with related commentary by:
Published in Astronomy Magazine
THE ZETA RETICULI INCIDENT
A faint pair of stars, 220 trillion miles away, has been tentatively identified as the “home base” of intelligent extraterrestrials who allegedly visited Earth in 1961. This hypothesis is based on a strange, almost bizarre series of events mixing astronomical research with hypnosis, amnesia, and alien humanoid creatures.
The two stars are known as Zeta 1 Reticuli and Zeta 2 Reticuli, or together, simply known as Zeta Reticuli. They are each fifth magnitude stars -- barely visible to the unaided eye -- located in the obscure southern constellation Reticulum. This southerly sky location makes Zeta Reticuli invisible to observers north of Mexico City's latitude.
The weird circumstances that we have dubbed “The Zeta Reticuli Incident” sound like they come straight from the UFO pages in one of those tabloids sold in every supermarket. But this is much more than a retelling of a famous UFO incident; it’s an astronomical detective story that at times hovers on that hazy line that separates science from fiction. It all started this way:
The date is September 19, 1961. A middle aged New Hampshire couple, Betty and Barney Hill, are driving home from a short vacation in Canada. It’s dark, with the moon and stars illuminating the wooded landscape along U.S. Route 3 in central New Hampshire. The Hills’ curiosity is aroused when a bright “star” seems to move in an irregular pattern. They stop the car for a better view. The object moves closer, and its disklike shape becomes evident.
Barney grabs his binoculars from the car seat and steps out. He walks into a field to get a closer look, focuses the binoculars, and sees the object plainly. It has windows -- and behind the windows, looking directly at him are ... humanoid creatures! Terrified, Barney stumbles back to the car, throws it into first gear and roars off. But for some reason he turns down a side road where five of the humanoids are standing on the road.
Apparently, unable to control their actions, Betty and Barney are easily taken back to the ship by the humanoids. While inside they are physically examined, and one of the humanoids communicates to Betty. After the examination she asks him where they are from. In response he shows her a three-dimensional map with various sized dots and lines on it. “Where are you on the map?” the humanoid asks Betty. She doesn’t know, so the subject is dropped.
The Betty Hill Star Map as Interpreted by Ms. Marjorie Fish:
Betty and Barney are returned unharmed to their car. They are told they will forget the abduction portion of the incident. The ship rises, and then hurtles out of sight. The couple continue their journey home oblivious of the abduction.
But the Hills are troubled by unexplained dreams and anxiety about two hours of their trip that they can’t account for. Betty, a social worker, asks advice from a psychiatrist friend. He suggests that the memory of that time will be gradually restored over the next few months -- but it never is. Two years after the incident, the couple are still bothered by the missing two hours, and Barney’s ulcers are acting up. A Boston psychiatrist, Benjamin Simon, is recommended, and after several months of weekly hypnosis sessions the bizarre events of that night in 1961 are revealed. A short time later a UFO group leaks a distorted version of the story to the press and the whole thing blows up. The Hills reluctantly disclose the entire story.
Can we take this dramatic scenario seriously? Did this incredible contact with aliens actually occur or is it some kind of hallucination that affected both Barney and Betty Hill? The complete account of the psychiatric examination from which the details of the event emerged is related in John G. Fuller’s “The Interrupted Journey” (Dial Press, 1966), where we read that after the extensive psychiatric examination, Simon concluded that the Hills were not fabricating the story. The most likely possibilities seem to be: (a) the experience actually happened, or (b) some perceptive and illusory misinterpretations occurred in relationship to some real event.
There are other cases of alleged abductions by extraterrestrial humanoids. The unique aspect of the Hills’ abduction is that they remembered virtually nothing of the incident.
Intrigued by the Hills’ experience, J. Allen Hynek, chairman of the department of astronomy at Northwestern University, decided to investigate. Hynek described how the Hills recalled the details of their encounter in his book, “The UFO Experience” (Henry Regnery Company, 1972):
“Under repeated hypnosis they independently revealed what had supposedly happened. The two stories agreed in considerable detail, although neither Betty nor Barney was privy to what the other had said under hypnosis until much later. Under hypnosis they stated that they had been taken separately aboard the craft, treated well by the occupants -- rather as humans might treat experimental animals -- and then released after having been given the hypnotic suggestion that they would remember nothing of that particular experience. The method of their release supposedly accounted for the amnesia, which was apparently broken only by counterhypnosis.”
A number of scientists, including Hynek, have discussed this incident at length with Barney and Betty Hill and have questioned them under hypnosis. They concur with Simon’s belief that there seems to be no evidence of outright fabrication or lying. One would also wonder what Betty, who has a master’s degree in social work and is a supervisor in the New Hampshire Welfare Department, and Barney, who was on the governor of New Hampshire’s Civil Rights Commission, would have to gain by a hoax? Although the Hills didn’t, several people have lost their jobs after being associated with similarly unusual publicity.
Stanton T. Friedman, a nuclear physicist and the nation’s only space scientist devoting full time to researching the UFO phenomenon, has spent many hours in conversation with the Hills. “By no stretch of the imagination could anyone who knows them conclude that they were nuts,” he emphasizes.
So the experience remains a fascinating story despite the absence of proof that it actually happened. Anyway -- that’s where things were in 1966 when Ms. Marjorie Fish, an Ohio schoolteacher, amateur astronomer and member of Mensa, became involved. She wondered if the objects shown on the map that Betty Hill allegedly observed inside the vehicle might represent some actual pattern of celestial objects. To get more information about the map she decided to visit Betty Hill in the summer of 1969 (Barney Hill died in early 1969). Here is Ms. Fish’s account of that meeting:
“On Aug.4, 1969, Betty Hill discussed the star map with me. Betty explained that she drew the map in 1964 under post-hypnotic suggestion. It was to be drawn only if she could remember it accurately, and she was not to pay attention to what she was drawing -- which puts it in the realm of automatic drawing. This is a way of getting at repressed or forgotten material and can result in unusual accuracy. She made two erasures showing her conscious mind took control part of the time.
Betty described the map as three-dimensional, like looking through a window. The stars were tinted and glowed. The map material was flat and thin (not a model), and there were no noticeable lenticular lines like one of our three-dimensional processes (it sounds very much like a reflective hologram). Betty did not shift her position while viewing it, so we cannot tell if it would give the same three-dimensional view from all positions or if it would be completely three-dimensional. Betty estimated the map was approximately three feet wide and two feet high with the pattern covering most of the map. She was standing about three feet away from it. She said there were many other stars on the map but she only (apparently) was able to specifically recall the prominent ones connected by lines and a small distinctive triangle off to the left. There was no concentration of stars to indicate the Milky Way (galactic plane) suggesting that if it represented reality, it probably only contained local stars. There were no grid lines.”
So much for the background material on the Hill incident (if you want more details on the encounter, see Fuller’s book). For the moment we will leave Marjorie Fish back in 1969 trying to interpret Betty Hill’s reproduction of the map. There is a second major area of background information that we have to attend to before we can properly discuss the map. Unlike the bizarre events just described, the rest is pure astronomy.
According to the most recent star catalogs, there are about 1,000 known stars within a radius of 55 light-years of the Sun. What are those other stars like? A check of the catalogs shows that most of them are faint stars of relatively low temperature -- a class of stars astronomers call main sequence stars. The Sun is a main sequence star along with most of the other stars in this part of the Milky Way galaxy, as the following table shows:
Typical giant stars are Arcturus and Capella. Antares and Betelgeuse are members of the ultra-rare supergiant class. At the other end of the size and brightness scale the white dwarfs are stellar cinders -- the remains of once brilliant suns -- a perfect example is Sirius B, the white dwarf companion to the brilliant Sirius A seen in the constellation Canis Major. For reasons that will soon become clear we can remove these classes of stars from our discussion and concentrate on the main sequence stars whose characteristics are shown in the table.
The spectral class letters are part of a system of stellar “fingerprinting” that identifies the main sequence star’s temperature and gives clues to its mass and luminosity. The hottest, brightest and most massive main sequence stars (with rare exceptions -- the Type O and Type B classes -- which are even hotter, brighter, and more massive) are the A stars. The faintest, coolest and least massive are the M stars.
Each class is subdivided into 10 subcategories. For example, an A0 star is hotter, brighter and more massive than an A1, which is above an A2, and so on through A9.
This table supplies much additional information and shows how a slightly hotter and more massive star turns out to be much more luminous than the Sun, a G2 star. But the bright stars pay dearly for their splendor. It takes a lot of stellar fuel to emit vast quantities of light and heat. The penalty is a short lifespan as a main sequence star. Conversely, the inconspicuous, cool M stars may be around to see the end of the universe -- whatever that might be. With all these facts at hand we’re now ready to tackle the first part of the detective story.
Let’s suppose we wanted to make our own map of a trip to the stars. We will limit ourselves to the 55 light-year radius covered by the detailed star catalogs. The purpose of the trip will be to search for intelligent life on planets that may be in orbit around these stars. We would want to include every star that would seem likely to have a life-bearing planet orbiting around it. How many of these thousand-odd stars would we include for such a voyage and which direction would we go (for the moment, we’ll forget about the problem of making a spacecraft that will take us to these stars and we’ll assume that we’ve got some kind of vehicle that will effortlessly transport us to wherever we want to go)? We don’t want to waste our time and efforts -- we only want to go to stars that we would think would have a high probability of having planets harboring advanced life forms. This seems like a tall order. How do we even begin to determine which stars might likely have such planets?
The first rule will be to restrict ourselves to life as we know it, the kind of life that we are familiar with here on Earth -- carbon based life. Science fiction writers are fond of describing life forms based on chemical systems that we have been unable to duplicate here on Earth -- such as silicon based life or life based on the ammonium hydroxide molecule instead of on carbon. But right now these life forms are simply fantasy -- we have no evidence that they are in fact possible. Because we don’t even know what they might look like -- if they’re out there -- we necessarily have to limit our search to the kind of life that we understand.
Our kind of life -- life as we know it -- seems most likely to evolve on a planet that has a stable temperature regime. It must be at the appropriate distance from its sun so that water is neither frozen nor boiled away. The planet has to be the appropriate size so that its gravity doesn’t hold on to too much atmosphere (like Jupiter) or too little (like Mars). But the main ingredient in a life-bearing planet is its star. And its star is the only thing we can study since planets of other stars are far too faint to detect directly. The conclusion we can draw is this: The star has to be like the Sun.
Main sequence stars are basically stable for long periods of time. As shown in the table, stars in spectral class G have stable lifespans of 10 billion years (Our Sun, actually a G2V star, has a somewhat longer stable life expectancy of 11 billion years). We are about five billion years into that period so we can look forward to the Sun remaining much as it is (actually it will brighten slightly) for another six billion years. Stars of class F4 or higher have stable burning periods of less than 3.5 billion years. They have to be ruled out immediately. Such stars cannot have life-bearing planets because, at least based on our experience on our world, this is not enough time to permit highly developed biological systems to evolve on the land areas of a planet (Intelligent life may very well arise earlier in water environments, but let’s forget that possibility since we have not yet had meaningful communication with the dolphins -- highly intelligent creatures on this planet!). But we may be wrong in our estimate of life development time. There is another more compelling reason for eliminating stars of class F4 and brighter.
So far, we have assumed all stars have planets, just as our Sun does. Yet spectroscopic studies of stars of class F4 and brighter reveal that most of them are in fact unlike our Sun in a vital way -- they are rapidly rotating stars. The Sun rotates once in just under a month, but 60 percent of the stars in the F0 to F4 range rotate much faster. And almost all A stars are rapid rotators too. It seems, from recent studies of stellar evolution that slowly rotating stars like the Sun rotate slowly because they have planets. Apparently the formation of a planetary system robs the star of much of its rotational momentum (because angular momentum of the whole solar system that formed from interstellar gas and debris must be conserved ... an analogy is an ice skater that has arms extended as he/she spins, then he/she brings in arms close to the body in order to spin much faster. For a star with planets, the angular momentum is taken up by the star and its planets. For a star without planets, the angular momentum must be with the star, alone, resulting in much faster star rotation).
For two reasons, then, we eliminate stars of class F4 and above:
Another problem environment for higher forms of life is the multiple star system. About half of all stars are born in pairs, or small groups of three or more. Our Sun could have been part of a double star system. If Jupiter was 80 times more massive it would be an M6 red dwarf star. If the stars of a double system are far enough apart there is no real problem for planets sustaining life (see “Planet of the Double Sun,” September 1974). But stars in fairly close or highly elliptical orbits would alternately fry or freeze their planets. Such planets would also likely have unstable orbits. Because this is a potentially troublesome area for our objective, we will eliminate all close and moderately close pairs of systems of multiple stars.
Further elimination is necessary according to the catalogs. Some otherwise perfect stars are labeled “variable.” This means astronomers have observed variations of at least a few percent in the star’s light output. A one percent fluctuation in the Sun would be annoying for us here on Earth. Anything greater would cause climatic disaster. Could intelligent life evolve under such conditions, given an otherwise habitable planet? It seems unlikely. We are forced to “scratch” all stars suspected or proven to be variable.
This still leaves a few F stars, quite a few G stars, and hoards of K and M dwarfs. Unfortunately most of the Ks and all of the Ms are out. Let’s find out why.
These stars quite likely have planets. Indeed, one M star -- known as Barnard’s star -- is believed to almost certainly have at least one, and probably two or three, Jupiter sized planets. Peter Van de Kamp of the Sproul Observatory at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, has watched Barnard’s star for over three decades and is convinced that a “wobbling” motion of that star is due to perturbations (gravitational “pulling and pushing”) caused by its unseen planets (Earth sized planets cannot be detected in this manner).
But the planets of M stars and the K stars below K4 have two serious handicaps that virtually eliminate them from being abodes for life. First, these stars fry their planets with occasional lethal bursts of radiation emitted from erupting solar flares. The flares have the same intensity as those of our Sun, but when you put that type of flare on a little star it spells disaster for a planet that is within, say, 30 million miles. The problem is that planets have to be that close to get enough heat from these feeble suns. If they are farther out, they have frozen oceans and no life.
The close-in orbits of potential Earthlike planets of M and faint K stars produce the second dilemma -- rotational lock. An example of rotational lock is right next door to us. The moon, because of its nearness to Earth, is strongly affected by our planet’s tidal forces. Long ago our satellite stopped rotating and now has one side permanently turned toward Earth. The same principles apply to planets of small stars that would otherwise be at the right distance for moderate temperatures. If rotational lock has not yet set in, at least rotational retardation would make impossibly long days and nights (as evidenced by Mercury in our solar system).
What stars are left after all this pruning? All of the G stars remain along with F5 through F9 and K0 through K4. Stephen Dole of the Rand Corporation has made a detailed study of stars in this range and suggests we should also eliminate F5, F6 and F7 stars because they balloon to red giants before they reach an age of five billion years. Dole feels this is cutting it too fine for intelligent species to fully evolve. Admittedly this is based on our one example of intelligent life -- us. But limited though this parameter is, it is the only one we have. Dole believes the K2, K3 and K4 stars are also poor prospects because of their feeble energy output and consequently limited zone for suitable Earthlike planets.
Accepting Dole’s further trimming we are left with single, nonvariable stars from F8 through all the G-type stars to K1. What does that leave us with? Forty-six stars.
Now we are ready to plan the trip. It’s pretty obvious that Tau Ceti is our first target. After that, the choice is more difficult. We can’t take each star in order or we would be darting all over the sky. It’s something like planning a vacation trip. Let’s say we start from St. Louis and want to hit all the major cities within a 1,000 mile radius. If we go west, all we can visit is Kansas City and Denver. But northeast is a bonanza: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and more. The same principle applies to the planning of our interstellar exploration. The plot of all 46 candidate stars reveals a clumping in the direction of the constellations Cetus and Eridanus. Although this section amounts to only 13 percent of the entire sky, it contains 15 of the 46 stars, or 33 percent of the total. Luckily Tau Ceti is in this group, so that’s the direction we should go (comparable to heading northeast from St. Louis). If we plan to visit some of these solar type stars and then return to Earth, we should try to have the shortest distance between stops. It would be a waste of exploration time if we zipped randomly from one star to another.
Now we are ready to return to the map drawn by Betty Hill. Marjorie Fish reasoned that if the stars in the Hill map corresponded to a patter of real stars -- perhaps something like we just developed, only from an alien’s viewpoint -- it might be possible to pinpoint the origin of the alleged space travelers. Assuming the two stars in the foreground of the Hill map were the “base” stars (the Sun, a single star, was ruled out here), she decided to try to locate the entire pattern. She theorized that the Hill map contained only local stars since no concentration would be present if a more distant viewpoint was assumed and if both “us” and the alien visitors’ home base were to be represented.
Let’s assume, just as an astronomical exercise, that the map does show the Sun and the star that is “the sun” to the humanoids. We’ll take the Hill encounter at face value, and see where it leads.
Since the aliens were described as “humanoid” and seemed reasonably comfortable on this planet, their home planet should be basically like ours. Their atmosphere must be similar because the Hills breathed without trouble while inside the ship, and the aliens did not appear to wear any protective apparatus. And since we assume their biology is similar to ours, their planet should have the same temperature regime as Earth (Betty and Barney did say it was uncomfortably cold in the ship). In essence, then, we assume their home planet must be very Earthlike. Based on what we discussed earlier it follows that their sun would be on our list if it were within 55 light-years from us.
The lines on the map, according to Betty Hill, were described by the alien as “trade routes” or “places visited occasionally” with the dotted lines as “expeditions.” Any interpretation of the Betty Hill map must retain the logic of these routes (i.e. the lines would link stars that would be worth visiting).
Keeping all this in mind, Marjorie Fish constructed several three-dimensional models of the solar neighborhood in hopes of detecting the pattern in the Hill map. Using beads dangling on threads, she painstakingly recreated our stellar environment. Between August 1968 and February 1973, she strung beads, checked data, searched and checked again. A suspicious alignment, detected in late 1968, turned out to be almost a perfect match once new data from the detailed 1969 edition of the Catalog of Nearby Stars became available (this catalog is often called the “Gliese catalog” -- pronounced “glee-see” -- after its principal author, Wilhelm Gliese).
The following table lists all known stars within a radius of 54 light-years that are single or part of a wide multiple star system. They have no known irregularities or variabilities and are between 0.4 and 2.0 times the luminosity of the Sun. Thus, a planet basically identical to Earth could be orbiting around any one of them (Data from the Catalog of Nearby Stars, 1969 edition, by Wilhelm Gliese).
The 16 stars in the stellar configuration discovered by Marjorie Fish are compared with the map drawn by Betty Hill in the diagram on page 6. If some of the star names on the Fish map sound familiar, they should. Ten of the 16 stars are from the compact group that we selected earlier based on the most logical direction to pursue to conduct interstellar exploration from Earth. Continuing to take the Hill map at face value, the radiating pattern of “trade routes” implies that Zeta 1 Reticuli and Zeta 2 Reticuli are the “hub” of exploration or, in the context of the incident, the aliens’ home base. The Sun is at the end of one of the supposedly regular trade routes.
The pair of stars that make up Zeta Reticuli is practically in the midst of the cluster of solar type stars that attracted us while we were mapping out a logical interstellar voyage. Checking further we find that all but two of the stars in the Fish pattern are on the table of nearby solar type stars. These two stars are Tau 1 Eridani (an F6 star) and Gliese 86.1 (K2), and are, respectively, just above and below the parameters we arrived at earlier. One star that should be there (Zeta Tucanae) is missing probably because it is behind Zeta 1 Reticuli at the required viewing angle.
To summarize, then:
Walter Mitchell, professor of astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus, has looked at Marjorie Fish’s interpretation of the Betty Hill map in detail and tells us, “The more I examine it, the more I am impressed by the astronomy involved in Marjorie Fish’s work.”
During their examination of the map, Mitchell and some of his students inserted the positions of hundreds of nearby stars into a computer and had various space vistas brought up on a cathode ray tube readout. They requested the computer to put them in a position out beyond Zeta Reticuli looking toward the Sun. From this viewpoint the map pattern obtained by Marjorie Fish was duplicated with virtually no variations. Mitchell noted an important and previously unknown fact first pointed out by Ms. Fish: The stars in the map are almost in a plane; that is, they fill a wheel shaped volume of space that makes star hopping from one to another easy and the logical way to go -- and that is what is implied by the map that Betty Hill allegedly saw.
“I can find no major point of quibble with Marjorie Fish’s interpretation of the Betty Hill map,” says David R. Saunders, a statistics expert at the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago. By various lines of statistical reasoning he concludes that the chances of finding a match among 16 stars of a specific spectral type among the thousand-odd stars nearest the Sun is “at least 1,000 to 1 against.”
“The odds are about 10,000 to 1 against a random configuration matching perfectly with Betty Hill’s map,” Saunders reports. “But the star group identified by Marjorie Fish isn’t quite a perfect match, and the odds consequently reduce to about 1,000 to 1. That is, there is one chance in 1,000 that the observed degree of congruence would occur in the volume of space we are discussing.”
“In most fields of investigation where similar statistical methods are used, that degree of congruence is rather persuasive,” concludes Saunders.
Saunders, who has developed a monumental computerized catalog of more than 60,000 UFO sightings, tells us that the Hill case is not unique in its general characteristics -- there are other known cases of alleged communication with extraterrestrials. But in no other case on record have maps ever been mentioned.
Mark Steggert of the Space Research Coordination Center at the University of Pittsburgh developed a computer program that he calls PAR (for Perspective Alteration Routine) that can duplicate the appearance of star fields from various viewpoints in space.
“I was intrigued by the proposal put forth by Marjorie Fish that she had interpreted a real star pattern for the alleged map of Betty Hill. I was incredulous that models could be used to do an astronometric problem,” Steggert says. “To my surprise I found that the pattern that I derived from my program had a close correspondence to the data from Marjorie Fish.”
After several run-throughs, he confirmed the positions determined by Marjorie Fish. “I was able to locate potential areas of error, but no real errors,” Steggert concludes.
Steggert zeroed in on possibly the only real bone of contention that anyone has had with Marjorie Fish’s interpretation: The data on some of the stars may not be accurate enough for us to make definitive conclusions. For example, he says the data from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Catalog, the Royal Astronomical Society Observatory Catalog, and the Yale Catalog of Bright Stars “have differences of up to two magnitudes and differences in distance amounting to 40 percent for the star Gliese 59.” Other stars have less variations in the data from one catalog to another, but Steggert’s point is valid. The data on some of the stars in the map is just not good enough to make a definitive statement (the fact that measurements of most of the stars in question can only be made at the relatively poor equipped southern hemisphere observatories accounts for the less reliable data).
Using information on the same 15 stars from the Royal Observatory catalog (Annals #5), Steggert reports that the pattern does come out differently because of the different data, and Gliese 59 shows the largest variation. The Gliese catalog uses photometric, trigonometric and spectroscopic parallaxes and derives a mean from all three after giving various mathematical weights to each value. “The substantial variation in catalog material is something that must be overcome,” says Steggert. “This must be the next step in attempting to evaluate the map.”
This point of view is shared by Jeffrey L. Kretsch, an undergraduate student who is working under the advisement of J. Allen Hynek at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Like Steggert, he too checked Marjorie Fish’s pattern and found no error in the work. But Kretsch reports that when he reconstructed the pattern using trigonometric distance measurements instead of the composite measures in the Gliese catalog, he found enough variations to move Gliese 95 above the line between Gliese 86 and Tau 1 Eridani.
“The data for some of the stars seems to be very reliable, but a few of the pattern stars are not well observed and data on them is somewhat conflicting,” says Kretsch. The fact that the pattern is less of a “good fit” using data from other sources leads Kretsch and others to wonder what new observations would do. Would they give a closer fit? Or would the pattern become distorted? Marjorie Fish was aware of the catalog variations, but has assumed the Gliese catalog is the most reliable source material to utilize.
Is the Gliese catalog the best available data source. According to several astronomers who specialize in stellar positions, it probably is. Peter Van de Kamp says, “It’s first rate. There is none better.” He says the catalog was compiled with extensive research and care over many years.
A lot of the published trigonometric parallaxes on the stars beyond 30 light-years are not as accurate as they could be, according to Kyle Cudworth of Yerkes Observatory. “Gliese added other criteria to compensate and lessen the possible errors,” he says.
The scientific director of the U.S. Naval Observatory, K.A. Strand, is among the world’s foremost authorities on stellar distances for nearby stars. He believes the Gliese catalog “is the most complete and comprehensive source available.”
Frank B. Salisbury of the University of Utah has also examined the Hill and Fish maps. “The pattern of stars discovered by Marjorie Fish fits the map drawn by Betty Hill remarkably well. It’s a striking coincidence and forces one to take the Hill story more seriously,” he says. Salisbury is one of the few scientists who has spent some time on the UFO problem and has written a book and several articles on the subject. A professor of plant physiology, his biology expertise has been turned to astronomy on several occasions while studying the possibility of biological organisms existing on Mars.
Salisbury insists that while psychological factors do play an important role in UFO phenomena, the Hill story does represent one of the most credible reports of incredible events. The fact that the story and the map came to light under hypnosis is good evidence that it actually took place. “But it is not unequivocal evidence,” he cautions.
Elaborating on this aspect of the incident, Mark Steggert offers this: “I am inclined to question the ability of Betty, under posthypnotic suggestion, to duplicate the pattern two years after she saw it. She noted no grid lines on the pattern for reference. Someone should (or perhaps has already) conduct a test to see how well a similar patter could be recalled after a substantial period of time. The stress she was under at the time is another unknown factor.”
“The derivation of the base data by hypnotic techniques is perhaps not as “far out” as it may seem,” says Stanton Friedman. “Several police departments around the country use hypnosis on rape victims in order to get descriptions of the assailants -- descriptions that would otherwise remain repressed. The trauma of such circumstances must be comparable in some ways to the Hill incident.”
Is it at all possible we are faced with a hoax?
“Highly unlikely,” says Salisbury -- and the other investigators agree. One significant fact against a charade is that the data from the Gliese catalog was not published until 1969, five years after the star map was drawn by Betty Hill. Prior to 1969, the data could only have been obtained from the observatories conducting research on the specific stars in question. It is not uncommon for astronomers not to divulge their research data -- even to their colleagues -- before it appears in print. In general, the entire sequence of events just does not smell of falsification. Coincidence, possibly; hoax, improbable.
Where does all this leave us? Are there creatures inhabiting a planet of Zeta 2 Reticuli? Did they visit Earth in 1961? The map indicates that the Sun has been “visited occasionally.” What does that mean? Will further study and measurement of the stars in the map change their relative positions and thus distort the configuration beyond the limits of coincidence? The fact that the entire incident hinges on a map drawn under less than normal circumstances certainly keeps us from drawing a firm conclusion. Exobiologists are united in their opinion that the chance of us having neighbors so similar to us, apparently located so close, is vanishingly small. But then, we don’t even know for certain if there is anybody at all out there -- anywhere -- despite the Hill map and pronouncements of the most respected scientists.
The only answer is to continue the search. Someday, perhaps soon, we will know.
Hypothetical Voyage To Nearby Solar Type Stars
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THE VIEW FROM ZETA RETICULI
The two stars that comprise the Zeta Reticuli system are almost identical to the Sun. They are the only known examples of two solar type stars apparently linked into a binary star system of wide separation.
Zeta 1 Reticuli is separated from Zeta 2 Reticuli by at least 350 billion miles -- about 100 times the Sun-Pluto distance. They may be even farther apart, but the available observations suggest they are moving through space together and are therefore physically associated. They probably require at least 100,000 years to orbit around their common center of gravity.
Both Zeta 1 Reticuli and Zeta 2 Reticuli are prime candidates for the search for life beyond Earth. According to our current theories of planetary formation, they both should have a retinue of planets something like our solar system. As yet there is no way of determining if any of the probable planets of either star is similar to Earth.
To help visualize the Zeta Reticuli system, let’s take the Sun’s nine planets and put them in identical orbits around Zeta 2 Reticuli. From a celestial mechanics standpoint there is no reason why this situation could not exist. Would anything be different? Because of Zeta 2 Reticuli’s slightly smaller mass as compared with the Sun, the planets would orbit a little more slowly. Our years might have 390 days, for example. Zeta 2 Reticuli would make a fine sun -- slightly dimmer than “Old Sol”, but certainly capable of sustaining life. The big difference would not be our new sun but the superstar of the night sky. Shining like a polished gem, Zeta 1 Reticuli would be the dazzling highlight of the night sky -- unlike anything we experience here on Earth. At magnitude -9 it would appear as a starlike point 100 times brighter than Venus. It would be like compressing all the light from the first quarter moon into a point source.
Zeta 1 Reticuli would have long ago been the focus of religions, mythology and astrology if it were in earthly skies. The fact that it would be easily visible in full daylight would give Zeta 1 Reticuli supreme importance to both early civilizations and modern man. Shortly after the invention of the telescope astronomers would be able to detect Jupiter and Saturn sized planets orbiting around Zeta 1. Jupiter would be magnitude +12, visible up to 4.5 minutes of arc from Zeta 1 Reticuli (almost as far as Ganymede swings from Jupiter). It would not make a difficult target for an eight inch telescope. Think of the incentive that discovery would have on interstellar space travel! For hundreds of years we would be aware of another solar system just a few “light-weeks” away. The evolution of interstellar spaceflight would be rapid, dynamic and inevitable.
By contrast, our nearest solar type neighbor is Tau Ceti at 12 light-years. Even today we only suspect it is accompanied by a family of planets, but we don’t know for sure.
From this comparison of our planetary system with those of Zeta Reticuli, it is clear that any emerging technologically advanced intelligent life would probably have great incentive to achieve star flight. The knowledge of a nearby system of planets of a solar type star would be compelling -- at least it would certainly seem to be.
What is so strange -- and this question prompted us to prepare this article -- is: Why, of all stars, does Zeta Reticuli seem to fit as the hub of a map that appeared inside a spacecraft that allegedly landed on Earth in 1961? Some of the circumstances surrounding the whole incident are certainly bizarre, but not everything can be written off as coincidence or hallucination. It may be optimistic, on one extreme, to hope that our neighbors are as near as 37 light-years away. For the moment we will be satisfied with considering it an exciting possibility.
The lead article in the December 1974 issue of ASTRONOMY, entitled “The Zeta Reticuli Incident,” centered on interpretation of a map allegedly seen inside an extraterrestrial spacecraft. The intent of the article was to expose to our readers a rare instance where astronomical techniques have been used to analyze a key element in a so-called “close encounter” UFO incident. While not claiming that the analysis of the map was proof of a visit by extraterrestrials, we feel the astronomical aspects of the case are sufficiently intriguing to warrant wide dissemination and further study. The following notes contain detailed follow-up commentary and information directly related to that article.
THE AGE OF NEARBY STARS
By Jeffrey L. Kretsch
The age of our own Sun is known with some accuracy largely because we live on one of its planets. Examination of Earth rocks -- and, more recently, rocks and soil from the moon -- has conclusively shown that these two worlds went through their initial formation 4.6 billion years ago. The formation of the Sun and planets is believed to have been virtually simultaneous, with the Sun’s birth producing the planetary offspring.
But we have yet to travel to any other planet -- and certainly a flight to the surface of a planet of a nearby star is an event no one reading this will live to witness. So direct measurement of the ages of nearby stars -- as a by-product of extrasolar planetary exploration -- is a distant future enterprise. We are left with information obtained from our vantage point here near Earth. There is lots of it -- so let’s find out what it is and what it can tell us.
When we scan the myriad stars of the night sky, are we looking at suns that have just ignited their nuclear fires -- or have they been flooding the galaxy with light for billions of years? The ages of the stars are among the most elusive stellar characteristics. Now, new interpretation of data collected over the past half century is shedding some light on this question.
Computer models of stellar evolution reveal that stars have definite lifespans, thus, a certain type of star cannot be older than its maximum predicted lifespan. Solar type stars of spectral class F5 or higher (hotter) cannot be older than our Sun is today. These stars’ nuclear fires burn too rapidly to sustain them for a longer period, and they meet an early death.
All main sequence stars cooler than F5 can be as old or older than the Sun. Additionally, these stars are also much more likely to have planets than the hotter suns.
There are several exciting reasons why the age of a star should be tracked down. Suppose we have a star similar to the Sun (below class F5). If we determine how old the star is, we can assume its planets are the same age -- a fascinating piece of information that suggests a host of questions: Would older Earthlike planets harbor life more advanced than us? Is there anything about older or younger stars and planets that would make them fundamentally different from the Sun and Earth?
Of course we don’t know the answer to the first question, but it is provocative. The answer to the second question seems to be yes (according to the evidence that follows).
To best illustrate the methods of star age determination and their implications, let’s select a specific problem. “The Zeta Reticuli Incident” sparked more interest among our readers than any other single article in ASTRONOMY Magazine’s history. Essentially, that article drew attention to a star map allegedly seen inside an extraterrestrial spacecraft. The map was later deciphered by Marjorie Fish, now a research assistant at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
In her analysis, Ms. Fish linked all 16 prominent stars in the original map (which we’ll call the Hill map since it was drawn by Betty Hill in 1966) to 15 real stars in the southern sky. The congruence was remarkable. The 15 stars -- for convenience we will call them the Fish-Hill pattern stars -- are listed on the accompanying table.
Since these stars have been a focus of attention due to Ms. Fish’s work and the article mentioned above, we will examine them specifically to see if enough information is available to pin down their ages and (possibly) other characteristics. This will be our case study star group.
All the stars listed here are main sequence or spectral group V stars. Tau Ceti has a slight peculiarity in its spectrum as explained in the text. W velocity is the star’s motion in km/sec in a direction above (+) or below (-) in the galactic plane. Total space velocity relative to the Sun is also in km/sec. Data is from the Gliese Catalog of Nearby Stars (1969 edition).
Consider, for example, the velocities of these stars in space. It is now known that the composition and the age of a star shows a reasonably close correlation with that star’s galactic orbit. The understanding of this correlation demands a little knowledge of galactic structure.
Our galaxy, as far as we are concerned, consists essentially of two parts -- the halo, and the disk. Apparently when the galaxy first took shape about 10 billion years ago, it was a colossal sphere in which the first generation of stars emerged. These stars -- those that remain today, anyway -- define a spherical or halolike cloud around the disk shaped Milky Way galaxy. Early in the galaxy’s history, it is believed that the interstellar medium had a very low metal content because most of the heavy elements (astronomers call any element heavier than helium “heavy” or a “metal”) are created in the cores of massive stars which then get released into the interstellar medium by stellar winds, novae and supernovae explosions. Few such massive stars had “died” to release their newly made heavy elements. Thus, the stars which formed early (called Population II stars) tend to have a spherical distribution about the center of the galaxy and are generally metal-poor.
A further gravitational collapse occurred as the galaxy flattened out into a disk, and a new burst of star formation took place. Since this occurred later and generations of stars had been born and died to enrich the interstellar medium with heavy elements, these disk stars have a metal-rich composition compared to the halo stars. Being in the disk, these Population I stars (the Sun, for example) tended to have motions around the galactic core in a limited plane -- something like the planets of the Solar System.
Population II stars -- with their halo distribution -- usually have more random orbits which cut through the Population I hoards in the galactic plane. A star’s space velocity perpendicular to the galactic plane is called its W velocity. Knowing the significance of the W velocity, one can apply this information to find out about the population classification and hence the ages and compositions of stars in the solar neighborhood -- the Fish-Hill stars in particular.
High W velocity suggests a Population II star, and we find that six of the 16 stars are so classified while the remaining majority are of Population I. A further subdivision can be made using the W velocity data. The results are shown in the table below.
According to this classification system (based on one by A. Blaauw), most of the 16 stars are in the same class as the Sun -- implying that they are roughly of the same composition and age as the Sun. The Sun would seem to be a natural unit for use in comparing the chemical compositions and ages of the stars of the Fish-Hill pattern because it is, after all, the standard upon which we base our selection of stars capable of supporting life.
Three stars (Gliese 59, 67 and 68) are known as Old Population I and are almost certainly younger than the Sun. They also probably have a higher metal content than the Sun, although specific data is not available. The Disk Population II stars are perhaps two to four billion years older than the Sun, while the Intermediate Population II are believed to be a billion or two years older still.
For main sequence stars like the Sun, as all these stars are, it is generally believed that after the star is formed and settled on the main sequence no mixing between the outer layers and the thermo-nuclear core occurs. Thus the composition of the outer layers of a star (from which we receive the star’s light), must have essentially the same composition as the interstellar medium out of which the star and its planets were formed.
Terrestrial planets are composed primarily of heavy elements. The problem is: If there is a shortage of heavy elements in the primeval nebula, would terrestrial planets be able to form? At present, theories of planetary formation are unable to state for certain what the composition of the cloud must be in order for terrestrial planets to materialize, although it is agreed to be unlikely that Population II stars should have terrestrial planets. But for objects somewhere between Population I and II -- especially Disk Population II -- no one really knows.
Although we can’t be certain of determining whether a star of intermediate metal deficiencies can have planets or not, we can make certain of the existence of metal deficiencies in those stars. The eccentricities and inclinations of the galactic orbits of the Fish-Hill stars provide the next step in the information sequence.
The table above also shows that the stars Gliese 136, 138, 139, 86 and 71 have the highest eccentricities and inclinations in their galactic orbits. This further supports the Population II nature of these four stars. According to B.E.J. Pagel of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, the correlation between eccentricity and the metal/hydrogen ratio is better than that between the W-velocity and the metal/hydrogen ratio. It is interesting to see how closely the values of eccentricity seem to correspond with Population type as derived from W velocity -- Old Population I objects having the lowest values. Since the two methods give similar results, we can lend added weight to our classification.
So far all the evidence for metal deficiencies has been suggestive; no direct evidence has been given. However, specific data can be obtained from spectroscopic analysis. The system for which the best set of data exists also happens to be one of the most important stars of the pattern, Zeta 1 Reticuli. In 1966, J.D. Danziger of Harvard University published results of work he had done on Zeta 1 Reticuli using wide-scan spectroscopy. He did indeed find metal deficiencies in the star: carbon, 0.2, compared to our Sun; magnesium, 0.4; calcium, 0.5; titanium, 0.4; chromium, 0.3; manganese, 0.4; iron, 0.4; cobalt, 0.4; nickel, 0.2, and so on.
In spite of the possible error range of about 25 percent, there is a consistent trend of metal deficiencies -- with Zeta 1 Reticuli having less than half the heavy elements per unit mass that the Sun does. Because Zeta 1 Reticuli has common proper motion and parallax with Zeta 2 Reticuli, it probably also has the same composition. Work done by M.E. Dixon of the University of Edinburgh showing the two stars to have virtually identical characteristics tends to support this.
The evidence that the Zeta Reticuli system is metal deficient is definite. From this knowledge of metal deficiency and the velocities and eccentricities, we can safely conclude that the Zeta Reticuli system is older than the Sun. The question of terrestrial planets being able to form remains open.
The other two stars which have high velocities and eccentricities are 82 Eridani (Gliese 139) and Gliese 86. Because the velocities of these stars are higher than those of Zeta Reticuli, larger metal deficiencies might be expected. For the case of Gliese 86, no additional information is presently available. However, some theoretical work has been done on 82 Eridani concerning metal abundances by J. Hearnshaw of France’s Meudon Observatory.
Although 82 Eridani is a high velocity star, its orbit lies largely within the galactic plane, and also within the solar orbit. Its orbit is characteristic of the Old Disk Population, and an ultraviolet excess indicates only a mild metal deficiency compared to the Sun. Hearnshaw’s conclusions indicate that the metal deficiency does not appear to be any worse than that of the Zeta Reticuli pair. Because Gliese 86 has a velocity, eccentricity and inclination similar to 82 Eridani, it seems likely that its chemical composition may also not have severe metal deficiencies, but be similar to those of 82 Eridani.
Tau Ceti appears to be very much like the Sun except for slight deficiencies of most metals in rarely seen abnormal abundances of magnesium, titanium, silicon and calcium. Stars in this class are known as alpha-rich stars, but such properties do not appear to make Tau Ceti unlikely to have planets similar to the Sun’s.
Tau 1 Eridani, an F6V star, has a life expectancy of 4.5 billion years -- so it cannot be older than the Sun. The low eccentricities and low moderate velocity support an age and composition near that of the Sun.
Gliese 67 is a young star of at least solar metal abundances, considering its low velocity and eccentricity.
Having covered most of the stars either directly or simply by classifying them among the different Population classes, it is apparent that there is a wide age range among different stars of this group as well as a range of compositions. It is curious that the stars connected by the alleged “trade routes” (solid lines) are the older and occasionally metal deficient ones -- while the stars connected by dotted lines seem to be younger Population I objects.
A final point concerning the metal deficiencies is rather disturbing. Even though terrestrial planets might form about either star in the Zeta Reticuli system, there is a specific deficiency in carbon to well within the error range. This is disturbing because carbon is the building block of organic molecule chains. There is no way of knowing whether life on Earth would have emerged and evolved as far as it has if carbon were not as common here.
Another problem: If planets formed but lacked large quantities of useful industrial elements, could a technical civilization arise? If the essential elements were scarce or locked up in chemical compounds, then an advanced technology would be required to extract them. But the very shortage of these elements in the first place might prevent this technology from being realized. The dolphins are an example of an intelligent but nontechnical race. They do not have the means to develop technology. Perhaps some land creatures on another planet are in a comparable position by not having the essential elements for technological development (this theme is explored in detail in “What Chariots of Which Gods?,” August 1974).
This whole speculation certainly is not strong enough to rule out the Fish interpretation of the Hill map given our present state of knowledge. Actually in some respects, the metal deficiencies support the Fish hypothesis because they support an advanced age for several of the stars -- suggesting that if cultures exist in these star systems, they might well be advanced over our own.
The fact that none of the stars in the pattern is seriously metal deficient (especially the vital branch high velocity stars 82 Eridani and Gliese 86) is an encouragement to the Fish interpretation -- if terrestrial planets can form in the first place and give rise to technical civilizations. Once again we are confronted with evidence which seems to raise as many questions as it answers. But the search for answers to such questions certainly can only advance knowledge of our cosmic environment.
Jeffrey L. Kretsch is an astronomy student at Northwestern University working under the advisement of Dr. J. Allen Hynek. For more than a year Kretsch has been actively pursuing follow-up studies to the astronomical aspects of the Fish-Hill map. More of his studies and comments appear in In Focus.