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Current debate:

Soho space probe pictures, UFO proof? - Not so fast pease:

Introduction:

This is a somehow real time effort to gather information and latest news on a current affair. I am simply trying to be both open minded and to exert critical sense.

It begins like this:

Graham W. Birdsall, Publisher of UFO Magazine (UK), communicates on http://www.ufomag.co.uk/euroseti.htm that for the past two years, hundreds of extraordinary UFO-like images have been gleaned by a Spanish-based team using two space-based satellites and which defy explanation.

A full-page advertisement in the January 2003 issue of UFO Magazine refers to an event taking place on the weekend of 24-27 January, when "some extraordinary satellite images of anomalous objects will be screened at the National Space Centre in Leicester." The screenings will be held on the evenings of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with each commencing at 7.30pm.

The page says that "NASA initially tried to explain the images away as pixel faults, passing meteors or asteroids, etc., but when a European-led consortium presented them with images that clearly were none of the aforementioned, they 'clamped up'."

Further developments:

On January 15, a few web news portals mention the event with headings such as "Space centre to screen 'proof of UFOs'." We learn that the pictures have been captured from the SoHo science satellite by a private satellite dish of an unnamed Spanish businessman.

Mike Murray, a founder of the UFO group Euroseti, which is holding the exhibition at the Space Centre in Leicester, said: "Some of the pictures are real crackers. They are the archetypal flying saucers - disc-shaped objects with some kind of glow around them. Many have a pulsing light and leave a trail behind them."

Several newspaper provide essentially the same information, generally with catchy headlines.

On January 17, newspaper The Birmingham Post has a very different headline: "Alien 'Proof' Rejected As Hype."

Their introduction suggest that there is 1 object; whereas Euroseti has announced that they will present hundreds of pictures of many alleged objects. Obviously, the newspaper has not looked at the complete set, whether it exists or not. This unique object is explained as being an overexposed planet. The article quotes Professor George Simnett, head of a university's space research group, as having dismissed "the hype surrounding the claims" as "nonsense."

The professor adds:

"The digital technology inside our instruments and camera is similar to those in domestic digital cameras, so instead of images being saved on film they are captured on a charged couple device. If the CCD is saturated at a given point, for example with too much light, it causes an elongation of image with a bright white spot at the centre, which is a characteristic of over-exposure. The image seen in various newspapers is of an over-exposed planet - it is not a UFO."

And:

"This story that these pictures are of alien craft is just nonsense. The people at the National Space Centre should know better than this as well. It's my camera, my instruments that have taken these pictures, and I know what it's capable of seeing. We understand perfectly how these images are filmed and what they appear to be - and they are not UFOs or alien crafts."

The article uses an impersonal tone all over: the pictures, they write "were thought to be proof of alien ships in space." By whom? That is left at our guess, but I fear that if they are explained as trivial non-UFO related phenomena, media will claim that ufologists, that is, ALL ufologists, are crackpots.

Bill Murray's opinion is quoted as: "I think it's absolutely irrefutable that this couldn't be anything other than a machine. It's an astonishing picture."

In another newspaper article, I read that Bill Murray's point is that the objects in the photographs are moving fast. If so, whatever they are, they are obviously not "an overexposed planet."

Personal notes, a journal:

As of January 18, I note that:

On web news sites, a picture is shown, which is possibly the one the article refers to:

Obviously, any discussion on my part would at this point be totally vain: I first need the complete set of pictures, with all related data in particular motion/timing data. The first public exhibition of the pictures is scheduled for January 24. Before seeing the full exhibition, nothing very certain should be concluded. In particular, the claim that the pictures are proof of extraterrestrial spacecraft presence should not be accepted as established proof and remains a claim. Also:

I need to add this:

A number of SoHo videos were available all over the place on various Soho web site long ago (*). I looked at them at the time, because a low-credibility group claimed that they include UFOs. It was so obvious to me that they were:

My advice is, for what it's worth let's wait for the Euroseti material and check what it shows then.

(*) for example http://zeus.nascom.nasa.gov/~pbrekke/soho/spaceweather/
http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/2001_04_15/slower/
http://lasco-www.nrl.navy.mil/lasco.html#info

As of January 19, I note that:

The BBC web site has an article of January 15, on http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/2662059.stm
It adds no new details to the case.

As of January 22, I note that:

On the BBC web site, some pictures are displayed:

SoHo

I note that on these few images, the "archetypal flying saucers" mentioned by Mike Murray are systematically "horizontal." Then, there are two possibilities:

  • either Euroseti has rotated and cropped the pictures so that the "saucers" appear aligned with the picture frame, which is unjustified image manipulation,
  • or, if Euroseti has only images of this nature to display then the explanation is a CCD saturation problem, which typically creates such horizontal artefacts around stars or comets (and maybe UFOs, but this is not reasonable here.)

I had written that I should wait for the full availability of the images with the related data before emitting some opinion. However, if the integrality of Euroseti's "proof" is only this type of images, with the horizontal CCD saturation mark and out of matter "enhancements" and "enlargements," then the only proof which is brought here is that of a great lack of competence. It is indeed easy enough to show such pictures to a video expert to get the clue I give here about the real nature of the so-called "archetypal flying saucers."

SoHo
SoHo

As of January 25, I note that:

Euroseti claimed that NASA refused to discuss the SoHo images. This is not true anymore. On http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/ NASA has given his comment on the Euroseti claims. You may want to check their original page which contains:

Hot Shots from SOHO
How to Make Your Own UFO

Hot Shots from the past can be found here [http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/pastshots.html]. Permanent link to this this story [http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/hotshots/2003_01_17/].

ORIGINAL:
Cut-out of full-size, full-res EIT image EIT 195 ┼ image from 2001/01/18 at 16:24 UT, taken from the public SOHO archive, with standard processing & color table. The box highlights a cosmic ray hit.
STEP 1:
Further cut-out, showing the cosmic ray pixels highlighed on the image to the left, with a little different color scaling.
STEP 2:
Still the same data, but interpolated (using one of a zillion possible methods) instead of simply resampled as the previous one.
STEP 3:
Voila! Finally, after a "touch-up" of the color table, we have what may look like a nice UFO with a glow and exhaust fumes!

See how the same image, having gone through a strikingly similar "enhancement" is used to "prove" the existence of UFOs, in pitches resulting in e.g. this newspaper article (Perth Sunday Times (Australia), 2003/01/19, p. 44). Yes, this was a picture from SOHO, but didn't show any UFO! We believe similar "enhancements", possibly starting with other types of image artifacts (see below for details), are behind all of the recently published "UFO proof" claims. Claims without the time and date of the picture[s] are close to worthless, because the data processing cannot be verified by others.

Caption: Ever since launch, there's been a number of people who've projected their fantasies onto the SOHO images, seeing flying saucers and other esoteric objects. Mostly, we're just amused by the unfounded claims, but in recent days, we've been receiving so many questions and claims that we'd like to set the record straight: We've never seen anything that even suggests that there are UFOs "out there". That is, to our (trained) eyes. While we don't expect to convince a single dedicated UFOlogist (give them an explanation, and it's a cover-up, give them no comment, and it's "clamming up"), we hope that this page (and links herein) can provide some information for the curious who want to investigate the claims on their own.

Most commonly, UFO claims are due to perfectly natural flaws or artifacts in our publicly available data. Quoting from one of the replies sent by a SOHO scientist in response to a question from the public:

The most common sources of UFO claims are:

Planets: These always look very strange in LASCO images, because they're so bright that the image blooms, and the CCD pixels bleed along the readout rows. Some people try to claim that they're flying saucers, based on their appearance. I've also heard the claim that they're previously unknown Saturn-like planets with rings around them. You can see what I'm talking about on this SOHO Hot Shot page.

Cosmic rays: High energy particles from the solar wind, and from the galaxy as a whole, whip around the SOHO spacecraft and interact with the detectors. These produce spots and streaks on the detector ranging from a single pixel, to large streaks that span a large fraction of the image. These are most evident during a solar storm, as can be seen on this Hot Shot page, but are always present at some level. I know that some people have claimed that they've seen spacecraft-looking things that seem to be moving around, but which are obviously cosmic rays when examined by an experienced observer. People see a cosmic ray at one location in one image, and then another random cosmic ray hit nearby in the next image, and claim they're both the same thing moving between frames.

Sometimes you'll see a cosmic ray seem to persist in the web images for two or more frames. This is because we lose a certain percentage of the data coming down from the spacecraft. In LASCO such losses appear as square blocks in the image. The software which puts the images up on the web will fill in these blocks from the last good image, and if there's a cosmic ray in that block from the previous image, it will appear in this image as well. The way to check for this is to look at the raw data files, which are also available on the web through the SOHO catalog interface.

Software glitches: Occasionally we'll have some problems with the software which produce the images for the web, and strange artifacts will appear in the data. These glitches are usually corrected within a few days. In fact, we had a couple of instances of that recently.

Detector defects: There are defects which appear in the cameras from time to time, sometimes temporary and sometimes permanent. I remember seeing a web site which claimed that strange lights were hovering over the lower left limb of the Sun in EIT images, and thought to myself "You only just noticed that?". Those defects have been around forever, and were seen in the lab even before SOHO was launched.

Debris: Small pieces of aging insulation on the outside of the spacecraft, dust particles, micrometeorites etc can show up in pictures. Visit the LASCO Debris Lists and Images page for more details.

On the general subject of UFO claims from SOHO images, one should be aware that a lot of the supposed UFO pictures taken by SOHO have been modified by the proponents. For example, looking at the image that is distributed with the news release for the upcoming UFO conference, it's obvious that the picture is taken from a tiny number of pixels in the camera, and then passed through some kind of smoothing filter to make it look like a craft with rounded edges. They should at least have the courage to show the actual data, and not something which has been manipulated in Photoshop. In the example above, where the original image was "revealed" through the timestamp, we have shown how easy it can be to manipulate pictures into showing UFO-like features.

That all said, it should be noted that we do see objects moving in SOHO images. Over 500 comets have been discovered in SOHO images, most by amateurs using LASCO data which have been downloaded from the web. That's more comets than from any other observatory, either from the ground or in space. People are looking for moving objects in these pictures all the time, and are highly motivated to find them. None of them have ever turned out to be anything other than comets. More about comets observed by SOHO on this SOHO Hot Shot page.

Credits: Newspaper article from Perth Sunday Times (Australia; not affiliated with the UK newspaper The Sunday Times). Many thanks to those who contributed their time & and resources to this article. The EIT image credit is "SOHO/EIT (ESA & NASA).

So NASA basically confirms what I had written on January 22 (see above):

"However, if the integrality of Euroseti's "proof" is only this type of images, with the horizontal CCD saturation mark and out of matter "enhancements" and "enlargements," then the only proof which is brought here is that of a great lack of competence."

The NASA article is a good answer to public's questions about the Euroseti claims, as long as they discuss the claims. They are right.

However, it is unfortunate that they comment on ufologists in such a manner that the public will be convinced that all ufologists are idiots:

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This page was last updated on January 25, 2003