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I love the stories of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft taking their messages from Earth out into universe. Humanity’s farthest and longest-lived spacecraft, Voyager 1 and 2, achieve 40 years of operation and exploration this August and September. Despite their vast distance, they continue to communicate with NASA daily, still probing the final frontier.

Both Pioneers carry a plaque, but the Voyager spacecrafts carry a “phonograph record.” But I have always wondered what an alien finding it would be able to figure out about us. A lot of thought was given to what was included, but could it be understood? How might it be misunderstood?

Just on the basis of technology, if the Voyager’s “Golden Record” dropped into your backyard, could you “play” it? Chances are that you don’t even have the equipment to play a vinyl record any more.

Of course, we always seem to imagine the aliens as being way more advanced than us, so they could figure it out, right?

Besides a turntable and speakers, this record requires the aliens to have ways to hear and see similar to the ways we do those things. A lot of science-fiction tales have not shown us aliens with our ears and eyes. Can they interpret the record by just using their mind?

The Voyager record has a cover illustration and about 90 minutes of audio on the reverse side.

Looking at the cover illustration image of hydrogen and a pulsar map (the same as found on the Pioneer plaques) and important instructions on how to play them. It tells the aliens how to use the included stylus and what rate of rotation the record must be used and the proper waveform of signals generated by the record. These are similar instructions to those we would need to give to a Generation Z kid confronted with a record player.

Let’s assume they get the record to play and they have ears to hear it. What will they think about us when listening to the 50+ greeting messages in different languages? Again, I think of a Gen Z or almost any Earthling hearing 50+ different messages in different languages. Confusion. They might wonder why we don’t all speak in the same way. Or maybe they think all 50 messages are in the same language but are just different creatures speaking.

Then there is the music. I can’t imagine how they would react to hearing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Are these dancing aliens?  I would guess that they might deal better with the Beethoven and Stravinsky without lyrics, though it is doubtful that music developed in the same way out there in the universe.

The record also contains 115 images. If they can decode the first ones, they will have technical data for the reader regarding mathematical definitions, scales and sizes, and information about our location and how to find us. There are images of our Sun and some of the planets in our solar system. Some pretty famous scientists have said that we really shouldn’t be telling them that because we don’t want them to find us.. These scientists are believers in the “aliens are evil” school of thought.

The images seem to me to be the part they might understand. Didn’t they tell me in elementary school that math was a universal language?

Will they interpret the medical and scientific diagrams showing the structure of our DNA and detailed images of human anatomy?

I do think they will be confused by some of the others in this Earthing photo album:  people eating, looking through a microscope, on a spacewalk, a string quartet etc. I am actually a bit frightened by how they might interpret a picture of a woman licking an ice cream cone.

Voyager 1 is currently in “Interstellar space” and Voyager 2 is currently in the “Heliosheath” (the outermost layer of the heliosphere).

Keep an eye on the live video from on board and let us know if you spot any aliens.

That Tesla roadster out in space will, like an asteroid, make its first close pass of Earth in 2091. I don’t think I’ll be around for that event, so I’ll post now.

After that pass by Earth, scientists say it has a 50 percent chance of continuing to orbit for a few tens of millions of years. Eventually, it will collide with a planet or fall into the Sun. If it makes it back to Earth, the atmosphere will burn up most of it before it hits the ground.

For now, it is safely on its way out past Mars, playing David Bowie to deaf, airless ears. It also carries on its dashboard screen the always appropriate message to Earthlings and anyone else who might encounter it: Don’t panic.


Image via Oliver Jeffers

On this New Year’s Eve, I will look up to the night sky to the brightest star there. That is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. You can see it in the evening every year at this time from almost all parts of Earth. Tonight is not only the calendar end of year but, in one of those nice celestial coincidences, it is the midnight culmination of Sirius. That is when it is highest in the sky at midnight, which occurs only once every year.

I need to point out that this midnight is mid-night and not the drop-the-ball midnight we will celebrate tonight. What I will call mid-night is the actual middle of the night, which is midway between sunset and sunrise. For my little piece of Paradelle, that will be at 9:18 pm ET.

If you go to you can get a quick calculation done for your little place on Earth for the times of the rise, set, and transit for the Sun and all major solar system bodies and selected bright stars.

From the Northern Hemisphere, we will look toward the south to see Sirius shining brightly on a clear night. (From the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the north.)

Sirius, the Dog Star, gets its name from a romanization of the Greek Seirios, meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” It appears almost twice as bright as the next brightest star (Canopus). Sirius appears bright because of its “intrinsic luminosity” and also because of its proximity to Earth.  It is 2.6 parsecs away. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but the Sirius system is one of Earth’s near neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase and it will become fainter. But Sirius doesn’t have to worry about losing its brightest star ranking for 210,000 years.

What we see is a bit of an illusion because “Sirius” is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star, called Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of called Sirius B. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous than the Sun. Sirius B was actually bigger but consumed its resources and became a red giant. Then, it shed its outer layers and collapsed into its current state as a white dwarf. That happened around 120 million years ago.

All this makes me feel both very tiny, and also part of something so large that I cannot really comprehend it all. So, I will simply go out tonight on this very cold night and look up at Sirius with great wonder.


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
― Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

“Bye Bye Moon” is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight MoonDid you know that the moon’s distance from Earth varies each month? I didn’t know that until this week, even though I know a lot about our Moon and I write about it at least once a month here.

Our Moon has a rather eccentric orbit and it is moving away from us at about one and a half inches per year. Scientists attribute this to tidal friction with the Earth’s oceans which also slows down how fast the Earth rotates, This lengthens our day by about 1 second every 40000 years.

Okay, it is not something we really will notice or need to worry about, but because scientists can do simulations, they can figure out that four and a half billion years ago when the moon was being formed,  it was only about 15,000 miles from Earth. Now, it is about 238, 831 miles from Earth.

Back then, an Earth day might have been only 5 or 6 hours long and there would be 1400 days in one year. More recently, at least relatively, around 900 million years ago there would be 480 days of about 18 hours each in one Earth year. That would certainly give us a very different lifestyle.

And projecting into the future, we would expect longer days but fewer of them in a year.

Even though we can’t observe these changes within a lifetime, it awesome and full of wonder to me that these changes are happening.

mars simulation

Exiting the capsule. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

We have thought about Mars for a long time. Ancient people knew of it, probably first as a bright star and later as a planet. We saw it closer with telescopes, and we imagined Martians lived there. All the 1950s sci-fi books and movies that had aliens from our solar system had them coming from Mars.

Those Martians invading Earth have given way to humans invading Mars.

Is Mars as the next frontier for human exploration? It seems that way. In March, President Trump signed a bill reiterating NASA’s plan to send people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, with a goal of studying the possibility of “living off the land” there.

Movies like The Martian and Interstellar piqué our interest in living off-Earth – and make it seem more possible than it is right now.

As the U.S. in preparation for the Moon landing, we do simulated Mars exercises in the desert. The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is such a facility located in Utah. The site’s empty red hills and canyons have been a Mars testing ground for 16 years.

NPR did a story about Crew 177, a team of students and teachers from a Texas community college who had applied to spend a week in a two-story metal cylinder at the MDRS near Hanksville in southern Utah.

The Mars Society

The Mars Society is a nonprofit funded by grants, private donations and membership fees.

They once got donations from the [Elon] Musk Foundation, but he has his own plan to colonize Mars now.

The Society started using the Utah site in 2001. They are not affiliated with NASA who has its own simulation site in Hawaii. NASA runs simulated missions that last as long as a year.

Is this all about Mars exploration for scientific or economic gains? Or both? Or is Mars our Plan B?

Science fiction explored the Plan B idea a long time ago with Mars or other planets being a place to go if – or more likely, when – Earth is no longer habitable.

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that Mars is not a Plan B, but there are still some serious projects to get there for a variety of reasons.

And don’t we want to get out there before the aliens make their arrival here?

When the mothership lands, know who your friends are.

collecting specimens

An “extravehicular activity,” collecting rock specimens. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

NASA photo

Detail of a 1998 NASA photo id STS088-724-66, described as showing an item of space debris,[1] an object claimed by conspiracy theorists to be an extraterrestrial satellite, the “Black Knight”

The Black Knight story is a very mixed bag of probably unrelated stories that touch on space exploration, fringe science, conspiracies, astronomical observations, real satellites and fuzzy photos. I don’t consider myself to be a conspiracy theory type, but I like oddball stories and legends.

Though this story is current, the legendary aspects go back to back to 1899. That’s when some repeating sources from “out there” were heard during radio experiments done by Nikola Tesla.

In 1928, an amateur radio operator, Jorgen Hals of Norway, reported these radio signals or echoes. I think we can confirm that these signals were not made by an Earth-launched satellite. Of course, that left things open to aliens.
The best explanation of these early observations is that they came from pulsars, which were not discovered until 1968. A pulsar (short for pulsating radio star) is a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. When this radiation beam is pointing toward Earth , they can be observed.

But in 1954 when newspapers were already full of UFO stories, stories emerged saying that the U.S. Air Force had reported two unidentified “satellites” orbiting Earth. This was a time when no country could launch a satellite.
There was a British rocket called the Black Knight that was used in conjunction with the Blue Streak missile program between 1958 and 1965, to test re-entry vehicles. But that is a dead end, because the program never put anything into orbit. I found no explanation for why the supposed object picked up the name of Black Knight, but it’s a sexy name to use for a legend.

As we entered the age of the “space race,” a 1960 TIME magazine story reported that the U.S. Navy had detected a dark object thought to be a Soviet spy satellite. Later, they reported that it was “the remains of an Air Force Discoverer VIII satellite that had gone astray.” To the conspiracy theorists, the explanation wasn’t acceptable and military cover ups were a large part of the UFO community.

On the extreme end of this Black Knight legend are those that believe it is a 13,000 year old object of extraterrestrial origin in near-polar orbit. In 1973, Duncan Lunan analyzed the long-delayed radio echoes and speculated that they could originate from a 13,000 year old alien probe located in an orbit around the earth’s moon. But Lunan later retracted his own conclusions. Lunan, a Scottish astronomer and science fiction writer, interpreted a message caught in the 1920s by two Norwegian physicists that he said came from a probe orbiting the Moon and sent there by the inhabitants of a planet orbiting Epsilon Boötis. He would later go on to revoke his withdrawal.

On the real science side, we had astronaut Gordon Cooper supposedly reported a UFO sighting during his 15th orbit in Mercury 9 in 1963.  When he returned, there was a media blackout and NASA attributed it to hallucinations. Cooper had claimed to have seen several objects that were “unidentified.”

The 1998 NASA photo (above) is believed by some to show the Black Knight satellite. It was photographed during the STS-88 mission. Most scientific investigators seem to agree that the object photographed is a thermal blanket that was confirmed as lost by the crew of the Endeavor space shuttle as they worked on the developing the International Space Station.

YouTube user NUA’s video “Black Knight Satellite UFO Documentary – Truth Exposed 2015 – (Debunked)”  states that the proof is conclusive that the 1998 NASA images are no Black Knight but just that satellite thermal blanket.

But that has not stopped the legend. There are videos that claim that the Black Knight is real. People who want to believe in alien intelligence and visitors and visits to Earth by them cling to these stories. I saw the film Arrival recently. I enjoyed it and found it a great conversation starter about communications, time and the possibilities of alien intelligence. These stories intrigue many of us and the belief that the government is hiding information from the public only seems more credible every year.

So, if you support the legend, you will point to “facts” such as that in 1957, long before the lost blanket, Dr. Luis Corralos of the Communications Ministry in Venezuela photographed the Black Knight while taking pictures of Sputnik II as it passed over Caracas. This unknown object was also seen “shadowing” the Sputnik 1 Spacecraft and the UFO (not identified as the Black Knight then) was in Polar orbit.

Again, this was in a time when no country could maintain a spacecraft in Polar Orbit. The first Polar-orbitingg satellite was launched in 1960. What’s the significance of this type of orbit? Polar orbits are often used for earth-mapping and observation, capturing the planet from one point.

I found online mentions of other sightings in the 1960′s of this polar-orbiting Black Knight and even estimates that the object’s weight was over 10 tons which would have made it the heaviest artificial satellite orbiting Earth.

On September 3, 1960, a tracking camera at Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s Long Island, NY factory is said to have taken a a photograph of the Black Knight in which it looks more like an aircraft than a satellite.

Looking more like an aircraft

Looking more like an aircraft?

I also have not found any explanations for why the Black Knight is here or what its purpose would be. Like that Arrival film (and maybe more so in the story the film is based on) story, those are really the big questions. And like addressed in that film, you would think the military of some country would have blasted the thing if it was seen as any kind of threat.

Did the Black Knight satellite and its radio messages originate from the Epsilon Bootes Star System 13.000 years ago? Epsilon Boötis (AKA Epsilon Boo or Izar) is a star in the northern constellation of Boötes and it came up in a Star Trek episode (“Whom Gods Destroy”) when the character Kelvar Garth is also referred to as Garth of Izar. Maybe that is where the Black Knight belongs – in science fiction.

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