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6 Weirdly Gripping Space Stories That Are Actually True

If the idea of being on the far side of the moon and hearing eerie "music" scares you, look away now.

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1. That time we found a signal from space that ~might have been~ aliens.

bigear.org

It was August 1977 and astronomer Jerry Ehman was looking through computer readouts from a telescope tasked with searching for possible alien signals when something rare happened: He actually found something.

The Big Ear telescope, based at Ohio State University, had been pointing at a star called Chi Sagittarii as part of an experiment to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).

Ehman was volunteering with the SETI programme at the time, and one evening he was poring over the printouts when saw a string of numbers and letters: "6EQUJ5".

To this day that sequence is considered by many to be the best candidate for an extraterrestrial signal we've ever seen.

Named the "Wow! signal" after what Ehman wrote on the printout, it was a burst of narrowband radio waves at a frequency of 1,420 megahertz. For the most part, natural sources, like galaxies and stars, are what's called "wideband" radio sources. "Narrowband" sources, like the signal Ehman had found, tend to be human made.

In the years since, people have tried to explain it in various ways. In fact, last year, astronomer Antonio Paris of St Petersburg College, Florida, did come up with a more run-of-the-mill explanation. He found two comets, called 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs and not discovered until years later, that would have been in the observing area on the night the Wow! signal was recorded. Comets tend to release a lot of hydrogen, and 1,420 megahertz is one of the main frequencies with which atoms of hydrogen absorb and emit energy. But the jury is still out on whether this explanation fits.

2. That time Apollo astronauts heard weird, "outer-space-type music" on the far side of the moon.

NASA

In 1969, three Apollo 10 astronauts were orbiting the moon, two in a lunar module just miles above the surface, and one in the command module higher up, when they heard something unusual. Their conversation, as preserved in NASA's archives, went like this:

"That music even sounds outer-spacey, doesn't it? You hear that? That whistling sound?" said Eugene Cernan, the lunar module pilot.

"Yes," said Thomas Stafford, mission commander.

"Whoooooo. Say your..." began Cernan.

"Did you hear that whistling sound, too?" asked John Young, command module pilot.

"Yes. Sounds like – you know, outer-space-type music," said Cernan.

Later on, Cernan brought it up again: "That eerie music is what's bothering me. You know that..."

"Goddamn, I heard it, too," said Young.

"You know, that was funny," said Cernan. "That's just like something from outer space, really. Who's going to believe it?"

"Nobody," said Young. "Shall we tell them about it?"

"I don't know," replied Cernan. "We ought to think about it some."

You can actually listen to the conversations for yourself and read the whole transcript if you want to at NASA's archive.

The Apollo 10 astronauts never talked about what they heard publicly when they came back to Earth. And last year, the Science Channel included the eerie music in a show called NASA's Unexplained Files.

But it seems there's a rather mundane explanation for the sound. Apollo 10 was the last moon mission before the big one, Apollo 11, later that year saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, with Michael Collins in orbit in the command module.

Collins wrote in his book Carrying the Fire that NASA technicians warned him he might hear a strange whistling sound while the lunar module (LM) was on its way to the surface of the moon, and that if they hadn't it might have "scared the hell" out of him:

It was interference between the LM's and command module's VHF radios. We had heard it yesterday when we turned our VHF radios on after separating our two vehicles, and Neil said that it "sounds like wind whipping around the trees." It stopped as soon as the LM got on the ground, and started up again just a short time ago. A strange noise in a strange place.

3. That time two cosmonauts landed in the mountains in Siberia and had to survive freezing temperatures for two nights.

NASA / USSR Academy of Sciences

In 1965 cosmonaut Alexei Leonov was the first person to ever complete a spacewalk. The trip outside the spacecraft went pretty much as planned, but when he tried to re-enter, things started to go pear-shaped.

Forty years after the spaceflight he told the full story in an extract of his book, Two Sides of the Moon, published in Air & Space magazine.

When it was time to come back inside, Leonov realised his spacesuit had deformed with the lack of atmospheric pressure and he was going to have to go in head first rather than feet first, as had been planned. He was also going to have to slowly let all the oxygen out of his suit in order to actually fit into the airlock. It was uncomfortable – he said "I could feel my temperature rising dangerously high, with a rush of heat from my feet travelling up my legs and arms" – but he made it.

But his troubles didn't end there. Just before Leonov and his crewmate, Pavel Belyayev, were due to start coming out of orbit and back to Earth, they realised their landing module's automatic guidance system wasn't working. They had to get back to Earth manually, and they had to choose where to land.

Wanting somewhere sparsely populated but still within Soviet territory, they headed for an area west of the Ural mountains. But as soon as Belyayev turned on the engines they noticed something was up. A communication cable still connected the landing module, where the two cosmonauts were, to the orbit module, and they were spinning around it as it threw them off course.

Eventually it burned through, and the landing module came free – but the mishap meant they were 2,000km away from their planned landing spot. They were also in 2 feet of snow, without any shelter except their landing capsule, and with only one pistol to protect themselves against the area's wildlife.

Leonov recounted:

We were only too aware that the taiga where we had landed was the habitat of bears and wolves. It was spring, the mating season, when both animals are at their most aggressive. We had only one pistol aboard our spacecraft, but we had plenty of ammunition. As the sky darkened, the trees started cracking with the drop in temperature – a sound I was so familiar with from my childhood – and the wind began to howl.

They were, of course, rescued eventually – but not before spending two nights in the freezing temperatures of deepest Siberia.

4. That time an astronaut landed off course and was found by a group of nomadic shepherds.

AFP / Getty Images

Leonov and Belyayev are not the only astronauts to have landed where they shouldn't have.

Soyeon Yi, the first Korean in space, was coming back from the International Space Station in 2008 when her Soyuz capsule had to switch to a backup method for re-entry and ended up going off course – 300 miles away from where she and the rest of the crew were supposed to land.

If Yi was surprised to have ended up there, it was nothing compared to what the Kazakhstani nomadic herders who came across her and her crewmates must have felt.

“They had no idea about the space program, they had no idea about astronaut[s] and they [had] really big, huge eyes,” she told BuzzFeed Science in 2015. “They finally realized we [were] humans, not an alien, and they help[ed] us.”

The shepherds helped one of Yi's crewmates get out of the Soyuz. Luckily, the crew were able to get in touch with the Russian Space Agency using the satellite phone in the Soyuz, and got picked up by a helicopter.

5. That time an astronaut's helmet started filling with water while he was on a spacewalk.

NASA

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was out on a routine spacewalk in July 2013 when it suddenly became very non-routine.

Parmitano at first thought the liquid he saw inside his helmet was his own sweat –

doing anything in a spacesuit is a lot of effort, so that would have made sense – but after a while it became clear there was far too much of it.

Another possible explanation was that it was coming from his drinking bag, but he wasn't convinced of that either. "I feel a lot of water on the back of my head, but I don’t think it is from my bag," he told mission control.

Later he followed up his comment, saying it was getting worse: "The leak is not from the water bag and it is increasing."

Twenty-three minutes after Parmitano first warned of water in his helmet, mission control made the decision to terminate the spacewalk, and he started to make his way back towards the airlock. Suddenly, things got worse, he later wrote in a blog post for the European Space Agency:

Two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the station.

Parmitano couldn't communicate with anyone, but did manage to make it back to the airlock. After a few tense minutes as the airlock repressurised, the door to the space station opened and his crewmates were waiting to help get him out of the helmet.

NASA couldn't explain the malfunction immediately, but published a report in February 2014 saying that a blockage had caused the water leak and that the problem had been misdiagnosed when the same suit had leaked on an earlier spacewalk.

6. That time we maybe found an alien megastructure orbiting a distant star.

upload.wikimedia.org

It was spotted by Tabetha Boyajian, a researcher at Yale, in data from NASA's Kepler space telescope.

"We’d never seen anything like this star," Boyajian told The Atlantic, which was the first to report the discovery in October 2015. "It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out."

Kepler looks for dips in light that indicate distant stars are being orbited by planets. But the pattern of dips coming from this star, called KIC 8462852 and also known as Tabby's Star after its discoverer, didn't look like a normal planet – in fact, it didn't look like a planet at all.

Astronomer Jason Wright suggested one explanation that really caught people's attention: that the star is surrounded by some kind of alien megastructure – possibly something called a Dyson swarm, a more complicated version of a Dyson sphere.

The Dyson sphere was first proposed by science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon and later popularised by Freeman Dyson. It's a giant structure that surrounds a star and soaks up light to use as energy. Obviously, humans have never made anything like a Dyson sphere – it's far beyond our current capabilities – but if aliens have managed to make one it might help us spot them.

Since the paper came to light, various explanations have been put forward, including that the bizarre light pattern was created by comets, or that the star is still young enough that it has a debris disk around it, or that one of its own planets plunged into the star in a fiery death.

But nothing is yet certain, so if, for the moment, you choose to believe it really is an alien megastructure, we won't judge.

Kelly Oakes is science editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.

Contact Kelly Oakes at kelly.oakes@buzzfeed.com.

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