Aliens in Crisis

Exploring our nearest neighbour.  Published by Headline Book Publishing 2001.  Cover photograph copyright NASA.

Exploring our nearest neighbour. Published by Headline Book Publishing 2001. Cover photograph copyright NASA.

Our moon is such a familiar sight in the sky that we sometimes tend to overlook what a fascinating world it really is.  It has always been a part of our lives, as it has for every person on the planet.

In his 2001 book The Moon: A Biography, the BBC science correspondent David Whitehouse expressed it vividly: “The moon has accompanied us since the dawn of time.  Every creature that has ever lived has done so under the moon.”  It has affected our thinking about the universe, and its beauty is particularly impressive when it appears as a crescent in the evening sky.  As Dr Whitehouse explains: “At this time, the moon has a haunting quality unmatched at any other phase of its cycle or indeed by any other object in the sky.”

And one of the first impressive features we see on the eastern limb of the moon, by only the second day of the 29-day lunar cycle, is the huge expanse of Mare Crisium – the Sea of Crises.  It is visible to the naked eye, and stands out well through binoculars.  Again Dr Whitehouse evokes the feeling of wonder at its appearance: “Few sights on the moon are as spectacular as watching the sun’s rays illuminate the mountains that surround this vast oval-shaped, lava-filled basin.”

So perhaps we should not be surprised that this dramatic area of the moon’s surface is the site of strange flights of imagination.  In 1953, John J O’Neill, science writer of the New York Herald Tribune, claimed to have identified a natural bridge as much as 18 miles long between two promontories on the western edge of Mare Crisium.  Needless to say, subsequent observers and UFO theorists developed the idea that it was artificial, possibly even made of metal and a major feat of alien engineering.  But O’Neill’s Bridge doesn’t exist – it’s an illusion created by lighting effects at certain times of the lunar day – as proven conclusively by Lunar Orbiter satellite images in the 1960s.

But we can still imagine that, if intelligent extraterrestrials wanted to signal their existence to us, such an obvious feature on the moon’s surface could easily attract our attention.  It’s well known in the history of science fiction that Arthur C Clarke based his best-selling 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film developed alongside it, in part on his 1951 short story The Sentinel.  The amazing success of the book and film tend to over-shadow this evocative little tale.

There are some major differences between the two stories, not least that in the novel of 2001 the artefact left by an alien race on the moon, the discovery of which triggers everything that follows, is detected due to a magnetic anomaly in the crater Tycho, whereas in the short story it lies in full view at the edge of Mare Crisium for anyone to see provided they are close enough.  Which leads us to wonder whether, with our advanced telescopes and probes in lunar orbit, we might not have already photographed something unusual, but haven’t recognised it yet for what it is.

In Detecting Patterns of a Technological Intelligence in Remotely Sensed Imagery (JBIS, January 2007), Mark Carlotto carried out a statistical analysis of satellite images to look for possibly artificial features of extraterrestrial origin.  He concluded that certain areas on both the moon and Mars seemed artificial even by comparison with features on Earth, including significant landscapes on the lunar farside which scored higher on his scale than even the infamous “Face” on Mars.  Maybe that isn’t as obvious a location for any aliens to locate their artefacts as on the nearside in Mare Crisium if they want to attract our attention, but it still makes you wonder what they are.

What we find when we eventually get to these places will probably be entirely natural after all but, whatever the outcome, the drive to find out what’s there will always fire our imagination.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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