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Four times people cried ‘aliens’ — and four times they were wrong

Four times people cried ‘aliens’ — and four times they were wrong


The truth is out there, but it’s not aliens

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The mummified remains of a fetus that was either stillborn, or died shortly after birth.
The mummified remains of a fetus that was either stillborn or died shortly after birth.
Photo: Bhattacharya S et al. 2018

Discovered in Chile’s Atacama Desert in 2003, this tiny, 6-inch-long mummy, with its pointed head and atypical number of ribs, stoked theories that aliens have visited Earth. Scientists have had genetic proof that the remains are human since 2013, and a new genetic analysis reveals that mutations in genes related to growth might explain the mummy’s atypical bones.

The results, which have been making headlines, are a reminder that the truth may well be out there — but it isn’t aliens. A series of discoveries this past year make it clear that, sadly, it never is.

Sad but true

Scientists have struggled to explain why this mummy, known as Ata, is the size of a fetus and yet has bones as developed as those of a six- to eight-year-old child, Science reported in 2013. The new analysis of Ata’s DNA, published last week in the journal Genome Research, reports mutations in seven genes key for human growth.

These mutations could explain why Ata’s bones developed so quickly, Gary Nolan, an immunologist at Stanford University and co-author of the study, told National Geographic. He suspects that the story is much sadder and more human than an extraterrestrial visitation: someone gave birth to a stillborn fetus several decades ago and buried her in the desert. The alien hype was silly pseudoscience promoted for media attention,” paleoanthropologist and anatomist William Jungers told National Geographic. “This paper puts that nonsense and poor little Ata to bed.”

A bizarre deep space signal

In the summer of 2017, astronomers at the Arecibo Observatory picked up a strange radio signal that seemed to be coming from a small red dwarf star called Ross 128. But the source of the signal was a mystery: a solar flare on Ross 128 might have produced it, but the frequency of the radio waves didn’t quite fit that theory. Could it have been a deep space call for ET? No such luck. The astronomers discovered a week later that the signal originated much closer to home — most likely from satellites in high geostationary orbit in the same part of the sky as Ross 128.

The Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory.
Photo: H. Schweiker / WIYN and NOAO / AURA / NSF

Just dust

The wild flickerings of star KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s star, suggest that something occasionally passes in front of it and blocks out as much as 20 percent of its light. The flickerings have no clear pattern, and whatever is blocking the star’s light probably isn’t a celestial body like a planet. Some have suggested alien megastructures or some sort of extraterrestrial solar panel might be passing in front of the star instead.

But in January 2018, a team of astronomers reported that something much more ordinary is probably to blame for the star’s unusual behavior: a bunch of dust could be surrounding the star and filtering its light. “Weird stars that have dust coming from somewhere isn’t as much of a headline grabber,” Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University and one of the study’s authors, told The Verge’s Loren Grush at the time. But there’s still some mystery left: we don’t know where exactly the dust is coming from.

An artist’s rendering of KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s star
An artist’s rendering of KIC 8462852, also known as Tabby’s star.
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / R. Hurt (IPAC)

The Great Pyramid’s giant void

In November 2017, scientists reported the discovery of a vast empty cavity inside the Great Pyramid at Giza. Using a kind of souped-up X-ray, an international team of researchers tracked subatomic particles called muons that plummet to Earth at nearly the speed of light. Since muons can pass through the air more easily than they can travel through dense stone, the researchers were able to discover previously unknown cracks and cavities — like the 100-foot-long cavern they called the “Big Void.”

The researchers still don’t know the precise shape of the cavity or why it’s there, but study co-author Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing that they suspect that this cavity was built on purpose (by humans). Because, friends: it’s never aliens.

Image: ScanPyramids mission