flight” which they later realized was Venus.

Other sights that we often mistake for otherworldly objects include airplanes, satellites, and unusual cloud formations. Depending on sky conditions and your line of sight to an aircraft, it may appear to float or move at impossible angles. A twilight sky and the plane’s own lights can amplify the illusion.

I know from stargazing events that many people don’t know that you can see satellites overhead at night. They look like small stars that move fast relative to real stars, streaking across the sky and out of sight in a minute or less. The International Space Station, due to its large size, is especially bright. It would be easy to imagine that such a bright and fast-moving star was an alien spacecraft.

Then there are the truly unexplained lights in the sky. People report seeing things at night that appear and disappear before they can reach a camera. A handful of people have cautiously shared with me stories of strange lights without any of the identifying features of Venus, or satellites, or even meteors. These lights are sometimes repeated regularly and other times are witnessed by others. When they ask me what natural phenomena could explain what they have seen, I don’t have a good answer for them.

Which brings us to ETI. We’re alone? And if we are not, then, as the physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950 over lunch in Los Alamos: “Where is everybody?”

Scientists have given some thought to the first question. There is even an equation, the Drake Equation, created by Frank Drake, an American astrophysicist, intended to estimate how many other civilizations might exist. But the answer, for now, depends on one’s inherent optimism.

The discovery of the first exoplanet (a planet in our galaxy that orbits a star other than our Sun) was confirmed in 1992. Since then, the technology that allows the detection of exoplanets has advanced and we are able to find them in space at a time. wider. range of restrictive parameters. (The current count is over 5,000.) The implication is that planets are everywhere, in seemingly infinite varieties, including Earth-like varieties. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 100 billion stars and at least that many planets; the total is probably three or four times that. That is a great opportunity for life to find a way. And that doesn’t take into account the trillions of other galaxies in the universe with many trillions of planets.

No, I don’t think we’re alone.

As for the question where is everyone? — this is where we have to settle for wonder and imagination rather than science.

Some suggest that we may be in some kind of interstellar test. Perhaps an advanced galactic civilization is waiting to see if we kill, starve, and poison ourselves out of existence, or if we transcend our instincts and earn an invitation to join their interstellar society of kindred beings. I wonder how many nascent space-faring species outgrow this stage we’re in and how many don’t. Or, come to think of it, maybe it’s better not to know the odds.

In 2017, the first interstellar object from a different solar system to be observed passing through our own was discovered. Named Oumuamua, it was detected by the NASA-funded Pan-STARRS1 telescope at the University of Hawaii, and its name means “a messenger from afar who comes first.” Its characteristics defied categorization as a comet or an asteroid, the only two natural objects it could plausibly be.

NASA’s science website describes it as apparently dense, composed of rock and possibly metals, with no water or ice. But there are those who might find it uncannily similar to the fictional alien spaceship in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous With Rama. The fact is that no one can yet say for sure; Scientists are still puzzling over the Oumuamua data as they look at more interstellar visitors, natural or otherwise, that we now know are out there.

Maybe we should listen to Shakespeare on this. As Hamlet tells his friend: “Verily there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horace, than you dream of in your philosophy.” Clear skies!


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