Two Famous Alien Abduction Tales

Barney and Betty Hill hold up a drawing they made of the flying saucer and gray aliens that blocked their way on a dark night in rural New Hampshire in 1961.

In this blog post I will share two essays written by students in my astrophysics class this summer as an exercise in critical thinking and making claims based on evidence. They both report alien abduction cases that became quite famous, one of which even became the basis of a motion picture.

Betty and Barney Hill: The Zeta Reticuli Incident

by Maya

The Betty and Barney Hill case, also known as the Zeta Reticuli incident is one of the most known and credible alien abduction cases in the world. Many people have researched and been informed about this case in the 1960s and how it became an important prototype for abduction stories from then on.

The background on this case starts out simple. Betty and Barney Hill were a biracial couple in the 1960s. They both had busy lives with intense tiring jobs. Barney worked a night shift at a post office located 60 miles away from home. He made the tough commute to work every day. Betty worked a lot in the child welfare field, which can be brutal. The couple spent most of the time doing their jobs. In the little free time they acquired they spent most of it working at church in the civil rights movement.

They were married for 16 months before they were able to take a 3-day break for their honeymoon. The couple decided to take a trip to Montreal and Niagara Falls. On September 19, 1961 they were at a diner nearing the end of their trip. They decided to stop and eat before they continued the journey home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They left the diner at about 10 p.m. to avoid all the hurricanes and storms that were supposed to hit. They planned to get home at around 2 or 3 a.m. While driving home they noticed a strange light hovering over them. Barney was an ex-WWll vet and he just assumed that it was a satellite going off course. Betty, not knowing much, was worried that it was something more. The light grew closer and closer with each mile. Eventually, the light was straight above their heads. That was the last thing either of them remembered before the end of the night.

An artist’s rendition of the Hills confronted by the alien space ship as drawn by Barney. They stated that the ship came down in front of their car and blocked their way through a narrow gap in the New Hampshire hills.

They came around 2 hours later and surprisingly 35 miles down the road. They both felt dirty and could not recall anything that had happened in the past 2 hours. They drove all the way home. They both tried to remember what happened but could not seem to. Throughout the next month Betty and Barney developed an increasing amount of anxiety surrounding the incident. They both decided to seek help from a mental health specialist. They met with a psychologist and neurologist named Benjamin Simon. He specialized in hypnosis. He was able to recover memories for the couple through intense therapy. They claim to have remembered being abducted. After the light hovered over them, they recalled being taken into a ship that blocked their way through a narrow pass. They could see alien-looking gray creatures inside, who came out to meet them, but they found themselves unable to move. The creatures took them inside the ship, where they were stripped and evaluated. One of the creatures showed Betty a kind of diagram on the wall of the ship that showed a network of dots connected with dotted, single, and double lines. The alien pointed to two larger dots near each other on the bottom right of the diagram, and Betty felt this indicated where the aliens came from.

The real question though is: Is this incident real? We also must find credible evidence that points to an alien abduction. Betty and Barney Hill have a lot of believers and credibility. However, I have done a lot of research on many different websites and I have not found any credible sources. Most websites just explain the story in similar ways that other websites explain the incident. I have seen quotes directly from the Hill’s. Everything they are saying is being believed with no solid evidence. The only piece of evidence that we had is the star map drawn by Betty.

A teacher named Marjorie Fish studied the map in a magazine. She spent a lot of time building a 3D model of the nearby stars using the best data for distance and position then available and identifying stars that were most like our sun. Since there are many stars in the radius of our sun (estimated to be around 1,000 stars), Fish spent a lot of her time sorting stars into various categories. She eventually came down to 46 stars. It took Fish five years of looking at her model from every angle to find a match.

The star map drawn by Betty Hill under hypnosis. She assumed that the solid lines represented common travel lanes for the Reticulans whereas the dotted lines (one of which represents our solar system) represented infrequently visited star systems.

The view point was right above Zeta 2 Reticuli, which she assumed to be the double star system on Betty’s map. She stated “Since we did not have the data to make such a map in 1961 when Betty saw it, or in 1964 when she drew it, it could not be a hoax. Since the stars with lines to them are such a select group, it is almost impossible that the resemblance between Betty’s map and reality could be coincidental. Betty’s map could only have been drawn after contact with extraterrestrials” Fish concluded that this would give us major evidence to help conclude whether the abduction really happened. If the map had not been created when Betty drew it, it would have to conclude that something had happened that night.

However, if you look back at Betty’s map today and line it up with a more accurate model (the map from the 60s was not completely accurate, as we now have very accurate parallax measurements from the HIPPARCOS and GAIA satellites) you can see that the stars on Betty’s map do not line up with any stars.

Another piece of evidence that is critical is the reliability of using hypnosis to recover lost memories. Research says hypnosis is not a reliable method for memory recovery. People who undergo hypnosis therapy tend to be super confident in their memories which can lead to “persistence of false memories.” There have been laboratory studies that prove that someone can be influenced into believing something that did not happen is real. Hypnosis is a state similar to a dream or alpha state where therapists can plant memories in the patient’s minds, whether intentionally or not. There is not any legitimate science found behind unlocking memories through hypnosis. Everything “recalled” after the Hills blacked out cannot be trusted.

Details of the Hill drawing of the space ship.

My conclusion on this incident is that there was something that happened the night of September 19, 1961. Alien abduction seems a little stretched. It could be aliens and it could be something different.

Sources:

Lacina, L. (2019, June 5). The First Alien-Abduction Account Described a Medical Exam with a Crude Pregnancy Test. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/first-alien-abduction-account-barney-betty-hill

Barney Hill, UFO Witness born. (n.d.). African American Registry. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://aaregistry.org/story/barney-hill-a-story-of-alien-beings-on-earth/

Observatory, A., & Planetarium. (2011, August 19). The Truth about Betty Hill’s UFO Star Map – Astronotes. https://armaghplanet.com/betty-hills-ufo-s tar-map-the-truth.html

Betty Hill, 85, Figure in Alien Abduction Case, Dies. (2004, October 23). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/23/us/betty-hill-85-figure-in-alien-abduction-case-dies.html Hypnosis. (n.d.). http://Www.hopkinsmedicine.org.

Recovered Trauma Memories and Hypnosis – Abuse. (2015). Mentalhelp.net. https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/recovered-trauma-memories-and-hypnosis/

A poster from the movie “Fire in the Sky” based very loosely on the Travis Walton incident.

The Travis Walton Abduction

by Emma

On November 5th, 1975, a lumber jack from Arizona named Travis Walton allegedly went missing while at work in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest near Snowflake, Arizona for five days and approximately six hours. Scent dogs were called in and helicopters were issued to try to find Walton. Investigators thought that Walton’s co-workers had murdered him, but this was false. Once found, his story was told.

On November 5th a crew of seven men, including Walton, went to work on timber stands in the national forest. While riding out to the timber stands, the group allegedly saw a hovering mass that looked like a saucer. The “saucer” was thought to be approximately 110 feet away from the truck with the seven crew men. They claim to have heard a loud buzzing noise. Walton exited the truck and approached the object when a light came down on him and he lost consciousnesses. The six other crewmen were frightened off and left Walton behind.

When Walton returned to town, he told the story of waking in a room that resembled a hospital room surrounded by small creatures that were bald who seemed to be studying Walton. He noted that the creatures weren’t humanlike at all. Walton claimed to have fought the creatures until a human intervened while wearing a red helmet.

Another depiction of the abduction, this time for a 2015 “documentary.”

The man took Walton to a different room. In the second room, Walton claims to have been approached by three other human men that covered Walton’s face with a plastic mask. He then blacked out losing all consciousness. Walton stated that he remembered nothing else following the moment that he blacked out in the room with the three men. He claims to only remember waking up five days later walking down the side of the highway while he watched the saucer disappear into space. Walton had gone missing near Heber, Arizona.

There were some immediate responses to Walton’s story. That he first told it to the newspapers instead of reporting to the police was seen as questionable, and it was found that Walton had a motive for making up an alien abduction hoax. His lumber crew were behind on their forest service contract and about to default, which would have cost them thousands of dollars. Claiming there were aliens would give them a legitimate reason for not wanting to go back to the site or finish their contract. Another motive was that The National Inquirer was offering $5000 for the best UFO story of the year, which they paid to Walton despite their own investigator stating he felt the story was a hoax.

While considered a hoax, Walton’s story raises some interesting questions. All crew members passed the polygraph test but one which was determined to not be conclusive. Their stories were congruent with that told of Walton.

How could this be if it is really a hoax? It makes me question the credibility of the story. I ask myself, could this be true? I do think this story is most likely a hoax, but I do believe that there very well could be true UFO incidents. One thing that leads me to the conclusion that Walton’s story is a hoax is the cash prize of $5,000 that was awarded to Walton for the best UFO case. There was obviously an incentive for such an elaborate story. A movie was even made about the story following the event. It is called Fire in the Sky, making the Walton case a very famous story, although the movie greatly exaggerated the peril described by Walton. These lead to my suspicions about the veracity of Walton’s story.

Travis Walton in 2019 at a UFO convention. He continues to maintain he was abducted and examined by aliens.

The Travis Walton case is a puzzling incident. While the story was deemed a hoax, the workers’ stories all lined up with Walton’s. Could Walton be telling the truth? I don’t believe so, but the possibility is still an interesting mystery to look into.

Some Thoughts

As a science teacher I use UFO encounters and alien abduction stories to teach students critical thinking skills and how importance it is to use solid evidence when making extraordinary claims. Both of the incidents above were very famous and are continually debated by UFO enthusiasts and debunkers alike. What would constitute sufficient evidence that UFOs are actually alien space craft, which, despite all the evidence of science that such travel would be impossible or take hundreds of years, have travelled trillions of miles just to visit our backwater little planet and then leave no conclusive proof that they ever came. Doesn’t make much sense.

Science teaches us to have two opposing frames of mind when examining extraordinary claims. First, we need to keep an open mind that such claims might be true, because extraordinary things somethings become accepted. But that doesn’t mean we keep such open minds that our brains fall out. A healthy dose of skepticism is important for scientists. Just because someone wrote about it in a blog post (myself included) doesn’t make it true.

I hope you have enjoyed these UFO stories. What do you think? Are we not alone? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

I am posting our finished Ad Astra Per Educare Volume 4 newsletter again here:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Famous UFO Incidents: 1948-1954

A drawing made by pilots Chiles and Whitted after sighting their UFO. Most UFOs don’t have rocket exhaust coming out of them, and this looks suspiciously like a German V2 rocket or Buzz Bomb.

The UFO craze of 1947 wasn’t the last incident of URO sightings. It was just the beginning of what would be a long series of incidents through the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S. Air Force was concerned enough to begin an official investigation called Project Blue Book. Teams of investigators interviewed thousands of people who claimed to have seen UFOs or even to have made contact with aliens. Most of the sightings were easily explained away, but enough of them were credible enough that official reports were written and remain unexplained to this day. This post will explore several of the most famous and credible incidents of the late 1940s through middle 1950s.

The Chiles-Whitted Sighting

by Ali

You may have heard a lot about aliens, from movies to sightings, but are they real? One could argue both ways, however there are multiple sightings where it makes it almost impossible to not believe in aliens.

On July 24, 1948 around 2:45 am there was an incredible sighting while two different American commercial pilots were doing their normal flights over Southwest Alabama. Those commercial pilots nearly collided with a strange torpedo shaped flying object.

One of the pilots (Chiles) saw a flying object for 10 seconds before he lost sight in the clouds. He described what he saw in an official statement about a week later: “It was clear there were no wings present, that it was powered by some jet or other type of power, shooting flame from the rear some 50 feet. There were two rows of windows, which indicated an upper and lower deck, [and] from inside these windows a very bright light was glowing. Underneath the ship there was a blue glow of light.” (Daugherty, 2018)

The other pilot (Whitted) offered a similar description “The object was cigar shaped and seemed to be about a hundred feet in length. The fuselage was about three times the circumference of a B-29 fuselage. It had two rows of windows, an upper and a lower. The windows were very large and seemed square. They were white with light which was caused by some type of combustion…. I asked Capt. Chiles what we had just seen and he said that he didn’t know.” (Daugherty, 2018)

There were 20 different passengers aboard but only one of them was awake. He could not describe much other than the fact that there was an object that flew past his window fast.

The pilots drew sketches of what they saw, and they match the description quite well – a cigar-shaped vehicle with flame coming out the rear and two rows of shiny windows.

A captured German “Buzz Bomb” rocket used during World War II. The rocket was the large cylinder on the top. A more advanced version was the V2 rocket, which looked like a conventional rocket standing vertically with fins and a central rear nozzle.

At first The Pentagon had suggested that it was a weather balloon, however this was quickly disputed. The interpretation of what the three people saw was quickly discussed and dismissed as a crazy story. A common modern theory was it was a German “buzz bomb” or V2 rocket, where the windows were a reflection off of metallic patterns on the rocket. The Air Force had captured a number of these weapons at the end of World War II and brought them back to the United States for testing, along with a number of German rocket scientists such as Werner von Braun. The chief site for testing these rockets was to become Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. That the flight was over Alabama at the time of the sighting is rather telling, and the drawing of the pilots looks almost identical to a Buzz Bomb or V2 rocket, right down to the flames coming out of the rear. Of course the Air Force denied this – they wouldn’t want to admit that their test went off course and almost shot down a commercial airplane with 20 passengers on board.

Daugherty, Greg. “Two Pilots Saw a UFO. Why Did the Air Force Destroy the Report?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 16 Aug. 2018, https://www.history.com/news/ufo-chiles-whitted-soviet- spycraft-air-force-coverup.

The Haneda Air Force Base Incident

by Hannah

August 5th, 1952 Japanese USAF operators at the Haneda Air Force Base noticed something off in the sky. They saw a blueish- white light across the way from the control tower. Quickly the operators took action, they called the GCI radar unit. The GCI unit is a group of people who work with a ground-controlled interceptor. Initially formed to help train pilots, it uses a remote-controlled drone or a piloted aircraft that works to train officials to use a ground interceptor in a combat or high-risk situation. The GCI gives a 360-degree view around where it is stationed. It is a commonly used defense tactic. At Haneda airport the GCI team called in an F-94, an American made all weather jet interceptor that was used for air defense and carried no guns. The F-94 created a radar scrambler. Their radar then got returns from the area of the blueish light. The GCI then vectored, directed (an aircraft in flight) to a desired point, the F-94 towards the light. They then picked up an unknown orbiting target. Furthermore, the F-94 picked up an unknown radar. After 90 seconds there was an airborne pursuit where the target moved out of radar range and the pursuit was followed by another GCI radar. The unknown light/radar source then disappeared.

As UFO incidents go, this one is puzzling. Usually UFOs do not produce radar returns or are seen by such a high number of trained personnel, including the pilot of the F-94 interceptor. But to say it was aliens visiting Earth does not make must sense scientifically. Why would an alien species come to an airport on Earth to simply just look? They also did not stay for an extended period of time, why make a long trip to only stay a little over a minute. Also, assuming they were developed enough to make a craft that can travel to Earth, why would they have run away when the radar was scrambled. Assuming the level of development necessary and the fact that they supposedly had a radar system it is confusing as to why then they would turn and leave. Applying human logic to the situation this becomes confusing as to why something would travel so far, how advanced I’d have to be to do this, and why no contact would be made. The sighting took place at an airport. This means there is high air security. Meaning it is harder to just ‘see’ an aircraft with no evidence. There also is evidence of a radar system being detected. This is harder to fake than just a pure sighting. Furthermore, this sighting and action was taken place by USAF operators, as well as people working with the GCI and F-94’s. The more people involved the harder the sighting is to be dismissed. It is harder to convince 20 people to lie about a sighting than it is for one person to just make a claim. In my belief the sighting may have been real, an unidentified flying object was seen; this object may not have been aliens though. It seems highly unlikely all these people would lie about an object somewhere as secure as an airport, but it seems more unlikely that this object would be sent by another species. Therefore, it may have been sent by another human, perhaps as a prank or a mistake or even something more sinister. That we may not ever know.

“Saucers over Washington” (Comic) 09204_2004_001

Washington DC Mass Sightings

In 1952 there were also a number of sightings occurring over Washington DC. Multiple people reported seeing flying discs or flying saucers directly over the U.S. Capitol and White House, as shown in the illustration. The incidents became the basis of several popular movies, including Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. But other movies may have been the trigger for the sightings. For example, the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an alien spacecraft landed on the National Mall (“Klaatu, barada nikto!”) came out in 1951, so it may have been the inspiration for many of the sightings.

The Fiorentine Stadium Mass Sightings

by Lilly

On October 27, 1954, the Fiorentina club soccer team was playing against their rival Pistoiese. There were about 10,000 spectators sitting in the concrete bowl of The Stadio Artemio Franchi Stadium in Florence, Italy that fall day. In the second quarter, Fiorentina was in the lead at 6-2 when the game came to a pause because of a sudden shift in the crowd of spectators. Their normal competitive frenzy turned to something more like hysteria. Everyone in The Stadio Artemio Franchi turned their eyes to the sky. Adrico Magnini, a defender for Fiorentina, described the sight as he saw it: “I remember everything from A to Z,” he says. “It was something that looked like an egg that was moving slowly, slowly, slowly. Everyone was looking up and also there was some glitter coming down from the sky, silver glitter.” Every one of the ten thousand other viewers described similar events, details altering slightly from person to person. Many concluded that the only explanation for this event was that the objects in the sky were UFOs.  

This was not a case of mass delirium experienced in the stadium that day, there were many other sights of these strange egg-like, presumed spacecraft all over Tuscany, Italy. Another of the players, Romolo Tuci, years later when asked about the event stated, “In those years everybody was talking about aliens, everybody was talking UFOs and we had the experience, we saw them, we saw them directly, for real.” But what are the possibilities of that being truth? We know now that these UFOs were not Martians as many people at the time believed, but what if they truly were some types of extraterrestrial intelligence, something that cannot be explained by anything on Earth? One of the most mysterious parts of this sighting is the substance that fell from the flying objects, what Magnini described as glitter. This substance was hard to study because it seemed to disintegrate quickly after landing from the sky. Many recounted this material to look like cotton or spiderwebs. A journalist for the Fiorentino newspaper, Giorgio Batini, was able to collect the mystery glitter carefully with a matchstick and brought it to the Institute of Chemical Analysis at the University of Florence. Many types of analysis were performed on the substance and the only conclusion made was that it contained boron, silicon, calcium, and magnesium, and was not radioactive. This information did not tell us much about the possible origin of the material. James Mcgaha, former U.S. Airforce Pilot and now astronomer, came to his own conclusion that it was nothing but migrating spiders. This theory could also explain the cigar shaped flying objects. He claims that the UFOs were a mass of spiders, similar to a school of fish. This theory seems plausible because September and October are the months in which spiders in that area begin migration. These peculiar spider migrations still make headlines to this day.  The spiders create a super colony incased in spider web which then is blown into the air. Such spider groupings have been observed to reach 14,000 feet in altitude and migrate for miles.

A sketch of the UFOs over the stadium in Florence, with silvery dust coming out.

Still, people are not convinced. They are adamant about the idea that the Stadio Artemio Franchi was visited by alien life that afternoon in Tuscany, even with sufficient evidence against that claim. Seventy years since the event, it has become something of a legend for the stadium, and will no doubt be debated for decades longer.  

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29342407

An artist’s fanciful drawing of UFOs over Florence, Italy in the mid-1950s.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The 1947 UFO Craze

A recreation of the supposed alien recovered from the Roswell UFO crash. This model is in the Roswell UFO Museum. The video of an alien autopsy was admitted to be staged by its creator.

During June and July of 1947 there was a wave of UFO incidents, many of which made national news and have become the sources of persistent popular beliefs regarding UFOs, flying saucers, and Little Green Men. As a final project in my astrophysics class at New Haven School this summer, I asked my students to choose from various famous incidents and write up an analysis of what was reported and what they think actually did happen, if anything. Of the over 60 reported sightings during those two months, four stand out as the most significant. This post explores those four.

Chronologically, the first incident occurred near Roswell, New Mexico when William “Mac” Brazel found some debris on his ranch in early June 1947. It appeared to be some sort of metallic plastic with a frame of metal rods which had apparently blown or fallen onto his property. To prevent his cattle from getting tangled up in it, he gathered it all up and stuffed it under some brush to get it out of the way, not thinking much about it. A few weeks later, when the entire UFO craze hit the papers, he decided the debris must be a crashed flying saucer and the whole Roswell incident became the stuff of legends. But more on this later. First, we have to travel to Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state.

The Maury Island Incident and Kenneth Arnold sightings

by Eva

On June 21, 1947, Fred Crisman and Harold Dahl made a claim that the two saw unidentified flying objects in the sky over Maury Island, and soon after received threats from the Men in Black. In popular UFO conspiracy theories, Men in Black are described to be men dressed in black suits, who supposedly are government agents. These “agents” harass, threaten or assassinate UFO witnesses to keep them quiet. After his supposed sighting in 1947, Harold Dahl claimed to have been approached by a man in a dark suit and was warned not to talk about his alleged UFO sighting on Maury Island.

Three days after Crisman and Dahl made the Maury Island claim, private pilot Kenneth Arnold allegedly saw a string of nine UFOs flying past Mount Rainier at an estimated speed of 1,200 miles per hour. When asked to describe what he saw, Arnold reported that the objects looked like tea saucers flying past the mountain. The term “flying saucers” therefore made it into the newspapers. Arnold’s report led to nationwide news coverage and caught the attention of editor Raymond A. Palmer. Palmer quickly contacted Arnold and passed on the story of two harbor patrolmen, Crisman and Dahl, who supposedly had pieces of these flying objects. Palmer suggested that Arnold fly to Tacoma to investigate and on July 28 the investigation began.

When arriving in Washington, Arnold first interviewed Harold Dahl. During the interview Dahl said, “On June 21, 1947 in the afternoon about two o’clock, I was patrolling the east bay of Maury Island […] I, as captain, was steering my patrol boat close to the shore of a bay on Maury Island. On board were two crewmen, my fifteen-year-old son and his dog. As I looked up from the wheel of my boat I noticed six very large doughnut-shaped aircraft.” Dahl continued to claim that one of the flying objects began emitting what seemed like “thousands of newspapers” from the center of the object. These “newspapers” ended up being a light weight white metal that fell to Earth. A substance resembling lava rocks fell onto the ship and ended up breaking a crewman’s arm and killing their dog. Dahl said he brought in Fred Crisman to investigate, who reported that he was able to recover debris from Maury Island. Both Crisman and Dahl continued to claim their sightings were concrete as the investigation continued.

When reading this article, I was skeptical. It turns out that I was not the only one and there were others who felt the same. As the investigation furthered, evidence began to appear that contradicted the two men’s claims. Crisman later showed this “white metal” to Arnold and it was concluded that it was inconsistent with Dahl’s story. Lt. Frank Brown of Military Intelligence was brought into the investigation along with Captain William L. Davidson. Davidson and Brown held interviews and collected fragments.

A cover from a book by Gray Barker claiming that Davidson and Brown were killed by the Men in Black because they knew too much.

Eventually the officers planned to return to California and not further the investigation. On their way back, their B-25 Bomber crashed outside of Kelso, Washington and the two died. The FBI then took over the case and continued the investigation. The FBI was able to quickly come to the conclusion that the Maury Island UFO Incident was a hoax. They noted that during Dahl’s interview he said that “if questioned by the authorities he was going to say it was a hoax because he did not want any further trouble over the matter.” Crisman and Dahl were also found to have shared different stories to different newspapers and media outlets. It was concluded that they had shared their stories with many publications with the hope of building their story and earning a profit. The “Tacoma Harbor Patrol,” the organization both Dahl and Crisman allegedly worked for, was revealed to be a for-profit business who charged owners of vacation homes in exchange for the security of their home while they were gone. The two men just wanted money any way they could get it.

The case was then closed, having been proven that it was a fake story. Written later in 1956, Air Force officer Edward J. Ruppelt stated “the whole Maury Island Mystery was a hoax. The first, possibly the second-best, and the dirtiest hoax in the UFO history.” The conclusion of this case had many opinions. The majority of people who believed in the UFO story felt it was true because the government never prosecuted or exposed the two hoaxers. It was later stated that the reason for the thorough investigation was that the government had full intent to prosecute them for the death of Lt. Brown and Capt. Davidson. After talking to Dahl and Crimson, they decided that the hoax had no ill intent and the death of Davidson and Brown could not be placed on the hoaxers. The story ultimately brought popularity to the Men in Black theory, and the concept of flying saucers, just as Dahl and Crisman had hoped for. In the end, the scientific evidence discovered provides enough to agree with the FBI’s claim, the Maury Island Incident was a hoax.

Captain Emil Smith (right) and officers of Flight 105

Flight 105 Sighting

by Gillian

Throughout human history, there have been countless reported sightings of extra-terrestrial interactions. Perhaps the most famous of these are the identifications of these alien’s modes of transportation; they are known as “Unidentified Flying Objects,” or, more simply, “UFOs.” UFO sightings are often the butt of jokes made at the expense of hillbillies, hicks, and red necks. But what happens when the witnesses of an extraordinary occurrences are reported by educated members of society? The Flight 105 incident gives us some insight. 

On July 4th, 1947, United Airlines Flight 105 departed Boise, Idaho at 9:04 PM. After eight minutes, Co-pilot Stevens turned on the aircraft’s landing lights. He did this because he saw two groups of objects ahead of the plane, and thought that they were other planes. Upon further investigation, Stevens and Captain Emil J. Smith realized that the objects had neither fins nor wings. They called a flight attendant into the cockpit to get a third opinion and witness. After attempting to receive ground-confirmation from Ontario, Oregon, they watched the objects for a few more minutes before they spurted “ahead and disappear(ed) at high speed off to the west (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).”  

When considering the reliability of a report of something scientifically disputable, there are many factors to consider. For instance, the reputability of the witnesses, the conditions in which the incident was reported, outside influences on perceptions, and more. We can consider these closely. To provide some context on potential outside influences, we look to the sensational reported sighting by private pilot Kenneth Arnold, not a week before. This certainly creates potential for susceptibility to influenced conclusions on the part of the Flight 105 witnesses. However, when being interviewed by James E. McDonald, (Senior Physicist, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, and professor, Department of Meteorology, The University of Arizona), “Smith emphasized that he had not taken seriously the previous week’s news accounts… But, after seeing this total of nine unconventional, high-speed wingless craft on the evening of 7/4/47, he became much more interested in the matter. Nevertheless… he stressed that he would not speculate on their real nature or origin (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).”

An additional factor to consider is the reputability of the witnesses themself. Had the witnesses been known for eccentric and sometimes fanciful beliefs, it would be easy to pass off the report as nothing more than a fantastic feat of imagination. However, Emil J. Smith’s “complete reputability” was vouched for firmly by interviewed United Airlines employees who had known Smith for years (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968). A final factor worth considering is the environment in which the sighting was reported. Natural weather phenomena such as Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, have been cited in past as explanations for “UFOs.” In this specific instance, though, the witnesses reported “no cloud phenomena to confuse them (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968),” and that the weather was completely clear.  

The Flight 105 incident is, “by no means the most impressive UFO sighting by an airliner crew, nevertheless, it is a significant one. It occurred in clear weather, spanned a total time estimated at 10-12 minutes, was a multiple-witness case including two experienced observers familiar with airborne devices, and was made over a 1000-ft altitude range (climb-out) that, taken together with the fact that the nine objects were seen well above the horizon, entirely rules out optical phenomena as a ready explanation. It is officially listed as Unidentified (Statement on Unidentified Flying Objects, James E. McDonald, 1968).” 

Newspaper report of the supposed flying saucer in the Roswell Daily Record. No details were revealed . . .

The Roswell Incident

by Ari

The Roswell Incident occurred near Roswell, in southeastern New Mexico, in 1947.

Unlike many UFO sightings, the Roswell incident had no witnesses of the object in the sky. In 1947 a rancher named William “Mac” Brazel found debris in one of his pastures. The debris included, “metallic rods, chunks of plastic and unusual, papery scraps” (Waldek, 2017, para. 6). He believed that the remains were related to the stories of flying discs and flying saucers that had been published previously before the discovery. He reported what occurred to Sheriff George Wilcox of Roswell, which was then brought to the attention of Colonel William Blanchard, the commanding officer of the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF). The day after, the RAAF released a statement hinting at the wreckage being part of a flying disc. However, when the Roswell Daily Record attempted to write a story about the RAAF’s claim, the RAAF retracted their previous statement, stating that it was actually the remains of a weather balloon. In 1994, the U.S Air Force admitted via a report that the weather balloon story was fake. Their explanation was that the scraps were actually from a classified project named Project Mogul, which was testing a new spy device. Their reasoning for lying was to ensure that no details of the project would be leaked, thus ruining the classified nature of the project.

Despite the evidence, many people formed their own opinions about what happened.

Conspiracy theorists worked hard to prove that the wreckage Brazel discovered was the result of an extraterrestrial. Ray Santilli, a conspiracy theorist with the belief that the wreckage was extraterrestrial, released a video in 1995 of a supposed “alien dissection” that occurred after the incident. Later, in 2006, Santilli confessed that the video was staged, however, he continued to claim that it was based on real footage. In addition, another theory was argued by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore. According to Britannica, “They argued that the original debris, which they believed was from a crashed flying saucer, had been flown to Wright Field (later Wright- Patterson Air Force Base) near Dayton, Ohio, and material from a weather balloon was ‘hastily substituted’” ( In order to spread their argument in 1980 they published The

Roswell Incident, a book supporting their beliefs about the incident. Furthermore, some conspiracists forged a document by the name of Majestic 12 (MJ-12), a document supposedly authorized by Harry S Truman that explains, “… how the crash of an alien spacecraft at Roswell in July 1947 had been concealed, how the recovered alien technology could be exploited, and how the United States should engage with extraterrestrial life in the future” (Wikipedia, 2022). Afterwards, the documents were determined to be fake due to the lack of evidence to support the existence of the MJ-12.

As a result of all the widespread news coverage of the Roswell incident, other media sources used this opportunity to produce more content. The articles that were released were by, but are not limited to, The Roswell Morning Dispatch, The Roswell Daily Impact, and more. In addition, numerous books were published, such as, The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen, The Roswell Legacy by Marcel Jr., The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don’t Want You to Know by Kal K. Korff, and many more. Furthermore, movies and films used the Roswell incident as inspiration or as the main plot. Some popular examples being: Independence Day, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Roswell: The Aliens Attack, etc.

Because of the widespread news coverage that this incident had, it sparked interest among the public,. For instance, Roswell became known as a major hotspot for UFOs and aliens. According to Britannica, “In 1992 the International UFO Museum and Research Center opened in Roswell, and since 1996 Roswell has been the site of an annual UFO festival” (Brittanica, 2022). Due to the Roswell Incident, it stimulated and became a significant part of the city’s economy.

The Men in Black, protecting our world from the scum of the universe. Funny how a hoax incident can lead to a popular movie franchise . . .

Conclusions

Most of the rash of UFO sightings during these two months in 1947 can be attributed to weather phenomena, copy-cat accounts, or general hysteria. The Roswell incident is explained as a radar experiment undertaken by the local air force base, with the supposed Little Green Men as plastic dummies suspended from a weather balloon to see if they would create a radar return. The Maury Island incident is most likely a hoax made up by the two men. No samples of the mysterious metal have ever come to light.

The Kenneth Arnold sighting had no other witnesses; despite the credibility of Mr. Arnold, one person can be easily fooled by a trick of the light or a sun dog or lenticular cloud. But Flight 105 is harder to explain away. Here we have three credible witnesses all agreeing on the details of what they saw.

As with any extraordinary claim, extraordinary proof is required and none is available other than the statements of the witnesses. It is hard to say what they saw; their flight path from Boise to Oregon isn’t near any air force bases where experimental aircraft might have been tested. They were all trained airline personnel, and the angle of their ascent out of Boise makes weather phenomena unlikely.

These four incidents shaped the future of UFOlogy, or the study of UFOs. They provided much of the mythology that has grown up around such incidents, including the Men in Black, flying saucers, and Little Green Men.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

UFO Incidents: Battle of Los Angeles and Foo Fighters

Over the next several days I will be posting a series of short articles written by my astrophysics students this summer. As our final assignment, I asked the students to investigate various famous UFO sightings and alien abduction incidents and evaluate the evidence based on sound critical thinking. These articles have become the main part of our latest edition of Ad Astra Per Educare, with a link included at the end of this blog post. I will present their articles in the chronological order in which the events occurred, although this gets a bit difficult during the UFO craze of 1947 when a number of these incidents happened and overlapped in time.

Newspaper coverage of what became known as the Battle of Los Angeles, a nighttime incident of early war hysteria when people of Los Angeles thought they were being attacked by Japanese aircraft, except there were no Japanese aircraft carriers anywhere near Los Angeles. Some have said this could have been one of the earliest UFO sightings. It is also a great example of mass hysteria, where people under the great stress of war and possible attack start seeing things in the night.

Battle of Los Angeles

by Fizzy

On February 25, 1942, admits World War 2, US military radars picked up an unidentified aircraft fly over Los Angelos. During this time Pearl Harbor had caused tensions to rise and Americans believed the Japanese were going to attempt to invade. A few months early in December 9, 1941, false reports of aircraft had caused some invasion anxiety in New York City. At the time lots of untrained pilots had been making calls of Japanese warships and submarines when later found to be fishing boats, logs, and even whales.

A few days before on February 23rd a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired at the mainland. This attack caused minor damage but scared the armies in California. With the armies on high alert, a radar scanning reported that an aircraft was approaching Los Angelos and was 120 miles away. Immediately troops prepared to fire and swept the night sky with a spotlight.

About an hour later the army started shooting. Not long after many coastal city‘s weaponry joined in. The LA Times wrote, “Powerful searchlights from countless stations stabbed the sky with brilliant probing fingers while anti-aircraft batteries dotted the heavens with beautiful, if sinister, orange bursts of shrapnel.” Soldiers claimed they shot down one of the six reported planes but the next day nothing was found but shrapnel from the attack of the night before. Coastal artilleryman Charles Patrick later wrote, “I could barely see the planes, but they were up there all right. I could see six planes, and shells were bursting all around them. Naturally, all of us fellows were anxious to get our two-cents’ worth in and, when the command came, everybody cheered like a son of a gun.” Even the next day some soldiers claimed they saw nothing but smoke and clouds.

Later that morning they called it off after firing 1,400 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition. When they searched for bomb sites of enemy planes they were met with no proof of an attack from the night before. “Although reports were conflicting and every effort is being made to ascertain the facts, it is clear that no bombs were dropped and no planes were shot down,” said the Army’s Western Defense Command.

This ‘attack’ was shoved off and said to be a false alarm. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said it was just nerves triggered by the ongoing war. Japanese leaders say that they did not fly any aircraft over the city. It was later claimed to be a weather balloon mistaken for enemy planes in the dark. This balloon could have reflected light from the moon, catching the eye of the service members.

I believe that ‘The battle of Los Angeles’ was merely a strange accident. The whole country was on the balls of their feet from the war going on and seeing a plane would have sent them into a frenzy. The fact there is proof a weather balloon was sent just before this all happened was and when the soldiers thought they shot down a plane they merely saw the balloon get shot and fall into the ocean.

An artist’s drawing of the strange orange, white, and green lights that seemed to follow World War II aircraft. They were nicknamed Foo Fighters after a saying by a character in a popular comic strip.

The Foo Fighters

by Lola

During World War two there were strange sights that had been observed by WWII airplane pilots. The pilots had said that there were strange lights that were following their planes. There had been multiple sightings saying that there would be eight to ten lights that would follow the planes, the lights would be orange, green or red. The reports would say that the lights would show up alongside them but would mysteriously disappear and would never show up on the pilots’ radars. Each sighting had an unusual way of the lights approaching the airplanes. The lights would fly alongside, follow behind, close in on the pilots or rise to the planes. The pilots would set their planes to defense, attempt to flee, or try to take defensive maneuvers but each time the lights would follow and eventually disappear.

When the sightings had finally made it to the public, theories attempted to find a reason for these strange lights. None of the theories would match up because of all the things that were unusual about the sightings. It would be easy to produce a theory but it would be shut down by the fact that the lights would not appear on the pilots’ radars and how they could easily keep up with the planes and move faster and easier than the airplanes being used. The strangest part was the lights disappearing and reappearing.

The UFOs were named ‘Foo Fighters’ by the pilots that sighted the lights. The UFO was named after a cartoon comic strip called Smokey Stover. Smokey was a fire man that had a catch phrase that said: ‘where there’s a foo, there’s a fire.’

I had heard the name ‘Foo Fighter” before but I did not know what it was. I was not expecting the sightings to take place in World War II, I thought that the ‘Foo Fighter’ sightings would have been more recent. UFO sightings have been seen for many years, we must keep wondering and exploring the possibilities of what could be outside of our world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Modification of the Drake Equation

My version of the Drake Equation, which uses the total number of stars in our galaxy instead of the rate of star formation. Many of these variables have been narrowed down using advanced space telescopes, but the final term, the lifetime of a civilization, winds up being the critical factor.

by David Black

It has been two years since Lily wrote the article in my previous post and I am only now putting together the 4th edition of our Ad Astra Per Educare student newsletter which will include her article. At the time that Frank Drake created the equation in 1961, hardly anything could be answered about any of the variables in the equation except perhaps the first variable about the rate of star formation per year in the Milky Way galaxy, which at the time was estimated to be about three stars per year. With additional data and the advent of space telescopes, we are beginning to get ever better estimates of some of the variables.

One thing that has always puzzled me about Drake’s equation is the inclusion of this first term. Since it is a yearly estimate, the final answer must be the number of communicating civilizations that come into existence per year, which seems an odd way of looking at it. We want to know the total civilizations out there that we might converse with, not just the newbies like us. Carl Sagan spoke of how, given how many of these factors were considered to be close to 1 (or 100%) if given enough time, the truly limiting factor is the final one, the life-span of a civilization where they are able and willing to communicate over interstellar distances. This is why he was so adamant about preserving the Earth and getting rid of nuclear weapons. He wanted us to last long enough to become part of some great Encyclopedia Galactica, a galactic storehouse of the wisdom of all civilizations.

If we do want to estimate the total communicating civilizations, I suggest a modification of the Drake Equation. Here is my own version of it:

N = Stot • fm • fFGK • fp • f HZ • fl • fi • fc • L

N = the total number of communicating civilizations at any one time.

Stot = the total number of stars in our galaxy, which is around 200 billion based on mass estimates.

fm = the fraction of those stars that have high metallicity, such as our sun. These are primarily Population I stars compared with the metal poor, older Population II stars. For life to exist, the proper elements including metals must be present, and the older metal-poor stars are poor candidates. That gets rid of about half the stars, as fm is about 0.5.

fFGK = the fraction of those stars that are like our sun, with long enough life spans for intelligence life to evolve and stable enough to not have UV flares or small habitable zones like red dwarf stars. Counting the number of such stars in the space around us out to 15 light years (this is where we pulled out our 3D model), we see there is one F type star, three G stars, and five K stars out of about 45 nearby stars, or 9/45 or 0.2.

fp = the fraction of those stars that actually have planets, which we know is near 100%, probably about 0.9 to be conservative, based on all the planets we are currently finding.

My astrophysics students created these exoplanet paintings using spray paint and various circular masks like bowls and platters. This shows an orange dwarf star with a purple exoplanet orbiting.

fHZ = the fraction of those planets found inside the habitable zone (HZ) of that star. Based on various planetary systems we have detected, if appears this number is about one in four or 0.25.

fl = the faction of those planets that actually evolved life on them. This becomes hard to estimate since we only have one example of life evolving so far. However, we do know that as soon as conditions settled down after the Late Heavy Bombardment ended, life evolved rather quickly within a hundred million years or so. So this number also approaches 1, given enough time. To be conservative, let’s say it is about 0.8.

fi = the fraction of planets with life that evolve intelligent life. This is where I disagree with Drake’s initial estimate that if life hangs on long enough, it will eventually evolve into intelligence. There is no proof of that and it took a rather lengthy time to happen on Earth, despite several near misses. Certainly there was impetus for intelligence during the Mesozoic, what with large predators running amok, but the rodent-like creatures were too small (a necessity to avoid the large predators) and intelligence never happened. So there have been intelligent creatures capable of using tools for the last three million out of 3.8 billion years since life first evolved. This gives us a limiting factor of about 3/3800 or 0.00079.

fc = is that fraction of intelligent creatures that develop technology capable of sending messages over interstellar distances, which for us occurred in 1932 with the first television broadcast capable of reaching beyond the ionosphere. It was sent from the opening ceremonies of the summer olympics, were held in Berlin that year, and hosted as master of ceremonies by none other than Adolf Hitler himself, with a parade of goosestepping Nazis. Yes, Hitler is our ambassador to the stars and there is nothing we can do about it. That gives us 90 years that we’ve had the technology to send signals, or 90 out of 3 million years, a factor of 0.00003.

L = the number of years a civilization will be capable of sending out or detecting signals. If it is only a hundred years or so for us, if we destroy ourselves sometimes soon, then the numbers look grim. But if we can overcome our adolescent tendencies for self-destruction then we might keep radio technology around for a long time, perhaps 10,000 years. This is the real kicker – it all depends on surviving long enough to become a part of the intragalactic conversation.

As a project in my STEAM class this summer my students learned pyrography, or wood burning. I created this little saying (Bonus points if you know its origin) as a demonstration.

Putting all these numbers together, we get:

200,000,000,000 • 0.5 • 0.2 • 0.25 • 0.9 • 0.8 • 0.00079 • 0.00003 • 100 and we get: 8532 communicating civilizations in our galaxy. That’s still a decent sized number. Tweak the numbers such as adding to the lifetime of a civilization and there could be more. Other estimates put the number at less than 1.0, which would mean we are an oddity and possibly alone in the galaxy.

Enrico Fermi was famous for asking a question that is now known as the Fermi Paradox: If there are so many civilizations out there, why haven’t we heard from them by now? Why the great silence?

If you take 8532 worlds and spread them out randomly throughout the spiral arms of the Milky Way (where the metal-rich stars are found), which is 100,000 light years in diameter and is basically disk-shaped, you can use the formula for the volume of a cylinder with a radius of 50,000 light years and a thickness (height) of about 1000 light years. This gives an overall volume of about 7.85 trillion cubic light years. In all that space, 8532 civilizations will be greatly spread out, probably thousands of light years apart. The answer to Fermi’s Paradox becomes obvious: we haven’t heard from anyone because our little Nazi parade has only been traveling for 90 years. No one has heard us yet, if our signal is even strong enough to be picked up. Maybe that’s a good thing.

There have been proposals to send out other, stronger signals and to send them in a tight beam to probable star systems instead of broadcasting in all directions. We’ve sent plaques out on the first space probes to go beyond the solar system, the Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 probes. But it will take tens of thousands of years for them to reach even the closest star systems. We may have to wait awhile before we join the conversation.

I have now completed the fourth edition of Ad Astra Per Educare and it can be downloaded here:

A green exoplanet painted by one of my astrophysics students.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What We Know About the Drake Equation

A spray painted exoplanet scene created by my astrophysics students, summer 2022

Written by Lily M.

In 1961 an astronomer named Frank Drake created the Drake Equation. He created it for a way to understand the factors involved in finding life outside our Earth in our galaxy and to roughly calculate the amount of life that can communicate with us. The equation he developed is the following:

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L

It is a complicated equation and contains quite a few variables.

N means the number of extraterrestrial civilizations we as humans can communicate with.

R* is the rate of star information, which we now know to be about 1.5 stars per year.

fp is the number of stars that have planets. When our Sun was born our solar system organized as a natural consequence with planets forming inside eddies of the solar accretion disk. Astronomers feel that this process would occur around other stars as they formed, and that on average every star should have at least one planet, so this factor approaches 1 or 100%.

A painting of the Epsilon Indi system. An orange dwarf star is orbited by two brown dwarfs which revolve around each other

ne means the number of planets per stars that could possibly support life, or be like Earth. ne is even more difficult to figure out then R* and fp,but was assumed by Drake to be around 3, since there are three planets in our solar system that are or were within the habitable zone.

fl is the fraction of planets that support life and can develop it. With the different types of extremophiles we have found on Earth it looks like life could exists in very hostile environments. This means that fl approaches 1 or 100% with enough time.

fi is the fraction of life-bearing planets that have intelligent life on them, finding out the value of fi is really hard since we only have one example: humans. Some anthropologists still argue on why one of the branches of the ape family evolved into the human species. We don’t really know if this is really unavoidable or just a coincidence. Scientist think that there are other species that could potentially evolve into intelligent beings such as dolphins and chimpanzees. Scientist think that if life could evolve then intelligent life could too, given enough time, since it has happened on Earth and there is no reason to think Earth is a special case.

fc is that fraction of planets with intelligent life where that life is willing and able to communicate with us across interstellar space. Scientist believe that if there is intelligent life out in our galaxy that they will eventually advance to a technology level to send out a signal into space. Knowing the human species, we can only guess that if there is another human-level species they would have either deliberately or accidentally shown that they exist by now. Which could mean that fc could be as high as 1.

A system of exoplanets with two gas giants and a habitable moon

Finally, the last letter L means the time span that the other life can communicate with us. The Earth’s population has grown so much over the past few centuries that the human species has the potential to destroy itself with man-made catastrophes, wildlife disasters, diseases, and nuclear war. If we all start to have a pessimistic view on this then we cannot be sure that human race will live through to the next century, that we will destroy ourselves and our advancement in technology will only have existed for a couple of centuries. It is difficult to say if another species will have the same rate of technological advancement or will have the same tendencies for self-destruction. Scientist think that L is approximately 200 to 10,000 years.

Putting in all the estimates for these variables we come up that N would be about 50, or 50 communicating civilizations per year would arise in our galaxy. The Drake Equation does not have a concrete solution yet because the last four variables are very hard to figure out. You may also have heard of the Drake Equation as the Green Bank equation or Green Bank formula, as the first meeting of astronomers interested in SETI, or the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence, occurred at the Green Bank radio telescope facility in West Virginia. Carl Sagan was one of the astronomers at that meeting, and brought up the Drake Equation in his television series Cosmos. The Drake Equation has been a very popular equation to help us identify the factors we need to solve to look for intelligent life in our galaxy.

An orange dwarf star orbited by a blue gas giant with two red moons
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

My UFO (or is it UAP?) Encounter

A complex display of halos, sun dogs, and partial parahelic arcs.

It was just past sunset on a cold, clear winter evening in early December. I was driving south down I-15 past the small town of Mona, Utah and the small reservoir nearby. I was teaching at a residential treatment center in Provo, Utah but living in a small town 40 miles south called Nephi, and this was my normal evening commute. I wasn’t really thinking about anything, just listening to music, when I saw it: a glowing object to the right and above my pickup truck, following me. It didn’t have any definite edges, and I couldn’t tell how large it was but it appeared to be keeping pace with my truck. The hackles rose on the back of my neck. For about five seconds I was completely freaked out. I was having a UFO encounter!

Sun dogs near Fargo, North Dakota. These are seen when sunlight is refracted through a thin layer of ice crystals.

Then I realized what it was. It was a sun dog, the frequent explanation given by the air force for many UFO sightings, but literally true in my case. You see, the sun had just set from my position at the bottom of the valley, but it was still shining a few hundred feet above Mona Reservoir. The day was cold, one of the first cold days of the year, but the water in the reservoir was still warm. Water vapor rising above the warm water was hitting a cold air layer a few hundred feet up and crystallizing into tiny ice crystals, which were reflecting the sunlight down into my truck window. It seemed to be following me because it wasn’t really as near my truck as it appeared – it was miles away and the reflection moved with me. Another possibility is that the ice crystals were much higher, part of a thin veil of cirrus clouds and the reflection part of a parahelic arc.

As soon as I moved beyond the reservoir, the sun dog disappeared. Some people report seeing these objects suddenly vanish as if they are moving hundreds of miles per hour when really it is just the ice pocket no longer reflecting the sun. I know a teacher who once saw a UFO, and from her description it was pretty clear what she saw was St. Elmo’s fire, or ball lightning, as it appeared as a ball of light following along a fence line after a thunderstorm.

Image of a sun dog in the Nuremberg Chronicles

There have been many historic accounts of sun dogs; the term itself means an object that dogs (or follows) the sun. The Nuremberg Chronicles, a rare book full of wood cut illustrations, includes an image of a sun dog, and to the plains Indians of North America they were considered omens of bad weather and blizzards to come. There is quite a bit of truth to this, as the cirrus clouds that cause them often do precede a warm front which in the high plains can turn into a blizzard.

Other natural phenomena that are mistaken as UFOs include swamp gas, or pockets of methane with traces of phosphine that can bubble up from methanogens deep in a swamp that decompose organic material. Once the phosphine hits the air, it ignites and causes the methane to burn with a bluish light. These fairy lights are called will o’ the wisps and are thought to be impish spirits leading the unwary to their doom. Of course, following a blue glowing light into a swamp is not a very safe activity. Yet another explanation for UFOs is lenticular clouds. When clear air containing some water vapor is forced to rise up over a conical-shaped mountain it will condense to form a cloud which then is whipped in a circular pattern around the peak, creating a lens-shaped cloud formation that can consist of several layers spinning around the peak. They can look like flying saucers.

Does this mean that all UFO/UAPs are no more than lenticular clouds, St. Elmo’s fire, sun dogs, or swamp gas? Or do the many reports of sightings actually have a kernel of truth to them? What about the recent video footage of Navy and Air Force fighter pilots showing some kind of ill-defined objects tracking along with carrier groups? Like any extraordinary claim, for UFOs to actually be alien spacecraft would require extraordinary proof, as Carl Sagan liked to say. Unidentified flying objects only stay such until they are identified or explained.

Funnel shaped lenticular clouds, stacked in layers, formed from powerful rotational winds around the central peak.

During our astrophysics class at New Haven School this summer, students chose from various famous sightings and investigated them with a critical thinking lens. Does the claim make sense? Is their any indisputable evidence? Did more than one person see it, and were they credible witnesses? Their short essays on their chosen sightings are included in this edition of Ad Astra Per Educare, in which we will explore the possibilities of extra-terrestrial intelligences and our search for them, starting with the Drake Equation and ending with the recent sightings by air force and navy personnel. We will look at various methods for detecting exoplanets, and which ones are the most likely to be Earth-like and in the Goldilocks Zone, or Habitable Zone, of their stars. We’ll also look at an intriguing experiment to detect galaxy-wide civilizations by their waste heat signatures, called the G-Hat project. I will put the main articles of this edition into this blog site over the next few weeks, and upload the final version by next week.

I was contacted last year by a reporter for a news outlet called The 74, meaning the 74 million students who are in school in the United States, regarding how I use my UFO encounter in the classroom. She wanted to capitalize on the rash of press about the navy and air force sightings and congressional investigation, and she had contacted people I know at SETI, who put out the word for any volunteers. I said yes so she called me up and I told her my story. And thought nothing more about it.

Then later in the year I had a parent of one of my students say he had seen an article about me in The Guardian, a British world news magazine that I often read for international perspectives. I thought he must mean a different David Black, because there are quite a few of us around. But no, he said it also mentioned New Haven School. Intrigued, I found the article and it was a reprint of the one done by the reporter for The 74. It seems strange to me that my little UFO incident went international. If you want to read the entire article, here is the link:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jun/09/ufo-science-classes-us-students

I think I’ve pretty much used up my 15 minutes of fame.

A spray-painted image of the Epsilon Indi star system, with the main K-dwarf star in the upper right and the two brown dwarfs, which orbit around each other, in the foreground.

As a separate but related assignment, my students created exoplanet paintings similar to the ones shown in our previous editions. I had 12 students in the class, used better equipment, and most students did two paintings, so I have more to choose from. Their paintings provide most of the illustrations in this 4th edition.

I hope you enjoy the readings and student analyses. This is the fourth of seven editions that use articles written by students at New Haven School. Because of the nature of the school, I cannot provide the students’ full names due to privacy concerns. In most cases the students have worked through three drafts of their essays with peer and teacher review. I think they have done a marvelous job. Enjoy!

Another spray-painted illustration of a purple planet orbiting an orange giant star.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Nearby Stars

A Tour of the Star Systems within 13.0 light years of Earth.

An artist’s rendition of what the surface of Proxima Centauri b might look like.

A map of the nearest stars, from Space.com.

As a media design teacher at Mountainland Applied Technology College from 2000-2009, I created an activity to teach layout design and desktop publishing software with students creating their own version of newsletters. They had to arrange articles I had written about the nearby stars. I used the same articles for many years, but when I dusted them off for our Ad Astra Per Educare magazine 4th edition on the nearby stars, I found that these articles are quite obsolete. Much has changed. It was time to revise the articles.

In my 2020 astrobiology class, my students took on the challenge. Each student chose two star systems to research and report on. For those stars not chosen or written about, I filled in the gaps and also provided additional details on the stars the students wrote about.

It is surprising how much new information has been found about these stars just in the past year since these articles were written. For example, a new candidate exoplanet in the habitable zone around Alpha Centauri A was reported just this last February. Back when I started researching the nearby stars in the early 1990s, this was a somewhat moribund subject without much interest in the astronomy community since no exoplanets had yet been discovered. Now, everyone seems to be getting in on the planet hunting craze and new discoveries are occurring almost weekly.

A portable star model made by my 2020 students, described in my previous post.

In addition to describing the star systems themselves, the students wrote sidebar articles on star characteristics such as coordinate systems, classification, naming systems, how we find the distances to them, and other topics. I will post these as our next post.

The Alpha Centauri System: by Hannah T.

The Alpha Centauri triple star system is the closest star system to us, around 4.37 light years away in the far southern constellation of the Centaur. Alpha Centauri A and B are a pair, also known as AB, that orbit close to each other. Proxima Centauri orbits AB and is the closest known star to earth. The declination of Proxima is –62.68, its apparent magnitude is 11.09 and its absolute magnitude is 15.53.

Proxima Centauri is a small red dwarf star of spectral class M5.5V. It is exactly 4.244 light years away and the right ascension is 14h 29m 43s. This star was discovered by Robert T. A. Innes in 1915. Recently in 2016 an exoplanet was located in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri using the radial velocity method. It is about the size of Earth but would be most likely tidally locked. Because Proxima is a flare star (V465 Centauri), it is unlikely for life to exist there. Proxima now has two confirmed planets, Proxima Cent c is a super-Earth or sub-Neptune planet 7 times more massive than Earth and about 1.49 AU from Proxima. It is therefore too far away to be habitable. There may be a third, sub-Earth sized planet that has not yet been confirmed.

Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf flare star.

Alpha Centauri A, also known as Rigil Kentaurus (“the Foot of the Centaur”) is the largest and brightest star of this triple star system. It is a spectral type G2V and is just larger and slightly brighter than the sun, with an apparent magnitude of .01 and an absolute magnitude of 4.38 (compared with 4.85 for the Sun). This is the third brightest star visible in the night sky and is 4.365 light years away. Alpha Centauri A has a right ascension of 14h 39m 36.5s and a declination of –60.83. The corona of a star is the aura of plasma surrounding it; Alpha Centauri A shows coronal variability because of star spots. A recent Feb. 2021 paper from the Breakthrough Watch Initiative used a direct imaging technique and found evidence for one planet orbiting around Rigel Kentaurus with a distance of about 1.1 astronomical units (AU or the Sun-Earth distance), putting the planet in the middle of the habitable zone. Called Candidate 1, its mass would be slightly larger than Neptune, so it would be a gas giant. It could have habitable moons. The observation was made using only 100 hours of observing time, so further observations are needed to confirm that this is a true planet and not a dust disk or observational artifact.

Alpha Centauri B, sometimes known as Toliman (“the ostrich”), is an orange dwarf star of spectral class K1V with a mass of .907 that of Sol. This star’s apparent magnitude is 1.34, and its absolute magnitude is 5.71. A planet was proposed using radial velocity in 2012 but it has since been refuted as an artifact of data analysis; another candidate planet (Alpha Centauri Bc) was proposed in 2013 using transit data but has yet to be confirmed. It would be slightly smaller than Earth with a 20 day orbit, so not in the habitable zone.

Distances to the nearest star systems compared.

As the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri has figured prominently in science fiction. It was to be the destination of the Robinson family in the Lost in Space series and movie. The character Zephram Cochran, inventor of the warp drive in the Star Trek franchise, lived for a time in the Alpha Centauri system before going missing (“Metamorphosis”). Other episodes throughout the Star Trek universe mention Alpha Centauri. In Babylon 5, an Earth colony is mentioned in the Proxima system and it is the site of a battle between Babylon 5 forces and Earth during the civil war story arc. The planet Polyphemus in the Avatar movie series, orbited by the moon Pandora where the fictional mineral unobtanium is being mined, is located in the Alpha Centauri system. In literature, Alpha Centauri figures prominently in many science fiction novels including The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov, Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Neuromancer by William Gibson, and The Three-Body Problem by Liu CiXin.

Barnard’s Star:

The second closest star system to our sun was discovered by E. E. Barnard in 1916 as part of his proper motion studies. It has the fastest known proper motion of any star, at 10.3 arcseconds per year relative to our sun, making it a very close star. Using parallax with refinements by the Hipparcos and Gaia satellites, its distance has been measured at 5.96 light years. It is a small red dwarf with a mass 0.144 times the mass of our sun and a spectral type of M4.0V. It is located in the constellation Ophiucus at 17h 57m 48.5s right ascension and +04° 41m 36.2s declination. It can only be seen with a powerful telescope and has an apparent magnitude of 9.511.

The nearest single star to the Sun (Barnard’s Star) hosts an exoplanet at least 3.2 times as massive as Earth — a so-called super-Earth. Data from a worldwide array of telescopes, including ESO’s planet-hunting HARPS instrument, have revealed this frozen, dimly lit world. The newly discovered planet is the second-closest known exoplanet to the Earth and orbits the fastest moving star in the night sky. This image shows an artist’s impression of the planet’s surface.

For many years, Peter van de Kamp argued that Barnard’s Star had at least one planet based on his astrometry measurements, which involved measuring the changes in the positions of stars on photographic plates as small as one micron. These arguments were largely refuted in the 1970s when it was shown that the perturbations seen in the plates corresponded to maintenance upgrades of the telescope’s lens. However, in 2018 a candidate super-Earth was announced from the Red Dots project using highly precise measurements of radial velocity with data from the ESO HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph and other instruments over a 20 year period. It is believed to have a minimum of 3.2 Earth masses and to orbit at 0.4 astronomical units and a period of 233 days, putting it beyond the habitable zone. This planet is also disputed, since star spots might produce a similar radial velocity shift. Barnard’s Star is a flare star, as are most red dwarfs, making life on such a planet unlikely.

Based on its slow rotational speed and low metallicity, Barnard’s Star is estimated to be between 7-12 billion years old, making it much older than the sun. A surprisingly large solar flare was detected in 1998, very unusual for such an old star. Smaller ultraviolet and x-ray flares were detected in 2019.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, Barnard’s Star is said to be the location of an interstellar roundabout used by the Vogon Constructor Fleet. It is also a major part of the novels The Garden of Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee and Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

Luhman 16 A and B: by Navah D.

Luhman 16 is a binary star system with both stars being brown dwarfs orbiting each other at about 3.5 astronomical units (the Earth-Sun distance) and an orbital period of 27 years. The system is actually located in the southern hemisphere in the constellation Vela and is approximately 6.503 light years away from the sun. This very unique star system is also known as WISE 1049-5319 because the stars can only be seen in infrared using data from the WISE telescope. Kevin Luhman, an astronomer with Pennsylvania State University, discovered the stars in 2013. Because they lie close to the galactic plane, where stars are crowded, they eluded discovery until then. They are the nearest known brown dwarfs to the solar system, and the closest system discovered since Barnard’s star in 1916. These stars have not been around for a very long time; they are fairly young for stars at about 600-800 million years old.

A photograph of Luhman 16 A and B, a double brown dwarf system.

For Luhman 16 A, the largest of the pair, is classified as an L8 star with .032 times the mass of our sun and 33.5 times the mass of Jupiter. It has a surface temperature of about 1400 K. Luhman 16 B is a T1 star with a mass of .027 Sols or 28.6 Jupiters. Both stars are located at RA 10h 49m 15.57s and declination of -53° 19m 06s. Luhman 16A is suspected of having a planet, Luhman 16Ab, measured through astrometry with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2013. That planet is now considered unlikely based on further measurements of the system.

WISE 0855-0714:

A sub-brown dwarf of classification Y4 in the constellation of Hydra, this smallest of all stars yet known was discovered by Kevin Luhman using data from the WISE infrared telescope in 2013. It is right at the border between planet and star, and would have only fused deuterium for a short time before starting to cool down. Its surface temperature is 225-260 K, making it about the same temperature as Mars and therefore the coldest known star, but also much too warm for it to be a rogue planet; it must have had an internal heat source suggestive of previous deuterium fusion. Yet it only has a mass of 3-10 times the mass of Jupiter, putting it into the planetary mass range. It is 7.43 light years away and has a high proper motion. There is some evidence from the Magellan Baade Telescope that it may have water clouds. If seen up close, it would have a purple to deep magenta color.

Wolf 359:

This small red dwarf is located exactly on the ecliptic in the southern part of Leo not far from the star Regulus. It is 7.9 light years away and has a classification of M6.5V and an apparent magnitude of 13.54; it can only be seen with a large telescope. It is far too dim to be seen with the unaided eye. Its surface or photosphere has a temperature of only 2800 K, about half the temperature of our sun. At this temperature, chemical compounds such as titanium (II) oxide and even water can exist in gaseous form. It has a stronger magnetic field than our sun due to the complete circulation of materials inside because of convection currents; as a result of this magnetic field, strong X-ray and gamma ray flares can sometimes be observed. It is less than a billion years old and hasn’t had time for these flares to die out as its rotation slows. It is just barely large enough to sustain proton-proton fusion and be considered a red dwarf instead of a brown dwarf, having only 8% of the sun’s mass. Because it is able to convect all of its material, it can sustain fusion for eight trillion years. It is just getting started.

The USS Enterprise D flies through the carnage after the Battle of Wolf 359 in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Best of Both Worlds part 2.”

Wolf 359 was the 359th star listed by German astronomer Max Wolf in his 1919 catalog. He was cataloguing stars with high proper motion, knowing they were nearby stars. It is known to have at least two planets. Wolf 350c is a super-Earth with 3.8 Earth masses and near the star, with an orbital period of 2.7 days. It receives three times the energy that Earth does. Wolf 359b (the first to be discovered) is a Neptune-class planet 44 times the mass of Earth with an orbital period of about 3000 days even though it is only about 2 astronomical units from the star. The low mass of the star allows the planet to have such a slow orbit.

Because of its proximity to Earth, Wolf 359 has been the subject of several important science fiction works. Most notably, it was the site for a major battle between Federation forces and a Borg cube on its way to Sector 001 (Earth) to assimilate humanity. 40 starships engaged the Borg, but because Captain Picard had been assimilated, they knew all of his tactical knowledge and easily defeated the Federation. Someone in the Star Trek writers group did their homework and found that Wolf 359 was close to Earth and a likely site for such a battle. However, the Borg are supposed to originate from the Delta Quadrant on the opposite side of the galaxy from our position. Wolf 359 is in Leo, putting it further out from the galactic center than Earth; the Borg would have had to take a very roundabout route to come at Earth from Leo. “Wolf 359” is also the title of an Outer Limits episode where a scientist creates a simulation of Dundee’s Planet in the Wolf 359 system only to see a dangerous life form evolve. In the novel Chindi by Jack McDevitt, a lost spaceship is found in the Wolf 359 system.

Lalande 21185: by Sarah S.

Another red dwarf located in the southern corner of Ursa Major, this star is 8.31 light years from Earth. With an apparent magnitude of 7.5, it is somewhat brighter and hotter than Wolf 359 and may be as old as 10 billion years. It is also known as BD +36 2147, Gliese 411, and HD 95735. It was first listed in 1801 by Joseph-Jerome de Lalande and its proper motion was first measured by Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander for the Bonner Durchmusterung (BD) or Bonn Star Catalog. It has 38% the mass of Sol and a photospheric temperature of 3828 K. Although listed as a flare star, it is rather quiet as far as red dwarfs go.

Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander

Peter van de Kamp claimed in 1951 that Lalande 21185 had a planet based on astrometric measurements using the same photographic plates as for his Barnard’s Star planet claim, but those plates were shown to be flawed. George Gatewood made his own astrometric measurements and claimed that there were multiple planets in the system, although his data remains unconfirmed. Using sensitive radial velocity measurements in the 1980s, Geoff Marcy could not find any planets in the system. However, recent measurements by the HIRES system at Keck Observatory supported there being at least one close in planet with a mass of at least 3.8 Earths and a period of 10 days. Further measurements with the SOPHIE echelle spectrograph showed this planet to have a period of 12.95 days and 2.99 Earth masses, which has been confirmed by other measurements. One other planet orbiting at 2806 days and with 14 Earth masses has also been confirmed, with a third planet suspected between them. Thus, van de Kamp and Gatewood’s claims have been somewhat vindicated even if these are not the planets they claimed to have found.

In fiction Lalande 21185 is the star of the planet Ormazd in Rogue Queen by L. Sprague de Camp (1951) and is one of many nearby stars mentioned by Gregory Benford in Across the Sea of Suns (1983), where it is renamed Ra. In the Revelation Space stories by Alastair Reynolds, the planet Zion orbits Lalande 21185.

Sirius: by Katie T.

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky seen from earth. The name comes from the Greek word meaning glowing/ scorching. Sirius is part of the Canis Majoris constellation, which is also called “The Greater Dog,” and can therefore also be called Alpha Canis Majoris. The star lives up to its name; in ancient Greek times a myth was created. Sirius the star was so hot men would feel weaker, plants would fail to grow, and women would become very aroused. Whenever Sirius first made an appearance, it was known as the “Dog Days” to the Egyptians and signaled the beginning of the inundation of the Nile, the beginning of the their calendar year.

Sirius A (foreground) and B (background) in an artist’s rendition.

A German astronomer, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, predicted Sirius B in 1844. The star is part of a binary star system consisting of two stars orbiting each other, with Sirius B as the closest white dwarf to Earth. Bessel made the assumption there was another star, after observing the motion of Sirius A. Following the information provided by Bessel, an astronomer in 1862 discovered Sirius B (the Pup). Alvan Graham Clark was testing the aperture of the largest telescope in America and came across a smaller star orbiting around Sirius A.

You may not think it, but Sirius is even bigger and hotter than our sun. If you observe the sky on a clear day, you may even be able to catch a sighting of the brightest star, using just the naked eye.

Coordinates: RA: 6h 45m 9s, Dec: -16° 42’ 58”, Distance: 8.6 light years

Apparent Magnitude: -1.46

Stellar Type: A1V

In fiction, Sirius Black is the name of the godfather of Harry Potter in the series of books by J. K. Rowling, first introduced in the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban (although mentioned in the first book as the owner of the motorcycle being used by Hagrid in the first book). He is able to transform into a dog, of course, and he is killed by his cousin, Bellatrix LaStrange, who is also named after a star (meaning “Warrior Woman”). Sirius’ brother is named Regulus Arcturus Black, a double star reference. In Homer’s The Iliad, Achilles is compared with the brilliance of Sirius. Voltaire’s Micromegas describes an alien from a planet orbiting Sirius. In the Foundation series and the novel Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov, Earth is considered to be somewhere in the “Sirius Sector.” Much of the technology mentioned in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is made by the Sirius Cybernetics Cooperation.

An artist’s rendition of the binary red dwarf system Luyten 726-8 A and B.

Luyten 726-8:

A binary red dwarf system in the constellation Cetus, it is also known as UV Ceti or Gliese 65. They are 8.7 light years away and considered as prototypes of UV flare stars. They were discovered by Willem Jacob Luyten in 1948, have almost equal brightness and orbit each other every 26.5 years. They may be part of the Hyades open star cluster.

Ross 154:

Another small red dwarf single star located in Sagittarius, it was discovered by Frank Elmore Ross in 1925 as part of his lists of new variable stars and stars with high proper motion. It is a UV Ceti type flare star, with a variable star designation of V1216 Sagittarii and average time between ultraviolet flares of about two days. Using highly precise data from the HARPS spectrograph during the Red Dots campaign, Ross 154 is shown to have a rapid rotation of 2.87 days, which corresponds to a young age of less than one billion years. This was the third star, including Proxima Centauri and Barnard’s Star, that was studied in the 2017 Red Dots study. It is of spectral type M3.5Ve and is 9.7 light years distant. It is not known to have any planets, but detecting planets is a challenge because of its rapid rotation and active surface, which produce a great deal of noise in the radial velocity data. In fiction, it is the site of Glory Station in C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station.

Ross 248:

Another unremarkable red dwarf flare star discovered by Frank Ross. It is also known as HH Andromedae or Gliese 905 and is 10.3 light years away, with Right Ascension: 23h 41m 54.7s and Declination: +44.18 °.

Epsilon Eridani:

Also known as Ran (based on a 2015 naming contest by the International Astronomical Union, won by 14-year old James Ott), this is an orange dwarf star slightly smaller and cooler than our sun. It is 10.5 light years away with RA: 3h 32m 55.84s and Dec: -09° 27′ 29.73” and spectral class K2V. It has 82% of the sun’s mass and is a fairly young star, less than one billion years old and perhaps as young as only 200 million years and still gives off appreciable amounts of ultraviolet radiation.

Comparison of the Epsilon Eridani system (top) with the Solar system.

As a close sun-like star, E. Eridani has been intensely studied for planets. This was another star thought to have had planets by Peter van de Kamp but his measurements were later shown to be caused by defective photographic plates. Measurements by the IRAS infrared satellite showed that it still retains at least two dusty rings containing asteroids, one that is about 4 AU from the star and one at about 20 AU. It also has a Kuiper belt analog or cometary cloud about 30 AU out. Clumping in the dust rings was considered evidence that it may have planets, and at least one large exoplanet perhaps 1.2 times the mass of Jupiter is considered to be confirmed now that the Hubble Space Telescope has shown perturbations in the path of Epsilon Eridani using astrometry. This planet has been given the name Ægir by the IAU and orbits the star every 7.4 years at about 3.4 AU, or just outside the inner asteroid belt. Computer simulations of the clumping of dust particles in the rings suggests their may be a second planet in an eccentric resonance orbit. E. Eridani has slightly less metal than our sun, but enough for rocky planets to exist closer to the star.

Because of its nearness and similarity to our sun, E. Eridani was one of the two stars first chosen for listening for alien signals by Project Ozma in 1961 by Frank Drake. No signals were detected. Project Daedalus of the British Interplanetary Society has suggested E. Eridani as one of the possible targets for an interstellar space probe. It has been the subject of many science fiction works, including Babylon 5. In the series, the station orbits at the L5 point of Epsilon Eridani III and its moon. The planet is also the site of the Great Machine that figures prominently in several episodes. In Star Trek, Epsilon Eridani is the system of the planet Axanar, where a famous space battle occurred between the Federation and the Klingon Empire prior to the events of the original series and where Garth of Issus became famous for his battle tactics. It is also mentioned in Space: Above and Beyond, The Orville, and Space Precinct as well as many novels, short stories, and games.

Ross 128: by Julia W.

Ross 128 is a red dwarf star, found in the equatorial zodiac constellation Virgo at RA: 11h 47m 44.4s and Dec: +00° 48′ 16.4”, not far from the star Beta Virginis as seen from Earth. It is a fairly old and quiet star, as red dwarfs go, not exhibiting as many flares a seen in other red dwarfs, although a strong flare was noted in 1972 in the UV band. It is 11.13 light years from Earth with a spectral class of M4V and a mass of 15% that of the sun. It was first cataloged in 1926 by Frank Elmore Ross. It is considered to be an old disk star, and recent measurements by the APOGEE instrument indicate is has nearly the same metallicity as Sol. It does not have the infrared excess that would indicate a dust ring. It is a slow rotator, spinning only once every 165.1 days, because of it old age and the gradual slowing or rotation due to magnetic braking.

Infographic on Ross 128 b.

A great deal of excitement and speculation occurred when an exoplanet, Ross 128 b, was announced orbiting the star in its habitable zone. This planet is slightly larger than Earth at 1.8 Earth masses with about 1.4 times as much energy reaching it than Earth. Although hotter than Earth, its orbit and the quietness of the Ross 128 make this one of the best candidates for life of any exoplanet discovered so far and the second closest habitable zone planet after Proxima b. Ross 128 b orbits every 9.9 days and is close enough to be tidally locked, which, if it has oceans, would make it a candidate as an “eyeball” planet and an Earth-like analog. It is most likely a rocky planet based on its size, orbit, and the parent star’s metallicity.

Radio signals were detected in 2017 by the Aricebo observatory that appeared to be coming from the vicinity of Ross 128, but the Allen Array was able to show that these signals were actually from geosynchronous satellites orbiting the Earth; Ross 128 orbits near the celestial equator near the orbits of many communication satellites.

Gregory Benford, in his 1984 novel Across the Sea of Suns, describes an amphibious alien race living below the ice of a Ganymeda-type exomoon orbiting a planet in the Ross 128 system. They are hiding from extinction caused by a Berserker killing machine called a Watcher orbiting the moon. In the TV series War of the Worlds (2019) Earth is attacked from Ross 128 after picking up a signal.

EZ Aquarii by Lily M.

EZ Aquarii is in the constellation Aquarius and is a triple star system about 11.3 light years away from the Sun and is also known as Luten 789-6 and Glieses 866. Its Right Ascension is 22h 38m 33.4s and its Decl. (deg.) is –15.3. For EZ Aquarii A the stellar type is M5.0V, the other two stars are about the same or slightly smaller. Its magnitude is 12.87. EZ Aquarii may have been found by All of the EZ Aquarii stars A, B, and C are M-typed red dwarf stars and are too faint to be seen by our eyes without help. An interesting fact about EZ Aquarii is that both A and C form a spectroscopic binary that orbit at 3.8 days, with B having an orbit of 823 days. A and B are both flare stars, and the system has no known planets as yet. Its nearest neighbor at this time is Lacaille 9352, which is about 4.1 light years away, making this system rather isolated.

Comparison of Sol (left) with the binary orange dwarf stars 61 Cygni A and B.

61 Cygni

This binary system southeast of Deneb in the summer sky has bright enough stars that they were included in John Flamsteed’s star maps and therefore have a Flamsteed designation from his 1712 Historia Coelestis Britannica. Both stars are old K-type orange dwarf stars (K5V and K7V respectively) and can be seen with the naked eye under clear, dark skies or with binoculars in areas of high light pollution. They orbit each other every 659 years at about 44 AU, having a wide separation. In clear skies, the pair of stars can be resolved with a 10x power pair of binoculars. The proper motion of 61 Cygni was measured in 1804 by Giuseppe Piazzi; this is the only visible eye star system that has a high proper motion and was therefore called “Piazzi’s Flying Star.” In 1834 Friedrich Bessel measured its distance as 10.4 light years using stellar parallax, the first star to ever be measured in this way. Its actual distance is 11.4 light years. There have been claims of a massive planet orbiting one of the two stars which have been controversial. The 2018 data release from the Gaia spacecraft indicates that there are anomalies in the orbits of the stars around each other showing that they are not quite orbiting around their center of mass and that 61 Cygni B is moving too slowly for its mass. This may indicate the presence of an as yet unconfirmed planet around 61 Cygni B. Measurements of the infrared signature of the system show a possible infrared excess suggesting a possible circumstellar dust disc.

Procyon by Cate L.

Procyon A is the brightest star in the constellation of Canis Minor, which means “smaller dog” in Latin, the eighth brightest star in our sky, and is a binary star, which indicates that another star orbits around Procyon. The distance of Procyon A and B from our planet Earth is 11.46 light years away. The right ascension for both stars is 7 h 39 m 18.1 s, and the declination of both stars is 5°13 m 30 s. Their stellar types are F5 IV-V, and DQZ. The first one is yellowish-whiteish and the second one is a white dwarf. The temperature for A is 6,530 K, whereas B is 7,740 K. As a white dwarf, B is the core of a star much like our sun that threw off its outer layers leaving a white hot companion to the slightly cooler and more yellowish A star. The two stars orbit a common center of gravity every 40.84 years in moderately eccentric or elliptical orbits.

Photograph of Procyon (top left), Betelgeuse (orange star top right) and Sirius (middle bottom).

Procyon was known to the ancients and to all cultures, being one of the brightest stars in the sky. In Greek, its name means “before the dog” referring to it rising before Sirius, the dog star. In other non-Greek cultures, it has been known as Nangar, the Carpenter to the Babylonians. The Latin version of Procyon is Antecanis and Arabic names are Al Shira or Elgomaisa and Turkish Rumeysa, the Bleary-Eyed Woman. To the Hawaians, it was Puana, the Blossom and to the Chinese, Nan He San, the Third Star of South River.

The A star is a late main sequence class F star, and will reach the end of hydrogen fusion in its core within the next 10-100 million years, after which it will swell 80-150 times it current diameter and become a red giant.

Procyon B was first proposed by Friedrich Bessel based on astrometric measurements and it was visually confirmed in 1896 by John Martin Schaeberle at Lick Observatory. It was originally a B-type star about 2.59 times the mass of our sun, which came to an end about 1.19 billion years ago after a main sequence lifetime of about 680 million years, making its remnant an old white dwarf.

Struve 2398:

A binary red dwarf system in the constellation of Draco, these stars were first included in the double star catalog of Friedrich Georg Wilhelm von Struve as system 2398. Also known as Gliese 725, the Greek letter sigma is sometimes used to designate Struve catalog stars. Both stars in the system are x-ray flare stars, as are most red dwarfs, and orbit each other with a period of 295 years. They are 11.6 light years away. The B star in the system has two planets, both of about Neptune’s size. One has an orbital period of 91.29 days and the other 192.4 days.

Groombridge 34:

Located in the constellation Andromeda, this pair of binary red dwarf flare stars is ll.618 light years away and was first listed in A Catalogue of Circumpolar Stars by Stephen Groombridge, published posthumously in 1838. They orbit around a common center of gravity in almost circular orbits every 2600 years at about 147 AU. Using radial velocity measurements, two planets have been inferred orbiting around Groombridge 34 A, one a super-earth with 3.03 Earth masses and the other a larger Neptune-class planet with 36 Earth masses.

DX Cancri:

This dim M6.5V red dwarf flare star is in the constellation Cancer and is 11.8 light years away. It is small for a red dwarf, with only 9% of the Sun’s mass and a temperature of 2840 K. It is proposed to be part of a group of stars called the Castor moving group that all had a common origin about 200 million years ago in an open cluster and are moving together as a group while gradually spreading apart. It is not known to have planets.

Comparison of Tau Ceti system (top) with the Solar System.

Tau Ceti by Ruby R.:

This is one of the most important stars near us in that it is a G8V star only slightly smaller and cooler than Sol, with 78% of the sun’s mass. It has a lower percentage of metals than the sun, and is 11.91 light years away in the constellation of Cetus, the whale. It does not have a Greek common name, and was first listed in western catalogs in 1603 by Johann Bayer in his Uranometria. The Calendarium of Al Achsasi al Mouakket of 1650 lists this star as Thalith al Na’amat, the Third Ostrich. It is the Fifth Star of the Square Celestial Granary in Chinese. Estimates of Tau Ceti’s age, based on its metallicity and models of stellar evolution, put it at about one billion years older than our Sun. It is a very stable star, with few if any sunspots and a weak magnetic field.

Because it is the closest single G-type star, it is a Solar analog and has been continually studied for SETI and exoplanet research. It was one of Frank Drake’s original stars for Project Ozma in 1961. Four planets are confirmed to orbit Tau Ceti, designated g, h, e, and f. They are all super-Earths. Planet e orbits every 163 days, putting it at the inner edge of Tau Ceti’s habitable zone with a radiative flux slightly less than Venus, and Planet f orbits at 636 days, putting it at the outer edge with a solar flux comparable to Mars, but with a thick enough atmosphere could sustain liquid water on the surface. Four other planets are suspected to be in the system but are not yet confirmed, although statistical modeling agrees with the detected radial velocities of Planets b, c, and d. With the possibility of 8 or 9 planets, the Tau Ceti system is similar to our own and one of the best candidates to search for life.

Infrared measurements show that Tau Ceti has a thick debris disc similar to our asteroid belt but ten times more dense, and orbiting roughly in the same area as our Kuiper Belt, which would make collisions with any potentially habitable planets more frequent. If there is a large gas giant, as some have proposed (unconfirmed Planet i) then it might have a similar role to Jupiter in deflecting potential impactors. As dense as this dust disc is, it is only 1/20 as dense as the one around Epsilon Eridani. Such dust discs may be common around sun-like stars and may play a role in planet formation; our solar system may be an exceptionally dustless system that had many of its comets and asteroids cleared out early on by a passing star.

In science fiction, Tau Ceti is the system of the planet Aurora in Isaac Asimov’s robot novels as the first settled of the spacer worlds and is the setting of the novel The Robots of Dawn. It is the home world of the roboticist Dr. Han Fastolfe. It is the destination of the torchship Lewis and Clark in Heinlien’s novel Time for the Stars. The planets of Tau Ceti are the setting of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. The Downbelow Sation of C. J. Cherryh’s novel of the same name is located on planet Downbelow orbiting Tau Ceti. The Legacy of Heorot by Niven, Pournelle, and Barnes takes place on the planet Avalon (Tau Ceti IV). 100 colonists, sent by sleeper ship, find that ice crystals have built up in their brains while in suspended animation and arrive on Avalon with reduced mental abilities only to be forced to counter the threat of ferocious grendel monsters. In Rama Revealed by Arthur C. Clarke, a group of colonists travel on the Rama II to a node in the Tau Ceti system. In Leviathan Wakes in the Expanse series of novels and TV show by James S. A. Corey, the Mormon generation ship S. S. Nauvoo is traveling to the Tau Ceti system before being commandeered to crash into Eros.

Diagram of the Epsilon Indi system. A double set of brown dwarfs (Ba and Bb) distantly orbit the main K-dwarf star Epsilon Indi A.

Epsilon Indi:

This is an unusual trinary system with an orange K-type dwarf star in the far southern constellation Indus orbited by two T-type brown dwarfs that are orbiting each other and designated Epsilon Indi Ba and Bb. The A star has at least one planet called Epsilon Indi Ab and it has a mass of about 3.25 Jupiters, making it the closest Jovian planet to us. It has an orbital period of 45 years compared to about 12 years for Jupiter, putting this planet much further out. Since Epsilon Indi is an orange dwarf star cooler than the sun, this planet is far outside the habitable zone. The two brown dwarfs are about 1460 AU from the main star or over 37 times the distance between our sun and Pluto (which is 39 AU away from Sol). They orbit each other at about 2.1 AU every 15 years. They have the masses of about 47 and 28 times the mass of Jupiter. The complexity of this system makes it a good candidate for studying the evolution of stellar systems. The size and distance of Epsilon Indi Ab make it a good candidate for direct observation by the James Webb Space Telescope.

Gliese 1061:

Located 11.98 light years from Earth in the constellation Horologium, this small red dwarf was first discovered by Wilhelm Gliese in 1974 when its proper motion was measured, but it was assumed to be much further away at 25 light years. The RECONS satellite was able to measure its parallax much more accurately in 1997 and provide a better estimate of its distance. It is at the lower limit of a red dwarf star at only 11.3% the size of Sol and 0.2% as luminous. Any smaller and it would be a brown dwarf.

In 2019 the Red Dots program announced that the star has three exoplanets: b, c, and d with periods of 3.2, 6.69, and 13.03 days respectively. They are all super-earths with similar masses of 1.38, 1.75, and 1.68 Earth masses. Because of the small size of Gliese 1061, the second planet (Gliese 1061 c) actually orbits just within the inner edge of the star’s habitable zone but would have an equilibrium temperature of 307 °K or 93 °F assuming a similar atmosphere to Earth. It receives 34% more radiative flux than Earth but is so close to its parent star that is likely to be tidally locked with one side constantly facing the star. The third planet, Gliese 1061 d, is also possibly in the habitable zone but on the cool side with 40% less stellar flux than Earth, making it more like Mars. Although its close proximity to the star would indicate tidal locking but it has a fairly eccentric orbit at 0.54, which would tend to destabilize the tidal locking and allow for a day-night cycle. This eccentricity would be a challenge for life.

YZ Ceti:

At 12.11 light years from Earth, this red dwarf flare star in the constellation Cetus is unusually close to Tau Ceti at only 1.6 light years and is about 13% of the size of Sol. The YZ designation indicates that this is a variable star with periodic changes in brightness caused by starspots or chromospheric variation as the star rotates every 68.3 days. It also gives off frequent ultraviolet flares.

In 2017 three planets were announced with a possible fourth that still needs confirmation. All three confirmed planets are too close to the star to be inside the habitable zone. Planets b and c are smaller than Earth (0.75 and 0.98 Earth masses) and planet d slightly larger at 1.14 Earth masses.

Luyten’s Star:

Also known as BD+05°1668 from the Bonn Star Catalog (Bonner Durchmusterung) or GJ 273, this star is located in Canis Minor at a distance of 12.36 light years. Its proper motion and distance were first measured by Willem Jacob Luyten and Edwin G. Ebbighausen. It is about 35% of Sol’s mass and rotates slowly once every 116 days according to variations in surface activity and has a surface temperature of 3150 °K. It is only 1.2 light years from Procyon.

In 2017 two planets were confirmed. GJ 273 b is a super-earth with 2.89 Earth masses at the inner edge of the habitable zone with a radiative flux of 106% that of Earth and a mean equilibrium temperature of 206 to 293 °K depending on the atmosphere’s composition, if an atmosphere exists. It is therefore one of the best potential candidates for being similar to Earth and therefore possibly to have life. The inner planet, GJ 273 c, is only 1.18 Earth masses and orbits much closer to the star. In 2019 two more planets were detected using radial velocity but still need confirmation.

Because GJ273 b is one of the closest potentially habitable exoplanets, it was the target for a project in 2019 called Sónar Calling GJ273b, where a series of radio signals containing 33 musical compositions and a decoding tutorial were sent from the Ramfjordmoen radar antenna in Norway toward GJ273b, with more transmitted in 2018. If anyone hears us, we could expect a response no sooner than 2042.

Teegarden’s Star:

Located in Ares, this small red dwarf is 12.578 light years distant and was only discovered in 2003 using near-earth asteroid tracking (NEAT) data and is named after the discovery team’s leader, Bonnard J. Teegarden. This discovery helps to confirm a hypothesis that many small mass stars have yet to be discovered within 20 light years of Earth. Their low luminosity makes them very difficult to find.

Two planets, both inside the habitable zone, have been confirmed. One orbits at a distance that would put it between Earth and Venus in temperature and the other is cooler, similar to Mars. Both are only slightly larger than Earth at 1.05 and 1.11 Earth masses for Teegarden b and c, respectively. Different studies disagree as to whether these planets could have retained a dense atmosphere.

Kapteyn’s Star:

Another small red dwarf lies in the southern constellation of Pictor at 12.83 light years distance. It is a bit larger and brighter than some red dwarfs, with a stellar class of M1 instead of usual M3.5-6 of a typical red dwarf. This star may have had an unusual origin, as its motion and elemental abundances indicates it may have been a part of the Omega Centauri globular cluster, a small irregular dwarf galaxy that was absorbed by the Milky Way and produced a stellar stream of which Kapteyn’s Star may be a part. Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn first announced the closeness of the star in 1898. It was listed in the Cape Photographic Durchmusterung as CPD -44° 612 and he noted that it had moved considerably (15 arcseconds) from its originally charted position in 1873. This makes it one of the fastest moving stars in terms of proper motion (sideways motion through the sky). It has fluctuations in its brightness due to starspot activity or chromospheric variation. Because of its high metallicity (14% of Sol) it is considered to be a relatively old star at about 11 billion years.

Two planets were announced in 2014 but their existence has been controversial due to one planet’s orbit being a resonance frequency of the star’s variation and the other almost identical to the star’s rotation, so possibly the planetary induced stellar radial velocity is not due to actual stellar motion but luminosity variations of the surface. If the planets do exist, they would be among the oldest known. Kapteyn b could be potentially habitable, but its atmosphere is likely to have been stripped away over time due to stellar flares and age if it exists at all. In 2014 science fiction author Alastair Reynolds wrote a short story about the proposed planets called “Sad Kapteyn.”

Lacaille 8760:

As the last star on this list (but not in our model, which went out to 15.0 light years), this red dwarf is in the southern constellation Microscopium and is 12.9 light years away. It is the brightest of the red dwarf stars in our night sky, and may be seen under ideal conditions under very dark and clear skies by the unaided human eye, the only red dwarf to be visible with binoculars or a telescope. It was first listed in 1763 in a posthumous catalog by the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille and was discovered by him while he worked at an observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. It is a flare star and erupts about once per day. It has 60% of Sol’s mass and has been classified anywhere between a K7 to an M2 dwarf star. It is slightly older than Sol at five billion years and rotates only once every 40 days, with a photospheric temperature of 3800 ° K. It is estimated that this star will last about 75 billion years. No planets have been detected around this star.

3D map of all known stellar systems in the solar neighborhood within a radius of 12.5 light-years. The Sun is at the centre and the Epsilon Indi binary system with the brown dwarf Epsilon Indi B lies near the bottom. The color is indicative of the temperature and the spectral class — white stars are (main-sequence) A and F dwarfs; yellow stars like the Sun are G dwarfs; orange stars are K dwarfs; and red stars are M dwarfs, by far the most common type of star in the solar neighborhood. The blue axes are oriented along the galactic coordinate system, and the radii of the rings are 5, 10, and 15 light-years, respectively.

This is the list of stars within 13.0 light years of Earth. As we go further out, the spherical volume becomes ever larger and a greater number of stars are located within the radial distance. There are 14 more star systems located between 13.0 and 15.0 light years. From our 3D model, it is apparent that the stars are not evenly distributed in our stellar neighborhood. The Alpha Centauri system is located in a region where it is the only star system for many light years in all directions – our solar system is the closest star to it and beyond it there is largely a void with few stars. In other areas the stars are packed more closely, but are still separated by at least a light year. Sol is at the edge of the Orion Branch of the Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way, so that as we travel beyond the edge of the branch we reach a large gap without stars between the spiral arms.

A quick count of the number of different classes of stars show that red dwarfs far outnumber all other types of stars. It is obvious that small mass stars are like rabbits: they may be dim, but there are a lot of them. Of the 28 star systems within 13 light years (including Sol) there are 21 planetary systems (assuming all the unconfirmed planets are real). That statistic certainly increases the odds of there being life somewhere out there beyond our solar system; quite a few of these planets are within the habitable zone of their stars, but most of these stars are flare stars. This both increases and decreases the odds of life existing on these worlds. We are constraining many of the variables in the Drake Equation and estimates run to as many as 40 billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy.

Surely we are not a special case; if life could get started here and chemistry is the same everywhere in the universe, then the factors that led to life here (whatever they were) are likely to occur elsewhere. Life could be abundant in the universe. That isn’t to say that intelligent life is abundant; on Earth, conditions may have been just right for us to evolve intelligence (more on this in our next edition). But once life gets started on a planet, according to how tenacious life has been here through six major extinctions, it is likely to hold on; perhaps even in our own solar system, on Mars, or Enceladus, or Europa. If we can get remote instruments out to these 21 star systems, we may very well find life.

I for one hope that some day a form of faster-than-light travel can be realized, perhaps even something like a warp drive in Star Trek. I hope life is as common as science fiction hypothesizes. It would be a wasted universe if we are the only ones out here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Have Loved the Stars

A painting of an exoplanet by one of my students at New Haven School. We followed tutorials for using spray paint to create exoplanet images.

My first planetarium software was an old black and white program that ran on a Macintosh Classic computer. I have tried to find a reference for it, but can’t remember its name. As a physics teacher at Juab High School in the small farming town of Nephi, Utah in the early 1990s I had access to a 10” reflecting telescope on a broken down equatorial mount with a burnt out motor. I set up a few evening star parties for students and used the old software to find the locations of the planets and interesting stars and nebulas. We had to move the scope by hand, but it worked all right.

While working through a unit on astrophysics, I came up with a wild idea: to have students create a model of the nearby stars out to about 15 light years. I of course had heard of Alpha Centauri (I grew up watching the original Lost in Space) and had read enough science fiction to know that Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani were also nearby stars, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. It became a research quest of mine: to find a table of the nearby stars. I scoured my old college astronomy textbook and it had a table of the brightest stars, but not the closest, although it did list some of them such as Sirius. I looked in university libraries and began to piece a list together. Now this was 1993, and the Internet as we know it now was only beginning. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web system with hypertext about that time, so research had to be done the old way, using the Dewey Decimal System and library index cards.

A spray painted illustration of exoplanets by Terrin.

I finally put together a moderately complete list and developed my own lesson plan activity. Our first attempt used a large styrofoam ball in the center and the stars were beads glued on wooden skewers poked into the ball. Measuring the right ascension and declination was difficult, and the final model was not very accurate or complete. The next year my lesson improved – we hung the stars from the ceiling with black bulletin board paper around and strips of tape for the Vernal Equinox and Celestial Equator, using a primitive sextant to get the angles and proportional spacing correct. We got the stars mostly hung before I realized we had them backwards, so we tore it down and started over. Right Ascension had to be measured to the left, it turned out. It was a great improvement, but the stars were various sized styrofoam balls and didn’t hold up well with repeated use.

Over several decades of teaching and through different schools, I revived the nearby star model every time I taught astronomy. Finding a place to hang it was a challenge. I decided that it would be better to create a hanging platform that could be attached to eyebolts in the ceiling using painted wooden balls on black string and black fabric hung around the model. Much better! I wrote up my lesson plan and submitted it for publication to The Science Teacher, and it was accepted with considerable editing and appeared in the Summer 2014 edition. I even taught this lesson plan at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory through my role as the Educator Facilitator for the NASA Explorer Schools program. The original activity expanded into a complete unit on the nearby stars.

Meanwhile, this full-scale hanging platform model was too big to take on the road, so I designed and built my own tabletop model using foamcore as the hanging platform (now actually the lid of a box) and trigonometry to measure the lengths of the strings for the stars to make the final model more accurate. I took this model to several conferences and presented it, but over the years the tape yellowed and lost its adhesion and there were new stars (brown dwarfs) discovered. The positions of all the stars were more accurately measured by the Hipparcos and Gaia space probes, so that my model was falling apart and needed to be upgraded.

My own attempt at spray painting an illustration of exoplanets.

This past summer of 2020, my astrobiology class spent a week building a new tabletop model. We used the Wikipedia article on the nearby stars (so much easier than the first time) and teams created a spreadsheet to calculate the scale distances needed to hang the stars in the model using trig functions. They drew in scales on the model and calculated where to poke the holes in the top foamcore. Other teams measured the strings, or created the labels, or painted the wooden beads. Then teams of three students each came up and hung one star system at a time in the model, starting with Sol and moving outward. We used a scale of one light year equals 2.5 cm. Now I have the model stored in my room and use it for every astronomy class. This summer my astronomy students built scale 3D models of various constellations, which is an easier activity as I only have them hang the most prominent 6-8 stars.

This quest to find out the names and positions of the nearby stars has served me well, as it has led to many opportunities to teach other teachers and students about the night sky. At the time I started this in 1993 no one was really talking about the nearby stars; then the first exoplanets were discovered such as Beta Pictoris b and the 55 Cancri system. Now it has become a hot topic. I have published other lesson plans for how to measure the distances to stars using parallax or my constellation in a box activity previously on this site.

Our model of the nearby stars out to 15 light years. We used trigonometry to get the vertical distances of the stars from the top of the model.

This third edition of Ad Astra will feature articles on the nearby stars and exoplanets, including basic information about the more interesting nearby stars. My astrobiology students last year wrote most of the articles that are included here. Where articles were not completed or the particular star system was not chosen by a student, I will fill in the gaps.

When, as teachers, we get the unavoidable question “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” my answer is always the same: the stars are out there, every night. Students might not be able to see them very well because of light pollution, but I grew up in a dark sky area a long way from any city in the west desert of Utah, and the stars are my friends and I longed to visit them. It would be a shame to go through life without any knowledge of them or how they have influenced humanity from our fundamental mythologies to our current technologies. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is weakness; those that don’t know things can be easily controlled by those that do. I can’t imagine going through life ignorant of the universe around me. One may say that having a knowledge of the stars detracts from their romance and mystery. On the contrary, the more I learn about the stars, the more fascinating they become. I can look at a star and say that I know exoplanets are orbiting it, some in the habitable zone. There could be life up there. I can say that we can’t even see most of the stars (and they don’t show up in planetarium software) because they are too small and dim to be seen by our unaided eyes. I know the tales of the constellations, the ancient myths behind history. I am at home among the stars. “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night” (Sarah Williams, 1936, The Old Astronomer to His Pupil).

A hand drawn illustration of an exoplanet by Kat with a supernova remnant added in the background.

As a member of a choir at my university, I learned the music to Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like a Star.” The narrator of the poem expresses frustration at how taciturn the star is; it says nothing about what elements it blends, or at what temperature it burns. But Frost was wrong; as much as I like the poem, stars do tell us all about themselves. From their color and spectrum we can tell what elements they blend, what temperature they “burn” (technically fusion), how fast they move, even if they have invisible planets orbiting around them. We have learned to tease a great deal of information out of the light they emit. In the end, the poem comes to peace with the knowledge that the stars are steadfast friends, reliable and ever present, something we can count on. In this world of uncertainty, that means a great deal.

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

Robert Frost, 1916

Here is the completed 3rd edition of our Ad Astra per Educare magazine. I hope you enjoy it and share it. This post has been my editorial article taken from the magazine. Future blog posts will include the articles by my students and the longer feature article on the nearby stars. Things have certainly come a long way from that initial newsletter I had my digital media students create using Quark XPress way back in 2000. We’ve found out so much more about the nearby stars since then including whole new stars and 13 or so exoplanets within 13 light years of Earth. More will be discovered. It is nice to see this topic of the nearby stars finally coming into its own.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

An Interview with Dr. Rakesh Mogul of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection

Dr. Rakesh Mogul of NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection and the CSU Spaceward Bound program

This interview was recorded in March 2012 while I was a participant in the Spaceward Bound program for teachers in the Mojave National Preserve near Baker, California. Dr. Mogul brought a team of pre-service teachers from the California State University system to do field research in the Mojave Desert. We collected biological soil crusts (BSCs) at three sites in the desert along Kelbaker Road and studied them in the laboratory at the CSU Desert Studies Center on Zzyzx Road.

David Black:

How did you become interested in science and specifically in astrobiology?

Rakesh Mogul:

I have always had an interest in science ever since I was a young kid. And I think it must have been pictures of astronauts and pictures of spaceships on my school classroom walls that got me into NASA, think- ing about what it means to be an astronaut, what it means to discover life and other types of chemicals in outer space. I’ve had an interest in this stuff since I was a little kid, very little kid.

David:

So what pathway did you take to get from high school up to working for NASA?

Rakesh:

It was a bit circuitous, really, I took the traditional route of basic science. I got an undergraduate degree in chemistry, a PhD in organic chemistry with a research emphasis in biochemistry, or protein chemistry, or chemical biology, depending which way you want to define it. And then I did a postdoc and I got a lecture position and I was got my first academic job and basically pure organic chemistry, biochemistry. I always had the NASA thing kind of in my back pocket. And finally, I had a chance to apply for a fellowship to go to NASA and I got the fellowship and ended up at NASA Ames Research Center for two years in the early 2000s. And that was my first real major endeavor into the NASA sciences and I’ve just been continued ever since then.

The Perseverance Rover with major instruments

David:

So what sort of things have you done at NASA?

Rakesh:

I worked with plasma sterilization and the bio- molecular effects of low temperature plasma such as CO2 plasma and O2 plasma, was on biomolecules and certain microorganisms, also did some work on bio nanotechnology using engineered proteins from extremophiles. And in more recent history, I’ve been working with extremophiles isolat- ed from the assembly facilities, where they build spacecraft. These microorganisms are found in these facilities, and are tolerant to the conditions found in the clean rooms. So what we do in my lab is some entomology, some proteomics and some remote microbiology, on these microorganisms. Basically we’re trying to study why they are resistant to things like hydrogen peroxide or ultraviolet radiation.

David:

So right now you’re working with the Office of Planetary Protection, but explain what that office does and what its role is.

Rakesh:

The Office of Planetary Protection’s primary role is to minimize the biological contamination of the solar system that may result from human based exploration – robotic exploration and basic human exploration. So these type of things involve correct fly paths to planetary bodies of interest, and especially the sterility and the cleanliness of the spacecraft that goes study the surfaces of planets such as Mars and maybe Europa in the future and Enceladus. In a nutshell, that’s planetary protection.

The Office of Planetary Protection’s primary role is to minimize the biological contamination of the solar system that may result from human based exploration.

Rakesh Mogul

David:

So what are the protocols or some levels of protection used by the Office of Planetary Protection to determine if a certain space probe or a certain mission is going to need to be highly decontaminated?

Rakesh:

There are different categories for missions, categories one through five, depend- ing on where the mission is going, what the target location is. So if you’re going to Earth’s moon, there’s really no sterility requirements. There are some requirements. For example, cataloguing the number oforganic molecules, organic compounds that might be on the spacecraft, but there are no cleanliness or sterility requirements beyond that for things such as Venus and Earth’s moon. But if you’re going to Mars looking for life and looking for signs of habitability, there are certain dimensions that have to be met. Those dimensions include the number of spores per meter squared, and the total spores found on the spacecraft. So these are the types of things that are considered. There are also a number of probability factors, for example, the impact probabilities and contamination probabilities that must be calculated out for planets such as Mars and icy satellites, such as Europa, and Enceladus.

What Mars may have looked like 3.5 billion years ago, when it had an atmosphere and oceans.

David:

So you essentially calculate what the risks are, and then communicate back to the missions what their sterilization protocols are going to be?

Rakesh:

Yeah, well, it’s more the mission’s responsibility to do the calculations and then to come up with a plan. And then they submit this stuff as a formal doc- ument called the Planetary Protection Plan. And they do this before the spacecraft is really assembled, and before launch ever occurs, and then that is approved or modified by the Planetary Protection Officer. And then it goes back and forth until they agree on something and then they move forward. And so there it’s not so rigid. The requirements are there because there are requirements, but if you can’t meet them, there are certain ways around them. There are waiver requests, there’s sometimes alternative methods to bring the bioburden down or to reduce the impact or probabilities or to reduce the impacts of contamination.

David:

Alright, so we have the Mars Science Laboratory on its way to Mars. Obviously, since it’s also going to be trying to detect organic molecules, the protocols here have to be really high. So what are some of the methods that were used to sterilize or decontaminate MSL?

Rakesh:

So, MSL was not, did not undergo full system sterilization will they sterilize the entire spacecraft all at once. They kind of haven’t done that in a long time. But they had to clean certain parts with ethanol and isopropanol, kind of cleaned it off and made sure the bioburden was quite low. I believe a few parts may have been sterilized by vaporous hydrogen peroxide, but I’m not confident of that one, they may have been so. And maybe a few parts, just tubing and I forgot the other examples – I think there were one to two or three parts that they did sterilize via dry heat microbial reduction, or DHMR. They use a variety of things. And it was all basically depending on the type of material that they’re going to sterilize and where it was.

What Jezero Crater looked like 3.5 billion years ago. As a crater filled with fresh water, it had both inflow channels with deltas and an outflow channel. Water was here long enough that if Mars had life, this would be a good place to look.

David:

So taking the material from the robotic arm, which is taking regolith back to the SAM instrument, obviously, the arm has to be decontaminated.

Rakesh:

Yes, and it was a category 4A mission, so they’re not looking for life. And they’re not really looking for that many hardcore signs of life. So their sterility requirements were probably the least stringent for going to Mars for landing on Mars. So there’s differ- ent levels of sterility, if you will, or cleanliness for a Mars mission that lands on Mars and rolls around or just stays put. And those different categories are 4 A, B, and C. And MSL is 4A, where Phoenix was a 4B, and Viking, the equivalent would be 4C.

David:

How did you get involved with Spaceward Bound?

Rakesh:

I heard about Spaceward Bound somewhere between 2006 and 2007, from a colleague of mine, and I had known Chris from my prior days at Ames Research Center. So I simply emailed Chris out of the blue asked about the program and asked if I can participate in some form or another. And he wrote back almost immediately and said, Yeah, come on by and participate. So as the first year I came, I was just a participant, like many people here come for the first time, I didn’t have any science plan. And I came up and I just got a real good introduction to what field science is. And up until that point, all of my work was in the lab. Even if those were NASA related it was always in the lab. And I had done no field work and had no experience with field work all throughout graduate school, my academic career, and through my time at NASA Ames. Always an in the lab guy, in vitro, if you will. And so my first Spaceward Bound was my first introduction to field science. The next year, I came back as part of the science crew. And I was doing actually then redox essays on the soil crusts, and different soil communities around here looking for bulk properties of reduction or oxidation. And then the following year is when I started this program, then involved the CSU undergraduates and master’s students. And ever since then, we’ve been running this program.

Dr. Mogul was kind enough to allow me to interview him for about 45 minutes on the last day of our Spaceward Bound field study in the Mojave National Preserve.

David:

So a combination of students come in from CSU, scientists from NASA and other places, all combining together to do field research with a desert focus.

Rakesh:

Yes, that’s exactly right. And to add on to that the fundamental point to Spaceward Bound as it’s evolved with the CSU, the California State Uni- versity system, is basically a program designed to bring pre-service teachers, basically teacher wan- nabes, who are undergraduate and or master’s students and bring them out to the desert to give them (A) an introduction to astrobiology, (B) an introduction to field science, especially it relates to astrobiology, and then (C), most importantly, to give them hands-on experiences with doing real science in the aspect or concepts of NASA.

David:

So why study soil crusts?

Rakesh:

Soil crusts are surface communities and microorganisms that live in a symbiotic manner. So it is a simplistic form of a multicellular community that is very intrinsically dependent on the health of each one of the members. So it does relate to early forms of life. So when microbes all live by themselves eventually live in symbiosis communities, and many of these are known as stromatolites and microbiolites. So I would believe that it might be that the biological soil crusts are another form of that. They are also found in semi-arid environments and arid environments, which means they’re quite temperature resistant, quite resistant to ultraviolet radiation, and they are quite resistant to desiccation. So they are potentially very good analogs for surface communities that may be found on Mars. They may not be found on Mars, maybe they were at some point. So it’s still a very good thing to study.

A drawing of Mars made by Percival Lowell for his 1906 book Mars and Its Canals. He saw lines across the surface, an optical illusion created by the eye’s attempt to connect the dots of craters. He thought the lines were canals dug by Martians. Now we have sent the Perseverance Rover to find out if there ever were Martians, or at least microbes.

David:

At least how they grow similarly to how things might grow on Mars.

Rakesh:

Correct. Correct. High UV environment, dry, and not connected to any vegetation. And very much dependent on – they’re very much a critical member of the health, if you will or fertility of soil. So as the BSCs go, so does it refer to the fertility of the soil.

David:

Just kind of like a barometer.

Rakesh:

They are definitely a barometer. If the biological soil crusts are dying, that means the land itself is not so fertile and that comes back to the water retention that they add to the soil properties and the carbon and nitrogen and recycling.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

An artist’s rendering of what Mars Global Surveyor would look like approaching Mars.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment