Opinion

Science fiction now a fact

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September 15, 2017

Head outside after sunset and you can catch a glimpse of giant Jupiter, the showstopper, in the West Australian sky.

It looks like a definite case of science fiction becoming science fact.

If you remember the movie Contact with Jodie Foster, we may be seeing the storyline play out in real time.

An unexplained blip picked up a year ago by a Russian telescope has the science world buzzing, as some think it could be a signal from a distant civilisation sent nearly a century ago. Astronomers picked up the signal from a star reasonably close to Earth which started off weak, became strong, and disappeared again.

That is exactly the kind of thing you would expect from a signal coming not from a local airport and not from a telecommunication satellite, but from the sky.

The signal is intriguing, because it comes from the vicinity of a sun-like star with at least one known planet in the constellation Hercules, 95 light years away.

If it’s artificial, its strength is great enough that it was clearly made by a civilisation with advanced technical capabilities.

We are talking about a message that left its star in 1920 and finally arrived in Russia in 2015.

A message from space is a fanciful concept played up in numerous Hollywood movies, but what if everyone’s listening and no-one is sending?

It could be the reason we haven’t heard from anyone until now. But, isn’t it great to speculate? I do it all the time, the ‘‘what if’’ factor, as I call it.

Interestingly, the first detectable signals from Earth picked up by other civilisations might be our early radio shows and television broadcasts like, for example, I Love Lucy. But those signals likely hadn’t reached anyone — until now.

Bet you didn’t know we’ve sent signals out. Yes. The Beatles song Across the Universe was transmitted on February 4, 2008, by NASA in the direction of the star Polaris. Goodness, we may have generated another round of Beatlemania.

Without corroboration from an independent observatory though, a presumed signal from extraterrestrials doesn’t have a lot of credibility, so we must remain cautious.

An international team of researchers is now examining the radio signal and its star in the hopes of determining its origin.

Hey, when is a star not a star?

When it’s a planet.

A simple but common mistake when, for example, people talk about the ‘‘morning star’’ seen setting in the western skies across Australia this time of year.

We tend to call every bright point of light a star but, as Normie Rowe once said, ‘‘It ain’t necessarily so’’.

As I pointed out last week, that bright ‘‘star’’ you can see above the eastern horizon is really the planet Venus. We know it better as the ‘‘morning’’ and sometimes the ‘‘evening star’’, depending on the time of year. Either way, its brilliance is overpowering in our west Aussie skies!

Through a telescope, Venus will show you phases just like the Moon, and you’ll notice it appears fuzzy. Well, that’s about as good as it gets. Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with your telescope. If you stare at it long enough it will appear to move around, but that’s just your eyes playing tricks.

Okay, let’s head outside. After sunset the scene is set, giant Jupiter is the showstopper.

The planet is a nice sight in a low power, wide field telescope eyepiece or binoculars. Even if you don’t use optical aid, dazzling Jupiter will be a stunner. Oh, I almost forgot, high overhead is the Lord Of the Rings.

After dinner in our west Australian skies, look for the Southern Cross in the south-west, tipped over on its side, with the two ‘‘pointers’’ to the left.

Directly overhead at sunset, the curl of the Scorpion’s tail can be seen near the teapot shape of Sagittarius. Enjoy.

David Reneke is a feature writer for Australasian Science magazine and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Get David’s newsletter at www.davidreneke.com

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