Two science stories linked themselves in my brain this past weekend. The first was NASA’s announcement that they’ve given up trying to fix the Kepler space telescope. The Kepler was launched in March of 2009 with a mission to find planets orbiting other stars. It does this by spotting the almost indiscernible drop in the light from a star when one of its planets passes in front of it. The telescope needs to stay perfectly aligned and absolutely still for long periods of time, and to achieve this it has four reaction wheels that act like gyroscopes to stop wobble. One of the wheels quit in July 2012 and a second stopped this past May. NASA engineers have tried since then to work a fix, but have now officially given up and instead are soliciting suggestions for other missions Kepler could undertake. That’s a real shame for several reasons: for one, it cost $550 million dollars (and no-one wants to see that kind of money wasted), but more importantly because Kepler has confirmed the existence of 135 planets around other stars and identified 3500 other possible candidates—it succeeded brilliantly at its job and we now have better evidence than ever that there are other places in the galaxy where life might exist.
The other story of the week for geeks is that the CIA finally confirmed the existence of its secret base in Nevada, the infamous Area 51. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ll know that Area 51 has been at the center of one of the most enduring of all conspiracy theories, involving the supposed storage and testing of an alien spacecraft from a crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. A Freedom Of Information request by George Washington University National Security Archive resulted in the de-classification of a report called “The Secret History of the U-2” revealing not only the existence of Area 51 in the Nevada desert, but the fact that it had been used for the testing and development of the ultra-high-flying U-2 spy plane, which had resulted in an increase in UFO reports at the time.
Why do we want so badly to believe in alien life from other worlds? Is it because we’re actually not all that fond of our fellow human beings? Is it the innate love of imagined monsters and things that go bump in the night? Are we yearning to have our deepest questions about existence answered by someone who might know more than we do—maybe even find God, whatever we imagine God to be? Or is it that we’re desperately hoping for someone to help us out of this deep hole we’ve dug for ourselves (climate change, pollution, nuclear proliferation—name your poison)?
I’ve never believed the stories about Area 51 and aliens. (A government keeping a secret like that for so long? Please.) But it seems unthinkable that Life wouldn’t have arisen anywhere else in this vast universe, and some places are much older than our neighbourhood. It’s a stretch to accept that any race could have bridged the distances between stars, but as a big Star Trek fan I obviously hope that it’s possible. Heck, one-time Canadian Defense Minister Paul Hellyer has testified in public that "at least four species" of alien have been visiting Earth for "thousands of years." He’s a former defense minister—maybe he does know something we don’t.
Then it hit me—the reason my brain linked these stories together:
Maybe the aliens got together and subtly sabotaged the Kepler spacecraft because we were getting too close to discovering their home worlds.
Now there’s a conspiracy theory for you!