Photo | Zaji Kanamajina
Weird mysteries in the sky: are they aliens or what?
Outer space is peculiar. This is a universal idea regardless of one’s educational standing, comprising human views of the deep dark abyss. From thousands of years ago (when humanity made its first strides to understand the stars, and, in turn, seasons, crop patterns, and other things directly relevant to life back then) to today (where, despite our heavily advanced technology, there are still many gaps in our understanding of the universe), space has offered a multitude of mysteries.
These can be fairly technical or physical, such as the identity of dark matter or the exact mechanics and classification of stellar structure. Knowledge of this sort advances quickly, as we can observe, model, and craft experiments to create new knowledge that builds upon our existing base of understanding. This materialist perspective on the mysteries of space has allowed humanity to, quite literally, advance beyond the stars.
Then there are some philosophical mysteries. While we may have not understood the mechanics of black holes hundreds of years in the past, a big lingering question remains: what lies beyond? Are we the only ones alone in this universe? Will we be visited by, or come into contact with, extraterrestrial organisms in the future? Unfortunately, the formations of this question in the present day are often riddled with a lot of woo and pseudoscience. Fortunately, astronomers ask this too. In fact, the statistical likelihood of the existence of extraterrestrial life is very high—but, it’s unlikely that most of it would be the familiar “greys” that we see, or even that any UFO encounters in the past are valid at all (besides being known cosmic phenomena or, after the 1950s, peculiar military craft).
What becomes particularly interesting is when these mysteries seem to converge through presenting a baffling hole in our understandings of space at that present time. A technical observation that seems to fly in the face of what we know, or offers no proper explanation that fits with current known physics. How do we classify these mysteries? Here are two to whet your appetite:
Despite significant advances in recent years, scientific research is still riddled with unanswered questions. Nowhere is this more apparent than the discoveries of space, whose vastness has revealed mysteries that have perplexed scientists, decade after decade. A prime example of this was the 1977 detection of the “Wow! Signal.”
The Wow! Signal was a radio signal detected by the now-defunct Big Ear telescope in Ohio. What made the signal so amazing to scientists was that its intensity was unparalleled: it was thirty times louder than deep space noise. The signal, which lasted for 72 seconds, appeared to be coming from the constellation Sagittarius, but when scientists looked at the spot in the constellation ar which the signal had originated, they found nothing there.
The signal was hailed as possible evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Scientists at the time believed that if aliens were to communicate with us, they would use loud radio signals of a frequency around 1420 µHz—the familiar frequency of hydrogen—a frequency we humans could quickly recognize and understand. So when the Wow! Signal was detected and happened to perfectly match this criteria, it finally seemed to be conclusive evidence of intelligent life beyond us.
Finally, however, the mystery of the Wow! Signal appears to have an answer. The Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences published research in June 2017 proposing evidence that the Wow! Signal was actually emitted by a nearby pair of comets. These comets, 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, are surrounded by enormous hydrogen clouds whose radio frequency matches that of the Wow! Signal.
Yet another example of the mysteries of outer space is a star in the Milky Way constellation, Cygnus, known as Tabby’s star. The star, formally termed KIC 8462852, has baffled scientists due to its odd dimming properties.
What makes Tabby’s star so odd is that its dips don’t seem to follow any apparent pattern. Stars do have dips in their brightness from time to time, often due to transiting planets that decrease the star’s light as the planet orbits around it. However, this decrease in brightness would occur periodically with the orbit, something not observed in Tabby’s star.
Moreover, when Tabby’s star does dim, it dims significantly, sometimes decreasing its brightness by as much as 22 percent, which is not uncommon for very young stars, but unprecedented for middle-aged ones like Tabby’s star. Usually, transiting planets only decrease the brightness of a star by less than one percent.
The star’s odd dimming intervals were first noticed in 2011 by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, but scientific analysis confirmed that the star has likely been dimming and brightening for the past century.
The explanations for the odd dimming patterns of Tabby’s star have been widespread. Some scientists attribute the dimming to a planet passing in front of Tabby’s star, or perhaps a comet. However, this planet or comet would need to be massive in order to cause the magnitude of fading Tabby’s star undergoes. Even a planet the size of Jupiter could only dim one percent of the star’s brightness. Some fringe theories claim that the dimming is due to alien civilizations creating massive solar energy superstructures as Dyson spheres that absorb the star’s light. Up until last week, astronomers have been dutifully keeping track of these dimming periods.
What are the Answers?
The interesting thing about mysteries straddling the border of technical and philosophically humanistic is that, regardless of their outcome, their status on the precipice of known human knowledge means that we will get an interesting answer regardless of the result. It may very well be intelligent life of some kind, or, as the Wow! Signal case seemed to imply, just cosmic phenomena that we had previously been unaware of, but now understand.
The reality is that the drive to understand these types of mysteries often work in tandem. A drive to understand the mechanics of outer space has been intertwined with deep philosophical questions about the mysteries of potential cosmic life. Since time immemorial, cultures have ingrained within themselves the notion of an existence that lies further beyond. Whether these are cosmic space people with Dyson spheres, or perhaps simply the majesty of a universe in which one feels so tiny, only time will tell. But as even these mysteries show, as long as we have gaps in our understanding that we seek to pursue, the tantalizing fruits of cosmic knowledge continue to generate peculiar questions, helping make space the oddity it is today, as it was when we first set our eyes upon it.