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Five Astronomical Non-events 2016
The astronomical delights of 2016 are wonderful discoveries and beautiful heavenly events. Not so delightful are the flaky stories and shaky science and “intelligent aliens” as the answer to any mystery. Here's my selection of five such non-events from 2016.
“Tonight Will be the Darkest Night in Nearly 500 Years!”
If there were an award for the Silly Astronomy Story of the Year, I'd vote for “the darkest night in nearly 500 years”. It was about a total lunar eclipse on the night of the winter solstice, a story from 2010 recirculated with the year changed to 2016.
There had been a winter solstice eclipse in 1638, and 372 years later in 2010 there was another one. The melodramatic headline was not only somewhat off on its numbers but also didn't understand that the winter solstice may be the longest night, but it's not necessarily the darkest.
Weather conditions are more important than moonlight in determining how dark the night will be. There's also so much light pollution that one-third of the world's population can no longer see the Milky Way – in North America that figure is 80%. However we can still see a full Moon and that's what we need for a lunar eclipse to occur. The visible part of the 2010 eclipse lasted up to three and a half hours. But during much of the night, weather permitting, you'd have had a full Moon.
Yet the main hitch in this yarn for 2016 is that there was no eclipse. On December 21 the Moon was a week past full. No eclipse, no story.
“Rare Black Moon many are linking to the apocalypse”
I hadn't seen the term “Black Moon” before 2016. The apocalyptic prophets take it to mean the second new Moon in a calendar month, but there is no astronomical significance to it. A new Moon is the part of the 29.5-day lunar cycle in which the Moon is directly lined up between Earth and Sun. Since we see the Moon by reflected sunlight, we don't see a new Moon because the sunlight is all reflected straight back towards the Sun.
A calendar is a human invention and if it has months of 30 or 31 days, occasionally a month will contain two new moons. In 2016 the second new Moon occurred in September or October or not at all, depending on where you live. On a lunar calendar there will never be one.
A newspaper helpfully explained that when “the spectacular Black Moon occurs . . . it's virtually impossible to see.” The “Black Moon” is just like every other new Moon, and as spectacles go, it's never going to be a crowd-pleaser.
Alien signals on a stellar scale
Two Canadian astronomers noticed something odd when they observed a large number of stars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They found that a small number of stars showed the same type of puzzling color changes in the same repeating pattern. Evidence of an alien civilization manipulating stars to send a message?
SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers rank a potential signal on the Rio Scale, which from 0-10 rates its significance. The color-changing stars got a rating only slightly above zero.
The paper written about the observations wasn't accepted by an academic journal. And never mind the interpretation, even the results haven't been confirmed elsewhere with a different telescope. You need this in order to eliminate the possibility of a systematic error in the original observations. This made a fair bit of media noise, but so far it's just been a good example of sloppy science.
Alien megastructure around Boyajian's Star (KIC 8462852)?
About 1480 light-years away from Earth, the star catalogued as KIC 8462852 is doing something strange. Every now and then, at random intervals, it dims by as much as 22%.
Jason Wright, one of the observing astronomers, thinks that there is a natural explanation that we haven't yet worked out. However he's also noted that such a light pattern could be produced if an alien civilization had built contrivances to channel energy from the star. This is, of course, what got people's attention.
The erratic changes of brightness are too great for a transiting planet, and it was interesting enough for SETI researchers to follow it up, though they haven't yet learned anything helpful.
Other scientists are joining in with possible explanations. Some have said that the light patterns aren't necessarily unique, and they name some other stars with a similar light curves for comparison. Most proffered explanations relating to the light being blocked by something orbiting the star. However there are suggestions that it may be caused by something internal to the star. Surface events might sometimes reduce the amount of light that we can detect.
Alien messages from Hercules?
The Independent, a British newspaper, said at the end of August that “the community of astronomers and scientists who scan the skies with telescopes in an attempt to find extraterrestrial life is abuzz with excitement over a 'strong signal' detected deep in space that could come from an alien civilisation.”
Despite the supposed buzz, most astronomers were far from convinced. The signal was detected by researchers studying sunlike stars with Russia's Ratan-600 radio telescope. It appeared to have come from a nearby star, HD164595 in the constellation Hercules.
The researchers didn't rush to the press to proclaim their discovery of an alien signal. However they did make a conference presentation about their work. Another scientist heard it and contacted the SETI Institute which wasn't impressed by a lone signal that could have come from any one of a number of natural events, including terrestrial interference. And at the end of August in a press release from the observatory, researcher Yulia Sotnikova stated that “Subsequent processing and analysis of the signal revealed its most probable terrestrial origin.”
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