26 November 2018

UFOs are real - but are they alien?

It seems to me that UFO sightings are being taken a lot more seriously today than they were ten or twenty years ago. At one time, people who reported seeing UFOs were arbitrarily dismissed as crackpots, and the possibility that our planet is being visited by extraterrestials was laughed off. UFO sightings were rarely reported in the mainstream media, and when they were they were usually presented with a flippant, humorous spin.

Attitudes have changed considerably, particularly over the last ten or so years. There is still an element of ridicule in the way the subject is treated, but there is no doubt that UFO sightings are now being reported in a more serious way than they were at any time in the past.

I can think of several reasons for this shift in attitude.

For a start, the possibility that aliens might be visiting us no longer seems any more far-fetched than some of the bizarre and seemingly improbable things that have already happened since the beginning of this century. There is a general sense in the air that nothing would surprise anyone anymore.

Who would have believed, if you had told them in the 1990s, that the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in the heart of New York would be reduced to a pile of dust in a terrorist attack, leaving thousands of people dead? That remote-controlled drones would be used to bomb countries around the world? That a black man would become president of the United States, and that he would be succeeded by a TV reality show host with a tweeting addiction and a penchant for porn stars? That an IT company would create a 3D photographic map of the world, sending fleets of vans mounted with cameras to take photos of virtually every street in every city and town on the planet? Or that five billion people would own a mobile phone, allowing them to communicate instantly with almost every other person in the world? Extraterrestrial visitors, even if their reality was proven beyond all doubt, would be just one more impossible thing to believe before breakfast.

Then there were the discoveries made by various space probes, most of which found evidence that tended to support the possibility, or even the likelihood, that life might exist elsewhere in the universe. Astronomers were particularly confounded by the discoveries of water on the Moon and Mars. Two of Jupiter's 79 moons - Europa and Ganymede - are also now believed have huge underground oceans. Signs of liquid water have also been found on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Water - long considered the essential ingredient for life - seems to exist almost everywhere astronomers look.

The technology to detect planets around other stars was deleloped in the 1990s, and since then numerous Earth-like planets have been identified in other solar systems. We can extrapolate from what we already know that billions of planets similar to Earth exist in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Our planet is not unique - so why should it be unique in hosting life?

In 2010, scientists discovered the first complex animals known to live without oxygen, deep in the Mediterranean Sea. It was previously thought that only single-celled microbes could survive without oxygen. At around the same time, scientists discovered that bacteria could survive in environments previously considered too extreme for life to exist - for example, inside boiling hot springs, and in the frozen coastal desert soils of the Antarctic. The microbe Pyrococcus furiosus thrives at 100C, the boiling point of water, and can happily exist above this temperature. If microbes can survive in extreme hot and cold environments, then, theoretically, alien life forms can too. This discovery gave a further boost to the possibility of life on other planets.

In 2013, astronomers estimated, based on Kepler data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the "Goldilocks zones" - the habitable zone around a star where the temperature is conducive to life - of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way, with 11 billion of these orbiting Sun-like stars. The most recent research suggests that as many as one in six stars hosts a planet hospitable to life.

If one accepts that life probably exists elsewhere in the universe, the possibility that UFOs - or at least some UFOs - might be alien craft, doesn't seem all that unthinkable.

But perhaps the most important factor influencing the public's and the media's increased acceptance of UFOs has been the spate of highly credible sightings reported in recent years. When experienced pilots and trained observers on the ground report strange flying objects, it is very hard to dismiss their claims - especially when they can produce compelling video footage of the encounter.

In December 2017, for example, the US Defense Department declassified a video from 2004 which appears to show an encounter between UFOs and Navy F-18 fighter jets. The pilots saw the "anomalous aerial objects" as they flew their Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet at 25,000 above San Diego, on the West Coast of the US.

The pilot who filmed the object, Cmdr. David Fravor, told reporters: "As I got close to it, it rapidly accelerated to the south, and disappeared in less than two seconds." The object had no wings or fins, he noted. When he was asked if it could have been a helicopter, Fravor rejected this suggestion. "When helicopters move side to side," he replied, "they kinda slow down, and then they pick up speed going the other way. This was extremely abrupt, like a ping pong ball, bouncing off a wall. It would hit and go the other way." He was certain in his own mind, he said, that the object was "something not from the Earth."

In another declassified video, A US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet encountered a mysterious oval-shaped craft. During this sighting, the pilot switched from infra-red to thermal, yet there is no sign of jet propulsion or hot exhaust trail typical of that emitted by any sort of conventional turbine engine. In fact, the UFO appears cold to the ATFLIR sensor, emitting no heat at all. The craft did not have wings, a tail or fins (which would be visible on a missile or drone).

A more recent UFO sighting took place over the west coast of Ireland on on November 9, 2018, at 6.47am, an hour before sunrise. The pilot of a British Airways flight contacted Shannon Air Traffic Control (ATC) to report a mysterious object travelling at high speed, and to ask if there were military exercises taking place in the airspace through which her Boeing 787 was passing.

She was told that no military exercises were taking place, and that there was nothing unusual showing up on radar.

The pilot responded: “OK. It was moving so fast.”

The controller then asked: “Alongside you?”

She replied in the affirmative and described how the UFO came up along the left-hand side of the aircraft, “then rapidly veered to the north”. She said it was “a very bright light” that “disappeared at very high speed”.

The pilot of a Virgin Airlines Boeing 747 then joined the conversation and said there were “multiple objects following the same sort of trajectory”.

Shannon ATC asked if the pilots knew which direction the objects were heading. The Virgin Airlines pilot said it was in his “11 o’clock position” with “two bright lights over to the right”, that then climbed away at speed.

The following is a transcript of the exchange. You can listen to the actual conversation in the video below. The conversation begins with a British Airways pilot, en route to Montreal, Canada, calling Shannon ATC to ask whether there are military exercises taking place on her route.

Pilot 1: "Is there any military exercises? up here right now?" Shannon ATC: "“There’s nothing showing on either primary or secondary [radar].” Pilot 1: "Okay. It was moving so fast, in fact you can no longer see it..."

ATC: "Alongside you?"

Pilot 1 (BA) : "Yes. It appeared to come up on our left hand side then rapidly veer to the North. We saw bright lights and then it just disappeared at a very high speed. We were just wondering.. we didn't think it was a likely collision course, we were just wondering what that could have been?"

Pilot 2: "We saw another object making some kind of re-entry... appeared to be multiple objects following the same sort of trajectory... and very bright where we were."

Pilot 3: "Virgin 76 also saw that in our eleven o'clock position. Two bright lights."

Pilot 1: "Roger, that's copied, thank you."

Pilot 2 "Glad it wasn't just me."

Pilot 3 “No... yeah, very interesting, that one.”

Pilot 3 "I saw two bright lights, seven o'clock, seemed to bank over to the right and then climb away at speed, at least from our perspective."

Pilot 1 "Okay, we're passing that on now. Thank you."

ATC: "Can I just say now that other aircraft in the air have also reported the same thing, So we’re going to have a look and see."

Pilot (Unidentified): “The speed was astronomical – Mach 2 or something.”

ATC: "Roger, okay, thank you."

I don't give credence to most UFO sightings, but I don't think anyone can doubt that this was a genuine sighting. Here we have three obviously sane and sober commercial airline pilots discussing a mysterious object they had just witnessed, and sharing that information with Air Traffic Control. The word UFO isn't even mentioned, but clearly they all saw something they couldn't explain.

UFO reports always raise two questions: did the sighting actually happen? And if so, was the object of earthly or extraterrestrial origin? In too many UFO sightings, there is doubt about whether the sighting really happened, or whether the witness actually saw what they thought they saw. Inexperienced (and intoxicated or stoned) observers see all kinds of things that aren't actually there, or they misinterpret what they are seeing. And then we have the ubiquitous hoaxers, many now armed with CGI software that can make almost any scenario look real. People pretend to have seen UFOs for all kinds of reasons. To get attention. To get on TV. To promote a book or a YouTube video. Or just for the satisfaction of fooling other people.

It's rare to get a UFO sighting where we can assume, with a high degree of confidence, that the sighting actually did take place, and that the witnesses saw what they claim to have seen. It's even more rare to have three pilots corroborate each other's accounts just moments after the incident, while they're still in the air and the details are still fresh in their memory.

Given the credibility of sightings like the ones discussed above, the question then becomes: what was it that they saw?

In these sightings, we can safely rule out the usual suspects - weather balloons, Chinese lanterns, the planet Venus and so on. But what does that leave us with? Meteorites, or space debris falling to earth? Apparently not, given that in every case the object made complex and seemingly intelligent and controlled manoeuvres involving changes in both speed and direction. The pilot of the Boeing 787 said the object came up along the left-hand side of the plane, "then rapidly veered to the north", while the Virgin Airlines pilot said it was in his "11 o’clock position" with "two bright lights over to the right", that then climbed away at speed. The objects filmed by US fighter pilots exhibited the same behaviors.

Some kind of experimental military aircraft? None of the witnesses saw wings, jet engines or contrails, and in one of the sightings, the absence of jet propulsion - or heat emitted by a combustion engine of any kind - was confirmed by thermal imaging. So if these objects were man-made aircraft, they would have to be using a form of propulsion unlike anything known to the general public or the scientific community.

So what are we dealing with here - a secret military aircraft? Some kind of natural but freak weather phenomenon? Visitors from the future? Interdimensional tourists? Or aliens checking us out before they launch a full-scale invasion of our planet?

One thing that strikes me about these UFOs is how closely they resemble the "foo fighters" - UFOs - reported by Allied aircraft pilots in WW2 in the skies over both Europe and the Pacific. In fact the conversation between the pilots in the sightings recounted above is almost word for word the same as that between fighter pilots encountering "foo fighters" the best part of a century ago.

"Foo fighters" were first reported in 1944, when pilots flying over Europe by night reported seeing fast-moving round or oval-shaped objects or lights tagging their aircraft. The objects were described as fiery, and glowing red, white, or orange. Some pilots reported that they seemed to toy with the aircraft, making abrupt turns before veering off and disappearing at incredibly high speed. Sometimes the objects flew formation with aircraft and behaved as if they were under intelligent control, but never displayed hostile behavior. Encounters almost always ended with the object suddenly accelerating and zipping away into the distance.

For a long time, the Allies suspected that these mysterious objects might be some kind of secret weapon being tested by Germany, but it transpired that German and Japanese pilots had reported the same phenomenon, and that the Germans suspected the mysterious objects of being a British secret weapon.

Most of the traditional objections to the possibility of extraterrestrial life have now been removed. We have no scientific grounds at all for assuming that Earth is the only planet in the universe to host life. In light of recent astronomical discoveries, any scientist making such a claim would be considered arrogant and ill-informed. In a universe consisting of at least two trillion galaxies, only a fool would insist that Earth is the only planet with life.

And yet, until just a few decades ago, most scientists felt confident in asserting that life was extraordinarily rare, and probably didn't exist beyond planet Earth. That was the "consensus" scientific opinion. Today, most scientists tend to hedge their bets on this issue, but there is less ambiguity among the general public. In a survey carried out in 2017 by the Netherlands-based research group Glocalities, 61% of respondents answered "yes" when asked if they believed in "some form of life on other planets". The survey - which canvassed the views of 26,000 people in 24 countries — also showed that 47% of those questioned believed "in the existence of intelligent alien civilizations in the universe".

The fact that most people believe in something doesn't make it any more likely to be true, of course. Most people believe in all kinds of nonsensical things. As, indeed, do most scientists. But it's attitudes, and the shift in attitudes, I'm exploring here.

In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi famously looked to the skies and asked, "Where are they?" If the universe is filled with alien civilizations, he wondered, why can't we see any evidence of them, and why have none of them contacted Earth?

Fermi made a number of unreasonable and rather naive assumptions when he posed this question. Why, for example, would the inhabitants of a planet millions of light years away want to make the long and harzardous journey to a distant and insignificant planet like Earth, even if they possessed the technological capability of doing so? It should be obvious from the very fact that there are trillions of Earth-like planets in the known universe that the chances of one particular planet being visited by extraterrestrial travellers must be pretty remote. Or, to put it another way, why would an advanced civilization choose to send their spaceships to Earth, rather than to any one of the other trillion or so planets within the same approximate distance? The idea that they would travel halfway across the universe to "study us" - a suggestion that is often made in ufology circles - is absurd and testifies to our delusional sense of self-importance. We're just not that interesting.

It has also been suggested that aliens want to make their existence known to us, which is why they occasionally buzz commercial airlines and fighter planes. This is also ridiculous, in my opinion. If they wanted to make themselves known, all they'd have to do is land on the lawn of the White House. If they did that, they'd be hard to miss.

And why would they be in spaceships in the first place? Any civilization that has mastered interstellar travel would long ago have developed teleportation technology. They wouldn't need spaceships to get from one part of the universe to another. We're already able to teleport tiny objects like molecules. Are we to assume that civilizations a million or a billion years more advanced than ours wouldn't have figured out how to teleport larger objects from one place to another?

This is the problem I have with the idea that UFOs are alien craft. I can't help thinking that any civilization technologically advanced enough to be able to travel from one galaxy to another, or even from one star to another, wouldn't need to go anywhere. And even if they did, we wouldn't know about it, because they'd be invisible and undetectable. We've already made considerable progress in making our own aircraft invisible. Interstellar travellers would have mastered invisibility aeons ago.

The UFOs and "foo fighters" reported by pilots certainly seem to be real; but to my mind they simply aren't advanced enough to be from distant galaxies. The object spotted in the Irish sighting discussed above was estimated to be travelling at Mach 2, which is certainly fast. But Concorde - the transatlantic passenger airliner that was in service in the last decades of the 20th century - routinely travelled at Mach 2, which is 1,700mph - the speed of a bullet. And that was back in the 1970s. Currently, the fastest fighter aircraft is the MiG 25, which can reach a speed of 2,500mph.

Manoeuverability is a different ball game, of course; and as far as we know, no man-made aircraft is capable of carrying out the kinds of manoeuvres attributed to UFOs - in particular, rapid changes in direction. And of course no man-made aircraft can fly without wings, fins or a visible source of propulsion.

But this is the kind of technology you'd expect to find in a civilization that was a mere hundred or perhaps a few hundred years more advanced than our own, not one advanced enough to be capable of interstellar travel. Consider how far aviation technology has advanced since the first plywood airplanes that were the height of scientific innovation a hundred years ago.

If it wasn't for the historic sightings, I would be inclined to think that these unidentified objects were secret prototype inventions being tested by some group like the Lockheed Martin "Skunk Works" - formally known as the Advanced Development Programs (ADP) - an organization given a high degree of autonomy by the US government, unhampered by bureaucracy, and tasked with working on advanced or secret projects, mostly for military application. The U-2 spy plane, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter", the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II were all developed in secret by this group. But the ADP didn't begin operations until 1950, and it didn't receive its first contract from the CIA until 1955.

The fact that UFOs have been around since at least as far back as the 1940s would tend to debar the possibility that they are anything to do with secret government or military projects. If they were at such an advance stage of development eighty years ago, they'd certainly have been deployed in the various wars that have taken place since them. And, again, the technology that is apparent in the manoeuvring of "foo fighters" in the 1940s is simply too advanced for the period, secret or not.

My conclusion has to be, therefore, is that these mysterious craft - assuming they are real, and assuming they are craft - are from our own solar system, and not from some distant galaxy. They are just too human-like in their behavior, and too technologically close to us - a few hundred years is nothing in the great scheme of things - to be anything else.