The interstellar asteroid 1I/2017 U1 (otherwise known as 1I/’Oumuamua) is fast receding into the distance, towards the constellation of Pegasus (1). The existence of this rocky visitor from the stars was announced last October (1). Its trajectory was too fast for it to be a solar system comet – even one from the furthest reaches of the Oort Cloud. That was an exciting discovery, because that meant that 1I/2017 U1 was the first confirmed observation of an object arriving in the solar system from deep space.
Although 1I/2017 U1 was initially considered to be an interstellar comet, that thinking changed when it failed to emit any gases as it performed its perihelion transit around the Sun (3). This barren rock, confirmed as an interstellar asteroid (4), is now speeding away from the Sun. It spent a relatively short time in the observation zone of professional telescopes, thanks to its great speed, but this was enough to reveal more weirdness (5). It is an elongated object spinning head over tip, doing cartwheels through the solar system. Some wondered whether it might be artificial, given the lack of coma as it traversed past the Sun. But attempts to pick up signals from the object came up blank (6). Still, its shape is nothing like any known body in our Solar System. If solar system asteroids resemble rocky potatoes, then 1I/2017 U1 is more like an interstellar carrot, spinning haphazardly through our system. To remain intact under these conditions, its internal structure must be robust (7).
The colour of our interstellar carrot is neutral with a reddish hue. The colouration may be patchy across its surface. Solar system minor bodies (asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, Trojans) vary in colour, often dependent upon which population group any particular object belongs to. Continuing my daft vegetable analogy, solar system potatoes come in different varieties. Many are neutral in colour, some are reddish, others distinctly red. Like comparing a Maris Piper to a King Edward. If we compare 1I/’Oumuamua’s colouration to those of various classes of solar system objects, then it seems to most resemble those of the dynamically excited populations of Kuiper Belt Objects. However, it is less red than the scattered Trans-Neptunian objects whose orbits extend beyond the heliopause (7).
‘The Gods Never Left Us’ by Erich von Däniken
2018, New Page Books
It’s tricky to remark on how amazing it is that Erich von Däniken is still writing prolifically in his 80s, without sounding just a bit patronising. Nowadays, his books feel like extended letters sent from his mountain home in Switzerland. He’s still analysing, arguing, questioning, probing. He bangs the same old drum, of course, but brings into the mix the newest scientific research, and the latest progress on the long, tortuous path towards disclosure. This helps to keep his newer books fresh and up-to-date. Erich von Daniken’s early work has spawned a media phenomenon in the form of the successful ‘Ancient Aliens’ TV series. By comparison, books must seem a quaint anachronism from the point of view of the newer generations. But I appreciate them, being a bit of an old hand myself, and I’m glad he’s still writing them!
This particular instalment kicks off with a fictional short story involving CERN and time travel, and the desire to be listened to by the gatekeepers of Knowledge. It would be too easy to psychoanalyse this short story and place von Däniken in the role of the central protagonist. It’s a curious thing to include in a non-fiction book, but, as with all von Daniken’s writing, it is enjoyable to read and engaging.
If there is a theme running through the book, it is signs from above. The Fatima sightings set the scene, dealt with briefly here. I suppose that the October 2017 event near Fátima, Portugal, which is held dear by the Roman Catholic Church, would be interpreted as a Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind by modern ufologists, in the sense of being a pro-active, human-initiated event involving a UFO-related phenomenon.
Brown dwarfs are notoriously hard to find. It’s not so bad when they are first born: They come into the Universe with a blast, shedding light and heat in an infantile display of vigour. But within just a few million years, they have burned their available nuclear fuels, and settle down to consume their leaner elemental pickings. Their visible light dims considerably with time to perhaps just a magenta shimmer. But they still produce heat, and the older they get, the more likely that a direct detection of a brown dwarf will have to be in the infra-red spectrum.
This doesn’t make them much easier to detect, though, because to catch these faint heat signatures in the night sky, you first need to have a cold night sky. A very cold night sky. Worse, water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs infra-red light along multiple stretches of the spectrum. The warmth and humidity of the Earth’s atmosphere heavily obscures infra-red searches, even in frigid climates, and so astronomers wishing to search in the infra-red either have to build IR telescopes atop desert mountains (like in Chile’s Atacama desert), or else resort to the use of space-based platforms. The downside of the latter is that the telescopes tend to lose liquid helium supplies rather quickly, shortening their lifespan considerably compared to space-based optical telescopes.
The first major sky search using a space telescope was IRAS, back in the 1980s. Then came Spitzer at the turn of the century, followed by Herschel, and then WISE about five years ago. Some infra-red telescopes conduct broad searches across the sky for heat traces, others zoom in on candidate objects for closer inspection. Each telescope exceeds the last in performance, sometimes by orders of magnitude, which means that faint objects that might have been missed by early searches stand more of a chance of being picked up in the newer searches.
The next big thing in infra-red astronomy is the James Webb Space Telescope (JSWT), due for launch in Spring 2019. The JSWT should provide the kind of observational power provided by the Hubble Space telescope – but this time in infra-red. The reason why astronomers want to view the universe in detail using infra-red wavelengths is that very distant objects are red-shifted to such a degree that their light tends to be found in the infra-red spectrum, generally outside Hubble’s operational parameters (1). Essentially, the JWST will be able to see deeper into space (and, therefore, look for objects sending their light to us from further back in time when the first stars and galaxies emerged). Read More…
One of the many pieces of evidence put forward for the existence of Planet X over the last few decades is the so-called ‘Pioneer anomaly’. The two Pioneer spacecraft were sent on an incredible voyage across the solar system, visiting a number of planets as they went. They not only imaged these planets, but used the gravity of the planets to accelerate onwards, deeper into the solar system. This gravity assist is often used to allow spacecrafts to pick up speed. As the Pioneer probes travelled across the outer planetary zone and on towards the Heliopause beyond in the 1990s, it became apparent that the craft were not moving away from the solar system quite as quickly as the theoretical trajectory projections demanded. Something was essentially slowing them down. Additionally, similar effects were noted for the Galileo and Ulysses probes.
Many ideas were put forward, including either gravitational or physical interaction with clouds of interplanetary dust in the Kuiper Belt, or even the added gravitational tug of an undiscovered Planet X body. One of the lead researchers into the Pioneer anomaly at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was John Anderson (1), who, interestingly, also had a longstanding interest in the possible existence of a Planet X body (2). At one point, puzzled physicists began to wonder whether this marginal but definitive anomaly might require new laws of physics (3). In the end, it was agreed by technical experts that the anomalous deceleration was a result of radiation pressure caused by non-uniform heat loss from the probes (4,5). Flights of fancy about missing planets and new physics were promptly put to bed.
Despite this, the anomaly seems to persist in the increasingly accurate navigation and telemetry data returning from various spacecraft performing flybys past the Earth (6). Similarly, the Juno spacecraft, now orbiting fairly closely around Jupiter, is reported to be slightly misplaced from its expected position (7). This has been determined by looking at the Doppler shift of ranging data from the probe as it circumnavigated the poles of the great gas giant. Quixotically, Juno did not exhibit the same anomalous behaviour during a previous flyby of Earth. This suggests that this is not, then, the result of an internal machination of the probe itself, as described for the Pioneer probes. Instead, there does appear to be an unexplained external effect worth exploring:
“Another mystery is that while in some cases the anomaly was clear, in others it was on the threshold of detectability or simply absent – as was the case with Juno‘s flyby of Earth in October of 2013. The absence of any convincing explanation has led to a number of explanations, ranging from the influence or dark matter and tidal effects to extensions of General Relativity and the existence of new physics. However, none of these have produced a substantive explanation that could account for flyby anomalies.” (8) Read More…
Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, is turning out to be as majestic as its ancient name implies. High definition images taken of its poles, transmitted back to Earth by the space probe Juno, show a vibrant, churning cloudscape which appear to have been artistically generated in oils (1). The gnarly appearance of the storms and tempests which are woven into this mind-blowingly immense vista seem peaceful enough from space, but the ferocity of their winds can only be imagined. Although the colours have been enhanced to a certain extent artificially (2), Juno’s imaging equipment has captured the incredibly beautiful blue colours of the polar zones and the immense set of storms swirling within.
(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
These dramatic regions contrast strongly with the generally dull series of beige bands wrapping around the more familiar equatorial region (although Juno has also allowed us to better appreciate the intricate patterns of these banded zones, too) . These blues are more reminiscent of the ice giants Neptune and Uranus, and perhaps even of Earth – although the constituent gases of the atmospheres of these worlds can differ significantly from Jupiter’s. which give the clouds. The different colours and properties of Jupiter’s clouds can be attributed to their constituent gases – mostly hydrogen and helium, but also water, ammonia, methane and sulphur.
It seems to me that the solar system is starting to come to life – not in the way of biological life, although that may yet come to be, but instead in terms of our appreciation of its rich complexity and visuality. The Pioneer and Voyager space probes provided what were incredible images of the outer solar system planets back in their day. But limitations in the image-capturing technology also created a sense in those images of dull uniformity.
In the decades before the space-probe images had been sent back from the outer solar system, sci-fi writers, film-makers and scientists had created an amazing array of ideas about what these worlds might be like. This potential had become ingrained within the public collective consciousness, and to some extent helped drive NASA’s ambitious space programme forward. This was enhanced by a sense of mystery – and a hope of alien life. However, the images returning to our television screens in the latter part of the 20th century clearly did not do these worlds justice. So, although obtaining the planetary images were astonishing achievements in themselves, the disappointing lack of features within them dashed many hopes, and provided the public with a new view of the outer solar system. Like lifeless Mars and overheated Venus, the outer solar system consisted of a rather mundane set of giant planets distinctly lacking in the vibrant complexity of our own Earth. Read More…
It looks like it’ll be another long, lonely autumn for Dr Mike Brown on the summit of the Hawaiian dormant volcano Mauna Kea, searching for Planet Nine. He made use of the 8m Subaru telescope last year, and it looks like he’s back again this year for a second role of the dice (unless he does all this by remote control from Pasadena?). I can only assume, given the time of the year, that the constellation of Orion remains high on their list of haystacks to search.
A recent article neatly sums up the current state of play with the hunt for Planet Nine (1), bringing together the various anomalies which, together, seem to indicate the presence of an undetected super-Earth some twenty times further away than Pluto (or thereabouts). Given how much, I’ve written about this materials already, it seems unnecessary to go over the same ground. I can only hope that this time, Dr Brown and his erstwhile colleague, Dr Batygin, strike lucky. They have their sceptical detractors, but the case they make for Planet Nine still seems pretty solid, even if the gloss has come off it a bit recently with the additional OSSOS extended scattered disk object discoveries (2). But there’s nothing on Dr Brown’s Twitterfeed to indicate what his plans are regarding a renewed search for Planet Nine.
Even if the Planet Nine article’s discussion about a new hunt for the celestial needle in the haystack is misplaced, it does make a valid point that super-Earths, if indeed that is what this version of Planet X turns out to be, are common enough as exo-planets, and weirdly absent in our own planetary backyard. So a discovery of such an object way beyond Neptune would satisfy the statisticians, as well as get the bubbly flowing at Caltech. Dr Brown did seem to think that this ‘season’ would be the one. We await with bated breath…
Meanwhile, the theoretical work around Planet Nine continues, with a new paper written by Konstantin Batygin and Alessandro Morbidelli (3) which sets out the underlying theory to support the result of the 2016 computer simulations which support the existence of Planet Nine (4). Dr Morbidelli is an Italian astrophysicist, working in the south of France, who is a proponent of the Nice model for solar system evolution (named after the rather wonderful French city where he works). This model arises from a comparison between our solar system’s dynamics, and those of the many other planetary systems now known to us, many of which seem bizarre and chaotic in comparison to our own. Thus, the Nice model seeks to blend the kinds of dynamical fluctuations which might occur during the evolution of a star’s planetary system with both the outcomes witnessed in our own solar system, and the more extreme exoplanets observed elsewhere (5). It invokes significant changes in the positions of the major planets during the history of the solar system, for instance. These migrations have knock on effects which then drive other disturbances in the status quo of the early solar system, leading to the variations witnessed both here and elsewhere. For instance, Dr Morbidelli lists one of the several factors which brought about the Nice model:
‘Reclaiming Civilization’ by Brendan Myers
Subtitled “A Case for Optimism for the Future of Humanity”
Moon Books, 2017
For the most part, this is a philosophy book. The author, a Canadian academic with an interest in pagan thought, is doing some personal soul-searching during his long summer break. This provides something of a narrative upon which to attach various philosophical arguments. I can identify with this process, having gone through a similar internal rumination in my late teenage years.
I’ve noticed that August usually brings with it a significant uptick in Planet X-related stories in the mainstream media. Lots of people go on holiday, companies go quiet, governments tick along and seek only to bury bad news this month, and no one’s playing much attention anyway. So, bored journalists stuck in their offices when everyone else is having fun scrabble around to produce stories, sometimes from nothing at all, other times re-hashing previous material. More often than not, they simply nick each other’s ideas. This year, the traditional August silly season has been marred by the rather unfortunate possibility of nuclear war. This kind of serious topic has no place in August, so most people seem to be consigning it to the desperate summer news schedule. I’m sure that if the threat of war on the Korean peninsula continues into September, then people will start to sit up and take notice, with the commensurate impact on stock markets, prospects of mass annihilation, etc.
Anyhow, within that context, it’s little surprise to see a story outlining the fears people have about Planet X, and how there may actually be an underlying reality behind the conspiracy theories (which there often is, in one form or another). The celestial ball gets rolling by an online article in the Daily Star (1) which outlines the most recent nightmare scenario from the heavens, and then includes a family-friendly Planet X rebuttal on a YouTube video by NASA scientist David Morrison. Some of the detailed points he makes are arguable (about ‘Nibiru’ being a ‘minor god in the Babylonian pantheon’, and about how great an effect a perihelion transit by a Planet X object might have upon the solar system’s architecture, for instance) but his general thrust is sound. Don’t panic!
Last month, scientists working on the Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS) published a large dataset of new Kuiper Belt Objects, including several new extended scattered disk objects discovered way beyond the main belt (1). These four new distant objects seemed to have a more random set of properties, when compared to the rather more neat array of objects which had previously been constituted the Planet Nine cluster. This led to scepticism among the OSSOS scientific team that there was any real evidence for Planet Nine. Instead, they argued, the perceived patterns of these distant objects might be a function of observational bias (2).
Whilst reporting on these new discoveries and their potential implications, I predicted that the debate was about to hot up, bringing forth a new series of Planet X-related articles and papers (3). Indeed, leading outer solar system scientists were publishing related materials in quick succession (4,5), each finding new correlations and patterns which might indicate the presence of an unseen perturbing influence.
Now, Caltech’s Konstantin Batygin has published an article analysing the impact of the discovery of these new extended scattered disk objects on the potential for a Planet Nine body. The short conclusion he draws is that although the objects are, on the face of it, randomly distributed, their property set is largely consistent with Caltech’s original thesis (6). They are either anti-aligned to the purported Planet Nine body (as the original cluster is thought to be), or aligned with it in a meta-stable array.
‘Ontogenesis’ – A novel by John Evan Garvey
Self-published via the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017
My son, currently sitting his GCSEs, spotted this book on our dining room table, and said, “Oh, yeah, ontology, that’s all to do with God, and our state of being – we’ve done something about that in R.E.”. Which showed that (a) studying for your public exams actually works and (b) my son knew significantly more about this than me. So, having read most of John Garvey’s excellent novel by this point, I said, “Yeah, it is kind of like that, only way weirder, all to do with alien intervention, all that stuff.” With a half-absent “Cool”, my son moved on to something else, and I decided perhaps now was the time to look up what this title actually meant. It’s relevant because, although this is ‘just’ a novel, in my opinion ‘Ontogenesis’ is a deeply thought through work of metaphysical enquiry.
I’m not really sure my review is going to do it justice, because the philosophies underpinning the work were, at times, stretching my conceptual understanding. At one point, I wrote in my notes that the book was Cubist, in that it was using multiple vantage points to explore certain concepts and situations. Later in the book, it went multi-dimensional, like a game of 3D Tic-tac-toe, and the Cubist structure turned into something more akin to a Möbius strip.
So, let’s get a bit academic here, before I try to engage this novel’s narrative. My son was pretty accurate; ontology is indeed the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. However, ‘ontogenesis’ has been defined as ‘the development of an individual organism or anatomical or behavioural feature from the earliest stage to maturity’. Somehow, the author has brought both of these concepts into the book’s 337 pages, amalgamating human evolutionary progress with New Age metaphysics, theology and Ufology – all pinned together by plenty of Socratic rhetorical debate. The contents may involve some heady stuff indeed, but the novel is coated by a chilled Californian vibe – rather in the style of Joe Satriani’s guitar work; vigorously intellectual and creative, whilst remaining damn cool.
There’s a political struggle woven into the work, too; a very American contest between liberalism and social conservatism: A breaking free of mainstream thinking, and a rejection of established and repressive community values. This is all drawn together into the New Age concept of Ascension – a spiritual evolution of being which allows humanity to break through into a multi-dimensional universe already inhabited by more highly evolved alien entities from neighbouring star systems.
The kick in this book is how that transformation plays out on an existential level, i.e. how the protagonist and his Scooby Doo-style band of friends experience this bizarre multi-dimensional roller coaster. There are many allusions to the Matrix movies, at least in terms of the way the book steps out of the box. There are many allusions to Virtual Reality games, an increasingly straightforward solution as the narrative weirdens. But this is no first-person shooter. The author’s science fiction style harkens back to a Golden Age, more like Asimov or Bradbury, and brings in action sequences reluctantly, I felt. It didn’t help that most of the book is written in the present tense. This may have been a consciously worked aspect of the underlying metaphysics, but it made the pacing of certain tracts of the book feel stilted. To be fair, it can’t be easy to mix heady New Age philosophy with widescreen action adventure.
So, to the narrative. The story begins as a Close Encounter of the Fifth Kind (“bilateral contact experiences through conscious, voluntary and proactive human-initiated cooperative communication with extraterrestrial intelligence”) on the hills overlooking Los Angeles, involving an eclectic group of UFO enthusiasts. The main protagonist of the story, a marketing executive called Trevor, has brought along his beautiful new girlfriend Veronica, who seems to be settling into this odd clan unexpectedly well. A highly successful encounter with a UFO turns into a classic abduction experience for several members of the group, which is then plunged into chaos when the UFO is intercepted by dark forces mid-abduction.
The abductees are rounded up and imprisoned within a military facility, partly manned by aggressive aliens. Upon their escape, they manage to find their ways home remarkably easily – making the whole thing seem like an extended acid trip. Someone laced the Kool Aid? But this is just the beginning of an evolution of weirdness, which permeates and ultimately takes over the lives of the abductees. They progressively experience a deeper multi-dimensional reality, aided by alien presences whose motives are often questionable. Inevitably, the course of the transformation and ascension of humanity to a new existential level relies upon the courage, determination and underlying humanity of these abductees.
The narrative draws from many, many strands of Ufology. One might even consider it to be a comprehensive exposé of the subject, attempting to understand this disparate discipline by attempting to incorporate all of its fayre simultaneously. The alien denizens of Earth, decidedly ‘Men-in-Black’ in concept, rely heavily upon Ufology’s menagerie – Greys, reptilians, Nordics, preying mantis-types, shape-shifters, and so on.
Then there are the many conspiracy theories which each try to explain and/or contextualise the UFO phenomenon, including alien bases, mind control, MILABs, ancient aliens, abductions, hybridisation, multi-dimensional encounters, folklore, demonology, environmental catastrophism, our estranged place in the galactic community, and quite a lot of dark David Icke-style material.
But, ultimately, the preferred solution edges towards human progress to a higher spiritual truth, aided by various quasi-religious figures known as Ascended Masters. This requires the book to turn in on itself, and provide multi-faceted experiences for its reader, which serve to penetrate this higher reality. It’s an ambitious gambit, and for the most part works well. It’s certainly thought-provoking. The sardonic, jocular wit shared by the abductee group gives the sense of a literary work smiling at itself knowingly – like an amused Bodhisattva. Whether the book would appeal to readers not acquainted with the diversity of Ufology, I don’t know, but personally I found ‘Ontogenesis’ engaging and immersive, and enjoyable. I’d certainly read another of John Garvey’s books.
Book review by Andy Lloyd, 25th June 2017