On December 7th, 1998, aliens did not land in Turret Peak, Arizona. In and of itself, this is not especially interesting, given that, to the best of our knowledge, aliens also did not land in Turret Peak, Arizona, on December 6th, 1998, December 8th, 1998, or any other day in December, or 1998, in Arizona, or anywhere, ever.
The story of that day’s non-event spans multiple continents, several august news agencies and countless websites, all revolving around the very real possibility that a signal from the distant star EQ Pegasi had been detected. For a few weeks in the fall of 1998, the internet and media buzzed about a mysterious call from the heavens, and a few people truly believed we were about to experience First Contact.
Except the signal wasn’t a signal. And there were no aliens, and they didn’t land in Arizona.
The details and dates vary, but sometime in late October (probably the 22nd), an English computer engineer and amateur astronomer named Paul Dore bootlegged time off a satellite dish at his employer to study the stars and look for alien life. He subsequently found a powerful signal from EQ Pegasi, an otherwise undistinguished red dwarf star located near the constellation Pegasus.
As the story goes, Dore emailed (or possibly hacked into) the email list for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and attached photos of his findings. They were a clear, unmistakable sign that a call had been placed from EQ Pegasi, and that Dore was lucky enough to answer it. SETI was instantly thrown into overdrive, with members trying to confirm what Dore had sent and detect the signal on their own. None could. Complicating matters was that Dore’s email was sent anonymously, making it impossible to track him down or even respond to his claims. Dore’s images also showed obvious signs of being created in a drawing program. Nonetheless, SETI continued to do its due diligence and try to confirm the evidence that had been randomly sent to them.
About a week later, Dore went public with his “discovery”, despite SETI declaring the signal was probably a satellite and almost certainly not from EQ Pegasi. On October 29th, the BBC published a glowing story declaring:
The scientific world is buzzing with the suggestion that signals from aliens living in another star system may have been picked up by a part-time astronomer. […] It could either be the most important discovery ever made, or more likely, a case of mistaken identity or an elaborate hoax.
After the BBC bombshell, it didn’t take long for the fringe media to grab hold of the story, and in 1998, nobody was more fringe-tastic than Art Bell, host of the infamous and immensely entertaining pseudoscience radio program Coast to Coast AM. On November 2nd, Bell hosted his regular guest Richard C. Hoagland, creator of the “Face on Mars” theory, along with a number of conspiracy theories involving NASA, ancient Egypt, the Masons, structures on the moon and pretty much anything else you can think up involving space and people lying about space.
Hoagland made a startling, and totally unsupportable, claim: that the “signal” wasn’t from EQ Pegasi, but from an alien probe on a direct course for Earth. As Hoagland breathlessly recounted on his website:
That same evening, TEM principal investigator Richard Hoagland went on the Art Bell Radio program to discuss the reports. He argued that the signal was most likely not coming from EQ Pegasi, but rather from a point in space nearby, perhaps as close as ten billion miles out. He predicted that the signal was in fact coming from a “probe” that would soon begin to decelerate. Only two days later a Japanese amateur astronomer reported picking up the signal and indicated that it was indeed slowing down. Based on inside “Pentagon sources”, Hoagland also expected a landing in the American Southwest on or about December 7th.
Where the Japanese astronomer, December 7th or the idea of a probe came from is anyone’s guess. But Dore had now been called wrong by both Hoagland and SETI, and his story was starting to fall apart. Further compounding his ills was the BBC retracting its story on November 3rd, declaring the “signal” to most certainly be a hoax, and featuring a quote proclaiming SETI had been set back 100 years in their credibility. Dore struck back by scheduling a press conference for the 4th, which he promptly cancelled. Instead he sent out a bizarre, rambling email alleging that the astronomers who’d agreed to back up his claims had sold him out, and that government agents had come to his house to inform him that he’d stumbled on a “classified intelligence satellite” belonging to the ominously named “Project 415.” Dore declared he wasn’t pursuing the matter any further, and soon dropped out of sight.
One might assume that the story would end here, with Dore disappearing from public view after being exposed as either a hoaxer or totally wrong. But in the world of fringe pseudoscience, nothing disappears, it only takes on new conspirators. Hoagland doubled down on his theory over the next month, tying it in with, among other entities, the Clinton Administration, several NASA satellites, the Hubble Telescope, FEMA, Egyptian mythology, the International Space Station, Denver International Airport, John Glenn, South Park, the Taurid Meteor Storm and Mobil Oil. All along, Hoagland pointed toward a December 7th landing in the area of Turret Peak, Arizona, backed up by information from “three separate sources” in US intelligence, as well as Hoagland’s work in decoding NASA/Egyptian rituals. Simultaneously, he used long-debunked “reverse speech” techniques to dissect Dore’s email and discredit him as a military-industrial complex stooge. Hoagland’s entire archive on the story can be found here, and it’s a fascinating read, if you have a couple of days.
When December 7th arrived, Hoagland posted numerous “landing site updates” detailing “military activity” and strange weather. All the while, he stuck to the information provided by his most secret sources. But the only thing that the 7th brought was an unusually heavy snowstorm, not an alien probe or a landing. The storm was evidence enough for Hoagland to craft a new theory: that the Turret Peak landing was actually an electromagnetic pulse discharge set off by the US Government, given cover by a snowstorm created by HAARP, and meant as a test of some kind of weapon system…or something. It’s complicated.
After the “landing” fizzled out, the EQ Pegasi story faded into the nether reaches of the internet. Dore’s website rests on a long-dead GeoCities page, many of the other pieces written about the signal vanished years ago, and little has been written or said about it since. There was quite a bit of speculation at the time that Paul Dore wasn’t even a real person, and a Google search for him turns up only a few items about the EQ Pegasi story, and nothing recent. SETI distanced itself from the debacle, and continues its search for intelligent life. Hoagland moved on from Pegasi to other equally lofty space-based conspiracies. Whether Dore detected a signal at all is debatable, and if so, it was most likely an ordinary satellite, not anything classified, and certainly not anything alien.
So we know that aliens didn’t land in Turret Peak, Arizona, on December 7th, 1998. But we still don’t know what the EQ Pegasi signal was, or if it existed. We don’t know if Paul Dore was a well-intentioned, over-enthusiastic watcher of the stars who did the wrong thing for the right reason, or if he was a crank whose hoax got away from him. Until Dore, whoever he is, comes forward, we won’t ever know for sure.
And it doesn’t really matter. Hoax or not, the story of the EQ Pegasi “signal” speaks to us desperately needing to know our place in the universe, and latching on to anything that might tell us we’re not alone. Either Dore deliberately misled SETI or jumped to a conclusion he wanted to be true, but no matter what, the media and public wanted to believe that contact had been made, and proceeded accordingly. We didn’t, this time. But we might, tomorrow or in a thousand years.
And when we do, we’d do well not to believe everything we read about it on the internet.