Aliens with three balls? Curious Conspicuous Clay Ovoids? Extraterrestrial golf? You decide…

Have you noticed how anything that happens on Mars, or in outer space, or even at a really high altitude, such as the top row of bookshelves in the library, is ecstatically portrayed by the media as evidence of extraterrestrial life? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for extraterrestrial life. I’ve been actively looking for it since I was a child. The closest I’ve ever come is the discovery of an Unidentified Swimming Object (USO) in a bowl of soup purchased in the Gare du Nord in Paris, France, but further investigation suggested a terrestrial origin, that it had evolved from the green fungus on the horse steak (Plat du Jour), crawled over the rim of the bowl, and rapidly adapted to an aquatic environment. Take-home message: never order the 14,- Euro ménu in the Gare du Nord – unless you care to repeat this experiment.

Two weeks ago we saw the surfacing of a new trend whereby the media (and apparently a few scientists) interpret the discovery of anything spherical in space, or from space, as evidence of extraterrestrial life. This is not entirely unreasonable. After all, the Death Star was spherical, wasn’t it? I’m not completely clear about the species assignment of Darth Vader or Carrie Fischer – they certainly look human rather than alien (except for Carrie’s hair, or Darth Vader’s brain after being partially lobotomized by a light saber), but since they came from a Galaxy Far, Far Away they were certainly extraterrestrials, by definition…

Of course, there are a few spherical objects in space that aren’t necessarily evidence of E.T.s (the moon, stars, planets without atmospheres) – but whenever a new sphere pops up, you have to ask yourself the question. If it happens once, surely a certain degree of skepticism is called for. But twice in one week?? And then a third time??? Science requires an open mind… Let’s review the evidence.

Case number 1: Water on a really fast hat

This week astronomers discovered a spectral signature of water on HAT-P-11b, a “Neptune-sized planet” (in other words, a really, really large ball) orbiting a sun in the constellation Cygnus. In my opinion they could have found a simpler name for the planet, one that was more aesthetically pleasing, like “Giovanni”, or “Mergatroid”, but then, I’m not an astronomer. Not that biologists are any better; they probably would have called the planet Seven-up, Bruno or Oskar, or Big Momma Stem Cell, or something equally strange.

I particularly like the title of one of the media reports on this story: “Hot Wet Alien World discovered in constellation Cygnus.” Talk about blatant attempts to draw hits to your website… If a person types “hot wet alien” into the Google search box – which surely happens all the time – guess what pops up first?

Interestingly, none of the reports (including the abstract of the article in Nature) tell us precisely which star this planet is orbiting, perhaps to keep us from flying out there and taking a look ourselves. A word of caution if you’re contemplating a road trip. What looks like a nice, tidy constellation from here on Earth is actually spread out over some considerable distances. One of the stars in Cygnus is about 11.4 light years from us, and another is 3200 light years away. So don’t leave home without a full tank of gas, or plasma or whatever, and a whole bunch of NASA freeze-dried ice cream.

The authors of the paper cagily tell us that the planet lies at a distance of about 120 light years from Earth, so if you’re willing to do a bit of research, you can probably figure out the identity of the culprit star. They also say that the planet orbits its sun about every five days. And that it’s atmosphere is “surprisingly clear.”

I don’t find this atmospheric clarity surprising at all on a planet four times the size of the Earth, whizzing around its sun in a year that lasts only five days. At that speed you’d need to hang onto your HAT-P-11b. This planet is really moving. If you’ve ever ridden down the German Autobahn at 250 kph in a convertible with the top down, you’ll know that any fog inside the car tends to dissipate rather quickly. It’s also rather hard to breathe. You do, on the other hand, accumulate a lot of smashed bugs, which suggests that any aliens on HAT-P-11b are probably hunkered down on land, holding on for dear life, and have evolved seatbelts, or at least the sort of glue by which Earthly barnacles attach themselves to ships.

The E.T. aspect of this story wasn’t played up as much as in the past, when the merest whiff of water outside our solar system has consistently caused a sort of media feeding frenzy, or at least a bar crawl. You may recall the story I reported on here, in which a certain Prof. Vogt claimed that life was “certain to exist” on a planet called Gliese 581g. His reasoning went something like this: the planet lay in the so-called “habitable sphere” (yes, another ball) around its star, which made it likely to have water, which led to Vogt’s extraordinary and somewhat inscrutable statement during a press briefing:

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it.”

We’ll just pause here for a moment so that you can puzzle over the intricacies of that statement. As you do, keep in mind the fact that two weeks later, Michael Mayor and his exoplanet-mythbusting team from Switzerland suggested that Gliese 581g might not exist at all – it could merely have been a glitch in “noisy” spectroscopic data, or someone who forgot to clean his eyeglasses. I couldn’t find a response from Prof. Vogt. In fact, I haven’t heard much mention of him at all recently.

Case number 2: A ball on Mars.

This one is really impressive; check out the image. That pesky rover Curiosity keeps taking pictures of odd things as it rolls across the surface of Mars. Remember the space rat it photographed in May, last year? NASA says it was just a rock – of course they’d say that, otherwise they’d have to tell us the truth about Area 51 and Steve Jobs and a lot of reverse-engineered alien technology, such as the iPhone 6. This week Curiosity photographed a perfect little sphere, just sitting out there on a rock, minding its own business. The official explanation proposes that it was carved out by water, but there are winds on Mars, and it surely would have rolled away by now.

I actually have a hypothesis about this: I think it’s a golf ball, most likely hit by one of two people: Alan Shepard or Tiger Woods. I have this on good authority from my father, Ed Hodge, who has turned the discovery of lost golf balls into an art, if not a science, and a lucrative source of retirement income.
If this artifact on Mars is Shepard’s golf ball, it was launched from the surface of the moon on Feb. 6, 1971. On that date astronaut Alan Shepard climbed out of the lunar capsule of Apollo 14 with a golf club and two golf balls. One news report says he had smuggled them aboard in his “space suit.” Where in a suit could you hide a long, pole-shaped object and two balls? Here we’ll take another brief pause so that you can consider that one…

Just remember that security measures were a bit more lax in 1971. Today you’d never get them past airport security, let alone onto a Saturn V rocket. People have been known to try to smuggle 62 poisonous snakes through security, but a golf club? And two balls?

Anyway, is it conceivable that one of Shepard’s two balls (yes, I am referring to the golf balls, for those of you with perverse imaginations) reached escape velocity and, through a combination of careful aim, dumb luck and Newtonian physics reached this precise spot on Mars, to land 43 years later right in the path of Curiosity? To answer this question we need to consider a couple of factors (actually a lot more, but let’s keep things simple).

First: escape velocity on the moon is 2.4 km per second. Could Alan Shepard have hit a golf ball that fast? On Earth, they say, most golfers achieve a swing that is 160 km per hour. That works out to about 0.044 km/sec. In his prime, Tiger Woods achieved a swing of about 0.056 km/sec, and he didn’t have to smuggle anything onto the course in his pants to do it (well, actually…). Anyway, most of Tiger Woods’ tournaments have taken place on Earth, at least those that we know about, whose escape velocity is 11.2 km/sec. Tiger Woods would have to hit the ball 200 times faster to send it out of Earth’s atmosphere toward Mars, and there are all kinds of other things to take into consideration, such as resistance posed by the atmosphere and its ability to evade all sorts of obstacles: birds, airplanes, innocent bystanders (remember President Gerald Ford?) and the 500,000 pieces of space junk floating in Earth orbit.

Alan Shepard, on the other hand, would only have had to hit the ball 60 times harder to send it on its way to Mars. Consider that his swing was unencumbered by any wind resistance on the lunar surface. It was, however, perhaps encumbered by his bulky space suit, which would probably be like playing golf in one of those Sumo wrestler costumes. The one time I put one of those on I was almost smothered by a Portuguese woman who was 5’2” tall and weighed 85 pounds, but then we had gravity to contend with. Taking all of these factors into consideration, I think the evidence tips things in favor of Shepard.

One should perhaps note here that the average speed of a bullet leaving a .44 Magnum, as can be observed in the classic movies of Clint Eastwood, is approximately .40 – .475 km per second, which means that Alan would only have had to hit the ball about six times the speed of Clint’s bullet in order to propel the thing out of lunar gravity and toward its current location. Is this more likely than an alien leaving little round spheres on Mars, perhaps in the form of rodent droppings? You decide.

Case number 3. Conspicuous clay ovoids.

I love space programs, despite the fact that they are funded at a level of about a million times that of cancer research, but it turns out you can find Martians without ever leaving Earth at all. The third story about aliens is another tale of cracking open a meteorite and finding – no, not the Higgs boson, although I don’t think this can be definitively ruled out – something that (sort of) (maybe) might (possibly) resemble a cell.

I am speaking, of course, of the “conspicuous clay ovoid” discovered this week in a meteorite named Nakhla (a much cooler name than HAT-P-11b). Nakhla was ejected from the surface of Mars (there is no evidence that a golf club was involved), flew off into space, and collided with Egypt. It also collided with a dog, which was vaporized instantly, leaving no traces, not even dog DNA. I especially like the logic by which this event is reported on the website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

“This dog story did lead directly to the recovery of several fragments of the Nakhla meteorite. The meteorites are very real, so there’s no reason to doubt the dog story.”

Decades later, scientists in Greece and the UK began slicing Nakhla up into tiny slivers, oblivious to the fact that they might be cutting up tiny little Martians, and in the process they came upon a mysterious little sphere that they call a “conspicuous biomorphic ovoid structure.” Biomorphic means “resembling or suggesting the forms of living organisms,” and “ovoid” is defined as “shaped like an egg,” which gives anyone reading the article all sorts of reasons to think of aliens, and makes you wonder about the wisdom of slicing up meteorites. I mean, the thing might hatch.

The news widely reported this as evidence of a “cell structure,” “more evidence of the possibility of life on Mars,” or even that “Mars is still habitable.” All very promising, until you carefully read the paper, which provides a more sobering view.

The first citation from the paper starts out promising, but fades out toward the end: “One reason why we carried out this investigation into the origin of the ovoid structure in Nakhla is because the conspicuous rounded shape of the structure is somewhat reminiscent of a terrestrial cellular microorganism… Despite the conspicuous shape and structure, the ovoid is very large, and martian microorganisms are expected to be chemotrophic and therefore probably very small (<1 μm) in size.”

If you’re patient enough to read all the way to the end, or at least past the first 140 characters, a skill which seems to evade most journalists, the biological hypothesis receives a pretty good dousing: “The consideration of possible biotic scenarios for the origin of the ovoid structure in Nakhla currently lacks any sort of compelling evidence. Therefore, based on the available data that we have obtained on the nature of this conspicuous ovoid structure in Nakhla, we conclude that the most reasonable explanation for its origin is that it formed through abiotic processes.” Abiotic meaning that this is not the ball of an E.T.

Alas, alas, having balls is not sufficient evidence for all of this week’s wonderful speculation about E.T.s. But please keep looking, guys. There are a lot more spheres out there in space to investigate. Probably more rodents as well. Maybe even a Yeti. (After all, if you find a Yeti in Norway, as I have suggested in another piece, it must have come from somewhere.) Or at least a pyramid carved in the shape of a face. After all, Nakhla was aimed at Egypt, and aimed specifically at a dog. Sort of a Martian meteorite drone. We know that rodents on Earth don’t particularly like dogs; why should they be any different on Mars?

Naturally, these three reports could be simply a random set of bizarre coincidences whose occurrence within a single week defies logic and all kinds of probabilities which are difficult to estimate without knowing what dark matter is, or the current whereabouts of the elusive Higgs boson. But I take my responsibilities as a science writer seriously. Somebody has to connect the dots. Or in this case, the balls.

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