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Monday, December 25, 2017. Updated Wednesday January 03, 2018

Where are all those UFOs coming from?

A major newspaper made a big splash last week by reporting a UFO story. What are these things, really?

A ll of a sudden UFOs are back in the news. The worst part about it is all those annoying people who keep telling us they really are UFOs because they're flying and they're unidentified. This strikes me as an unfounded assumption: if you don't know what it is, how can you be sure it's really flying, or for that matter an object and not, say, a reflection of a 1710 lumen GE Cool White bulb in the window? (Yes, technically an object, but not a flying one.)

What are these strange UFO phenomena? The reports fall into four main categories:

  1. Radar tracks. A radar operator reports an unidentified object which then flies away at incredible speed.

    Venus and Jupiter
    Two unidentified flying objects, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the planets Jupiter (left) and Venus (right) in near conjunction, were observed hovering in the southern sky for over an hour before slowly moving off toward the horizon behind the trees.

    This one is easy. The military has had a technology called digital radio frequency memory, or DRFM, for at least twenty years. A radar jamming device locks on to the radar signal and transmits a fake one. Typically the fake one shows the target flying away at extremely high speed. The purpose of this is to cause the tracking computer to lock on to the stronger fast-moving fake target. The jammer then stops transmitting, causing the radar to lose track of the target. Or the jammer could be programmed to create many false targets. Very useful for the military.[1]

  2. Credible reports from military pilots. The New York Times published a story about a flying object last week that got a lot of attention. According to the story, military pilots got a “strange” radio message from a nearby ship asking whether they were carrying live missiles. They were then directed to a point where there was an underwater object, obviously a submarine, and an object that took off at speeds estimated to be one mile per second, or 3600 mph.

    These details tell us what really happened: the military contacted the pilots beforehand to make sure they were only carrying dummy missiles. That tells us it was actually a test by the military to see whether the fighters could track them, and how they would react. The officials conducting the test needed confirmation that the pilots were not carrying any live missiles because they didn't want them to accidentally shoot it down. As for 3600 mph, see above.

  3. Lights in the sky. Every day as I drive home from work I see disk-shaped objects with bright lights hovering in the air. You see, my route takes me past the local airport. Planes coming in to land with their landing lights on appear to be hovering when observed head-on, and they look very un-airplane-like indeed.

    There would be no reason for an extraterrestrial to have visible lights. In space, headlights would be useless. On our Earth airplanes, those lights are there to prevent collisions. If they're flashing or blinking, it's even stronger evidence that it's an ordinary plane, helicopter, or possibly a drone.

    Then there's Venus, which can be amazingly bright. If the light is hanging in the sky, and it's any time near sunset, it's almost certainly Venus.

  4. Unidentified pieces of metal. Another report says investigators found strange bits of metal that they're unable to identify. These sightings are very common, and the objects usually resemble ball bearings, springs, rodlike objects with strange helical grooves on them, or similar items.

    A strange washer-shaped metal object, possibly part of an alien space ship. They don't make flying saucers like they used to. Nowadays pieces often fall off.

    These days there are lots of exotic metal alloys and metal-ceramic composites that would be unfamiliar to the average person. Nevertheless, there are no metals whose composition cannot be identified by Earth technology. Our most powerful technology, called X-ray fluorescence, easily tells us what elements are in any object. The object is exposed to X-rays, and the elements fluoresce by giving off lower-energy X-rays that unambiguously tell us the composition of the object.

    If the object is a plastic or other carbon-based material, we can identify its chemical structure by a variety of means, such as mass spectrometry. People have used these techniques to identify carbon-containing molecules in meteorites. Some of these molecules are extremely big and complex. They typically resemble coal that has been chewed up by exposure to radiation in space.

It stands to reason that an alien civilization visiting us would want to remain unobserved. In fact, one intelligent species close to Earth has developed a form of electromagnetic cloaking. It consists of special layered coatings called metamaterials that have unusual properties.

Electromagnetic cloaking
Electromagnetic cloaking. Simulation of an electromagnetic field affected by an object outside (left) and inside (right) a cloaking region shown by the dashed circle. The radio waves travel from left to right. When the object is inside, the field is hardly disturbed, rendering the object undetectable (from [3]). (The colors have no significance and are just added to make the image look pretty.)

In 1968 these strange beings, one of whom was named Victor Veselago, discovered[2] that these materials have a weird property called negative permeability, which enables them to bend light and radio waves around the object, making it invisible. These creatures soon discovered that the same principle can be used to make an object totally inaudible as well. One of these strange beings, named J.B. Pendry, even has a very nice non-technical paper on your Earth Internet in one of your Earth languages that you can read here.

So far this technology only works for moderate ranges of microwave frequencies, but soon enough we'll find that flying saucers are now invisible to the eye, undetectable by radar, and inaudible to the ear. That means that whenever you don't see or hear something, it's a confirmed sighting.

Clever beings, all right. They're so clever that they can study our planet without ever leaving their own solar system.

Update, jan 03 2018: The description of the “UFO” given by those Navy pilots sounds a lot like the new Gremlin drone.

1. Modern radar jamming uses many tricks to fool tracking radar, including range-gate pull-off and velocity-gate pull-off, which are more effective against pulse compression radar (an anti-jamming technique used on military radars) than ordinary noise jamming. It's a very complicated and interesting topic.

2. Veselago VG (1968). The electrodynamics of substances with simultaneously negative values of ε and μ. Sov. Phys. Usp. 10, 509–514.

3. Acoustic Metamaterials: Negative Refraction, Imaging, Lensing and Cloaking. Craster and Guenneau, eds. Springer, 2013, Earth.

dec 25, 2017, 5:02 am; last edited dec 25 2017, 11:08 am Earth time. Updated jan 03 2018, 7:50 pm on your primitive Earth calendar

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