For the past two weeks, mysterious goings-on at a New Mexico solar observatory have been headline news. On Sept. 6, the Sunspot facility on Sacramento Peak in the southern part of the state, observes SETI senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, “was strung with yellow tape, and employees were sent home setting off alarm bells across the Internet: Had astronomers found a lethal solar flare, or even signs of alien life? And was there a government cover-up?”
After days of rampant speculation, reports NBC News, authorities finally fessed up and explained the situation as a “security issue.” They offered scant details but indicated that there had been a threat to people on the peak and that secrecy was necessary.
Why did the fantastic explanations for the hush-up get so much traction? asks Shostak. A dangerous event on the sun — such as a coronal mass ejection that might disable satellites or disrupt the electric grid — could be quickly ruled out. There are dozens of solar observatories around the world, and all would have seen something and said something.
But aliens … well, that might make more sense. At least to the large fraction of the populace who believe the government is covering up evidence of extraterrestrial life. A 2012 National Geographic poll found that nearly 80 percent of Americans think that the government is hiding information about the presence of aliens, says Shostak.
For its part, our government does often act covertly. There was that five-year Pentagon UFO study revealed last December, for instance. And in the case of the Sunspot, NM closure, it does seem strange that authorities would say secrecy was necessary. The endless news stories about the observatory would be tip-off enough to any per perpetrator.
When it comes to possible research cover-ups, Shostak is relentlessly skeptical. “I know from decades of experience that science is open: It operates by demanding confirmation and making results public. “Publish or perish” may be a cliché, but it is nonetheless true. If you, as a scientist, keep your work secret, you’ll soon be seeking another line of work.”
“Whatever happened at Sac Peak has yet to be explained. Aliens, says Shostak, are highly unlikely to be part of the story. But in America, whenever the facts remain obscure you can always count on fevered imaginations to offer up their own unsteady illumination.”
When the New York Times reported in December of 2017 that the Pentagon had had taken part in a partially declassified program at a cost of $22 million to investigate UFOs, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), Shostak told Inverse magazine in an interview “that there is something unnerving about this story, but it’s not the UFOs.”.
“There are a couple examples of really puzzling phenomenon,” Shostak told Inverse. “I mean, I get it, but there’ve always been puzzling cases. There are always plenty of interesting cases, and they make for great television shows. But this doesn’t mean they involve phenomena we’ve never seen before.”
“If the aliens were actually visiting us since 1947, when they made that navigation error in New Mexico, you’d have really good evidence,” Shostak says. “It wouldn’t all be in the hands of the government — and not just the government, our government. If the aliens had bothered to visit any other countries, wouldn’t they have evidence? I find it hard to believe that everybody’s covering it up.”
While speaking to Futurism at the Worlds Fair Nano NY, Shostak “bet everybody a cup of coffee” that the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials will be confirmed within the next two decades. In fact, Shostak has often said that he expects advanced alien civilizations will be thousands if not millions of years ahead of us.
Yet, Shostak seems to ignore the possibility, no matter how remote, that alien life might have have conquered the daunting time problems of travel across the vast reaches of the cosmic ocean and entered our star system.
“Do you think that we’ve missed signals along the way?” SyFyWire’s Don Kaye asked Shostak during an interview about the movie, The Arrival. “That we’re totally unaware of. That there are possibly signals that are being transmitted in such a way that we’re too primitive to pick them up?”
“Well, I don’t know if we’re too primitive,” Shostak answered, “but I agree with you. I’m sure we’ve missed signals. I’m sure there’s signals coming from somebody that we’re totally unaware of because we’re not aiming the big antenna in the right direction, tuned to the right frequency, and all that sort of stuff. I mean we can easily miss that. The universe is 13 billion years old, right? There’s been plenty of time for intelligence to pop up on lots and lots of worlds out there, and there’s lot of them that are older than the Earth, so they may have a tremendous head start. So yeah, I’m sure we’ve missed a lot of clues.”
Shostak was then asked if he thinks it’s feasible at all that we could be alone, or are the odds are just against it. “I think the odds are against it. I gave a talk at the Griffith Observatory and I started off by asking how many people thought aliens were really out there, and essentially all the hands went up, but not all. Then I asked how many people thought they were probably not out there, and there were a couple of hands that went up. But the reason I don’t agree with them is because, if we’ve learned anything over the last 20 years, it’s that essentially every star has planets.
“We didn’t know that 20 years ago. We know it now. So that means the number of planets that are kind of like the Earth, the kind where you might want to make a real estate investment, where you might have an ocean or an atmosphere — the kind of things that would be useful for biology — that number in our galaxy is maybe 50 billion or 100 billion.
“It’s tens of billions, and I don’t want to bore you with big numbers but that’s a lot of planets. And that’s just our galaxy. You can photograph a hundred billion other galaxies, and each of them might have a hundred billion planets like Earth.
“And so what that means is that if Earth is the only place where anything interesting is happening, you’re living in a miracle! And you may think you’re living in a miracle, but if you think that in science — if you think you’re really, really special — it’s usually not true.”
The Daily Galaxy via NBC News, SyFyWire, Inverse.com and New York Times
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