Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts

Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

WingnutsOkay, let’s start by a basic understanding about conspiracy theories: they are bunk. Codswallop. Claptrap. Balderdash. Pick your synonym for bullshit. Most are formed by ill-educated, suspicious or even paranoid people with little to no background in either science or critical thinking. The rest are just hoaxes meant to lure the gullible (often with a hook for a money scam attached).

So let’s clear up any misunderstandings: there are no aliens among us, no reptiloids, no angels, no Bigfoot, no Loch Ness monster, no ghosts, demons, no flying saucers, Atlantis was a myth, homeopathy is a scam, magic doesn’t work, chemtrails are a hoax, morgellons don’t exist, creationism is bunk, Jesus doesn’t show up on grilled cheese sandwiches, astrology is solely for amusement, “reality” TV is heavily scripted, UFOs are explainable without aliens, and Elvis is really dead.

If I’ve missed one of your favourite current conspiracy theories, I apologize. Accept it that I will be happy to debunk it at some later date. This post is about the UFO loonies and their particular silly ideas. reading them, one really wishes there were two internets: one for fact, science and serious topics; the other for wingnuts and self-described ufologists (you can’t actually be an ‘-ologist’ – that is, someone who studies something – when that something is imaginary).

Second thing to keep in mind when you think about Rosetta and 67P is: it’s a comet. A tiny, irregular conglomeration of ice and dirt hurtling through space and tumbling end over end. It has so little gravity that the simple act of attempting to walk on its surface would give a person escape velocity. The gravity is something like 1/10,000th of the gravity on earth so the escape velocity might be 1 m/s, which you can get by just lifting your foot.

The Philae lander was equipped with harpoons to hold it on because it needs to be tethered, so that deploying its little tools don’t push it off the surface. Which, unfortunately, didn’t work (we can hope they might still be activated, otherwise the lander will be a floater instead). But the point here is that you can’t just walk around on a comet, You’d fly off into space with every step.

You can’t build on it. The surface isn’t solid rock. It’s a dirty snowball, and parts are not even tightly packed: it’s mostly icy material with random rocky bits collected over its billions of years of existence, with less than the density of water. ESA explains:

The density of the nucleus seems to be much lower than that of water, indicating a loosely packed or porous object. Like other comets, its nucleus is generally blacker than coal, indicating a surface layer or crust of carbon-rich organic material.

Geyser on 67PSecond, think about what comets do when they get close to the sun. They express the warming gasses, often explosively as the gases expand rapidly. The icy material evaporates and forms geysers and volcanoes of escaping ionized gas. We see it as the comet’s tail, often millions of miles long. Eventually comets break up into clusters of rocky bits. If aliens were smart enough to travel the impossible distances from another star system and buzz around ours, wouldn’t they be smart enough to avoid building on a volatile, unstable comet that would likely destroy their structures and violently throw them off when it approached the sun?

Not to mention that this particular comet doesn’t come very close to Earth, let alone the Sun. If they wanted to observe us, wouldn’t aliens want to get a bit closer than a few hundred million kilometers away? They could build a comfy base on the Moon, at 384,400 kms it’s a lot closer than 67P will ever get (oh wait… the wingnuts have that one covered already, identified as part of a government coverup…). As the ESA explains it:

Churyumov-Gerasimenko reflects the steplike process of how encounters with Jupiter push a comet further into the inner Solar System. Analysis of its orbital evolution shows that, up to 1840, its perihelion distance – closest approach to the Sun – was 4.0 AU (four Sun-Earth distances or about 600 million km). This was too far from the Sun’s heat for the ice-rich nucleus to vaporise and for tails to develop. This meant that the dormant comet was unobservable from Earth. That year, a fairly close encounter with Jupiter caused the orbit to move inwards to a perihelion distance of 3.0 AU (450 million km).
Over the next century, the perihelion gradually decreased further to 2.77 AU. Then, in 1959, another Jupiter encounter reduced the comet’s perihelion to just 1.29 AU – which has changed little ever since. It currently completes one orbit of the Sun every 6.45 years.

Close up of Wild 2The comets gets to about 186 million kms from the sun at its closest approach. The earth is about 149.6 million kms from the sun, so the closest the comet could ever get is still 36 million kms away, or about two thirds the distance to Mars at its closest.

So what is that mysterious bright spot on Comet 67P that has UFO nuts frothing? Possibly a hot spot similar to those photographed on other comets. Like the spot on Comet Wild 2, shown here on the right. Aliens on a whole bunch of comets? Or is there a physical explanation?

One hypothesis is that they are sites where electrical energy gathers for discharge. I can’t speak to the science here but it seems plausible, given that similar conditions happen here on Earth with storm clouds. Here’s one explanation from

In the electrical model of comets, these are the ‘touchdown’ points of the cathode arcs—where electric currents between the comet and the Sun ‘pinch down’ on the more negatively charged nucleus of the comet. The result is analogous to electric discharge machining (EDM), etching the surface into the observed “spires, pits and craters.” They appear to be etched sharply into rock, offering nothing to support the idea of sublimating ice or snow (see above). The caption on the Astronomy Picture of the day lamely offers, “these features are hypothesized to be indicative of a very rigid surface sculpted by impacts and explosive sublimation. Initially, Wild 2 was expected by many to be held together only quite loosely.

The recently-discovered radio wave “song” produced by 67P – likely due to changes in its magnetic field because of  fluctuating electrical activity – further suggests that there is electrical activity on the comet that remains to be discovered and explained. As noted on the ESA blog:

It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased by a factor of about 10,000.,, scientists think it must be produced in some way by the activity of the comet, as it releases neutral particles into space where they become electrically charged due to a process called ionisation. But the precise physical mechanism behind the oscillations remains a mystery.

Nothing mysterious or supernatural there, just an unexpected discovery and more insight into the nature of comets. But of course the wingnuts stopped taking their meds when they heard about this. They posted a fake email (allegedly from an ESA employee but so badly and comically written it makes those clumsy emails about so-called Nigerian generals with fortunes to give away seem like Jane Austen wrote them….).

The wingnuts spewed out their nonsense about it being some alien form of communication:

…this is not a code. It is how a species of aliens communicate to one another without speaking. A form of telepathy put into primitive radio signals. Its the only way this species can communicate to us. This is their thoughts. They don’t talk. They look like the 1 meter tall greys, but with a skin that has a tint of brown. Yeah, I have heard this sound before. Listen to the video below to hear the signal…the song as they call it. A repeated message.
Because this signal was put into radio transmissions, a very primitive technology to send messages with…the signal had to have been made for humanity. Getting a copy of the full message and then translating it should be of utter importance. Is it a message of greetings? Or is it a warning of whats to come? We the people of the world need to find out.

You’d think aliens that wanted to communicate with us would be smart enough to broadcast on any of the many radio or TV frequencies that humans have been using for the last century. And that they would do so at a frequency within the range of human hearing. After all, to even ‘hear’ it scientists had to raise the speed by 10,000. But no, they seem to want to make us discover their existence only by coincidence using very specialized equipment to pick up a very weak signal that only on a craft orbiting nearby could detect, and would then require extreme processing to even make audible. Crafty, that.

Imagine travelling billion upon billions of kilometers to get here, hidden in a distant mess of ice and dust, and then get exposed because some damned scientist decided to explore your particular comet a decade ago. Of all the bad luck… but I digress.

On the other hand, that bright spot might simply be a piece of ice that lost its dusty covering, and reflects the thin sunlight better than its surroundings. Or a small impact crater from any of the cosmic debris that the comet encounters in its travels. Or a hot spot where gases have recently exhaled. Or simply an artifact created either by the camera or some degradation of the radio signal carrying the image information on its long journey to Earth. Someone will figure out the real reason soon enough.

Science and its achievements should be celebrated, delighted in, shared as accomplishments for the greater good, boldly going for all us us. Not wrapped up in wingnut conspiracy theories, diminished by pseudoscience and turned into claptrap.

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