An expedition of Russian researchers claims to have found evidence that an alien spaceship had something to do with a huge explosion over Siberia in 1908. Experts in asteroids and comets have long said the massive blast was caused by a space rock.
The new ET claim is "a rather stupid hoax," one scientist said today. And it's one with a rich history.
The latest claim was written up by news wires and was making the Internet rounds Thursday morning. According to Agence France Presse, the scientists say they've found "an extra-terrestrial device" that explains "one of the 20th Century's biggest scientific mysteries," a catastrophe that flattened some 800 square miles of Siberian forest in a region called Tunguska.
Various other news reports told of a "technical device" and "a large block made with metal." The researchers were said to chip a piece off for laboratory study.
Most scientists think the Siberian devastation was caused by a large meteorite which, instead of hitting the ground, exploded above the surface.
'Plan to uncover evidence'
The Russian research team is called the Tunguska Space Phenomenon foundation and is led by Yuri Labvin. He said in late July that an expedition to the scene would seek evidence that aliens were involved.
"We intend to uncover evidences that will prove the fact that it was not a meteorite that rammed the Earth, but a UFO," Labvin was quoted by the Russian newspaper Pravda on July 29.
"I'm afraid this is a rather stupid hoax," said Benny Peiser, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. "The Russian team stupidly stated long before they went to Siberia that the main intention of their expedition was to find the remnants of an 'alien spaceship!' And bingo! A week later, that's what they claim to have found."
Peiser studies catastrophic events and related scientific processes and media reports. He runs an electronic newsletter, CCNet, which is among the most comprehensive running catalogues on the subject.
"It's a rather sad comment on the current state of the anything-goes attitudes among some 'science' correspondents that such blatant rubbish is being reported -- without the slightest hint of skepticism," Peiser told SPACE.com.
Asteroid experts don't have all the answers for what happened at Tunguska. There were few witnesses in the remote region and the explosion left no crater.
But the available evidence, along with modern computer modeling and general knowledge of space rocks, leaves little doubt in most scientific minds as to what happened.
Author Roy Gallant spent 10 years investigating the scene of the event for his book, "Meteorite Hunter: The Search for Siberian Meteorite Craters" (McGraw-Hill, 2002).
In an interview with SPACE.com when the book was published, Gallant said scientists are gathering "accumulating evidence tending to support the notion that the exploding object was a comet nucleus. This is the collective opinion of most Russian investigators; although some say they cannot confidently rule out a stony asteroid."
Peiser said there is a "general consensus" among experts worldwide that the culprit was an exploding comet or asteroid.
"Not surprisingly, the blast did not leave any remains of the object intact," Peiser said. "However, researchers claim to have found evidence of increased levels of cosmic dust particles in Greenland ice cores which are dated to 1908 and which they link to the Tunguska event of the same year."
Speculation about aliens and Tunguska go way back. And there is a reason: No other visitor from space -- natural or otherwise -- has had such a well-documented impact on daily life in modern history.
The explosion on June 30, 1908 was equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT.
"Witnesses twenty to forty miles from the impact point experienced a sudden thermal blast that could be felt through several layers of clothing," writes Jim Oberg in "UFOs & Outer Space Mysteries" (Donning Press, 1984). The blast was recorded as an earthquake at several weather stations in Siberia."
In Europe, it didn't get dark that night. People said they could read the newspaper by the light of the mysterious blast, Oberg reports. Telescope operators in America noticed degraded sky conditions for months.
No crater was found, and wild speculation ensued.
Struck by the similarity of Tunguska and Hiroshima decades later, a science fiction writer named Kazantsev wrote a story in which the Tunguska blast was the exploding nuclear power plant of a spaceship from Mars, according to Oberg.
A few Russian scientists took up the cause and claimed to find various bits of evidence -- never substantiated -- for a civilized alien explanation. Oberg wrote in 1984 that even then, as evidence built for a natural cause, a handful of "spaceship buffs seem to have grown more desperate, but no less effective, in corralling the public's attention." He said annually some unsuspecting journalist would stumble on the claims and write about them, setting off a fresh round of public speculation.
On that front, little has changed since 1984.
Astronomer Philip Plait, author of the myth-debunking book Bad Astronomy (Wiley & Sons, 2002), agrees with Peiser that the Russian researchers intention for finding ET-evidence hurts their case.
"They are not undertaking a scientific expedition, that is, an unbiased investigation to see what happened," Plait said Thursday via e-mail. "They are going to try to prove their preconceived ideas. That's not science, that's religion. And it almost certainly means that they are more willing to ignore or play down any evidence that it was a comet or rock impact, while playing up anything they find consistent with their hypothesis."
Whatever anyone believes, Plait points out that proof is what's important.
"I am not saying they didn't find an alien ship. I am saying that it's a) unlikely in the extreme, and b) they are predisposed to make such claims, which means we need to be very skeptical, even more so than usual in such cases. If they provide sufficient evidence, then scientists are obligated to investigate, of course. But given everything I've read, their evidence to even consider a non-natural cause is pretty weak."
Plait has even thought about what evidence might be necessary. A chunk of debris would help, but not just any sort of material.
"It would need a weird ratio of isotopes, for examples, or clear evidence of long duration space travel," he said. "Even then they must be careful; manmade space debris rains down on Earth all the time."
Plait, a naturally skeptical person, is willing to wait and see.
"Let's see what these guys bring back," he said. "In the end, it's not what they can claim but what they can support with factual evidence that counts. The burden of proof is clearly -- and heavily-- on them."
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