For some, talk of UFOs evokes the image of secretive Area 51 type installations, deep in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Others think of the backwoods swamps of the Deep South. For those truly in the know, though, there is one place for unprecedented levels of UFO activity... Bonnybridge, near Falkirk.

Bonnybridge has, since 1992, been the site of numerous UFO sightings and has been described as the world's number one UFO hotspot. The sleepy town of 6,870 souls (2001 census) lies at the heart of an area known to UFO enthusiasts as the Falkirk triangle, which stretches between Stirling, Fife and the outskirts of Edinburgh. It has around three hundred reported UFO sightings annually. Local independent Councillor Billy Buchanan is taking the sightings seriously. He has raised the matter in public meetings, in correspondence with three Prime Ministers and has called for the town to be twinned with another Mecca for ET devotees, Roswell, New Mexico. Speaking to newspaper, he said, How do we know aliens aren't walking about? How do you define an alien anyway? And when people say to me Why Bonnybridge? I say, why Bethlehem? I have no doubt that Bonnybridge is part of something exciting.

Although a Ministry of Defence report into UFO sightings, undertaken in 2000 and recently released under the Freedom of Information Act concluded that no evidence exists to suggest that the phenomena seen are hostile or under any type of control, other than that of natural physical forces, the truth behind the experiences of Bonnybridge residents remains shrouded in mystery.

Whatever the realities of the UFO phenomenon, Scotland is home to a large and growing sector of space research and exploration that is very real. From Scotlands world-renowned universities and observatories to the burgeoning field of commercial space application, Scotland is at the very forefront of the final frontier.

Academic Pursuits

Scotland has been rightly famed for centuries for the quality of its academic institutions. From the great thinkers of the enlightenment to the new era of bioscience heralded by Dolly the sheep, Scotland has always been one of the worlds leading nations in scholasticism. The great beyond is no exception, and in the academic sector Scotlands institutions are at the heart of some of the most exciting research in astrophysics and cosmology.

The Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA) is a collaborative project between Scotlands leading universities, designed to establish and maintain Scotland as a world leader in physics research. Within SUPA, a number of astronomy and astrophysics research groups are carrying out pioneering research in such diverse fields of space research as the magnetic activity of the sun, developing new astronomical technology, and the hunt for planets orbiting distant stars. Searching the skies for evidence of remote worlds will contribute to our understanding of how life emerged here on Earth and, if it can be discovered how common the conditions of a young Earth are on other worlds, go some way to answering that oldest question of space research, Are we alone in the universe? Planets, miniscule, dim objects in comparison to the stars they orbit, require the most sensitive measuring equipment to be detected, and one of the newest, most advanced tools to be put at the disposal of the planet hunters is currently being constructed right here in Scotland.

Exploring the universe

Hawaii's Mauna Kea Observatory is home to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), named in honour of the great Scots physicist, which examines the deepest reaches of space, using wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye to observe colder and more distant objects than can be detected by other telescopes. One of the tools that allows it to do this is the Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array (SCUBA), constructed at Edinburghs Royal Observatory in the 1990s. SCUBAs successor, SCUBA 2, is currently in the final testing phase of development at the same location, using components designed at the Scottish Microelectronics Centre at Edinburgh University, and due to be mounted on the JCMT later this year. One of the most ambitious astronomical instruments ever conceived; SCUBA 2 will allow astronomers to see even fainter objects, and to achieve this, the detector itself will be the coldest object in the known universe. The heart of SCUBA 2 will be cooled to within a fraction of a degree of absolute zero, or -273 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which another legendary Scots physicist, Lord Kelvin, calculated that matter stops motion entirely, lending his name to the Kelvin scale of temperature.

Bold new theories

At St Andrews, Scotland's most ancient university, a revolution is rumbling, and astronomers whole understanding of one of the fundamental forces of the universe is being called into question by a bold new theory. Isaac Newton changed the world forever when he tied the universe together with the invisible force of gravity, discovering that the same principle pulling a falling apple toward the ground is at work drawing out the sweeping arcs of planets and stars. Centuries later, Albert Einstein shocked the world again when he rethought Newtons gravity in line with his general theory of relativity. There was one thing on which Einstein and Newton were unshakeable, though: the force of gravity is uniform throughout the universe. Now, though, St Andrews Dr Hong Sheng Zhao is assailing the constancy of gravity with a simple refinement, that could explain away one of astronomys biggest mysteries.

Image of students walking through St Andrews University's historic campus

According to Newton and Einsteins calculations of gravity, galaxies should, by rights, throw themselves apart as they rotate; there is not enough measurable mass to hold them together. Conventional astronomical theory deals with this conundrum by hypothesizing that up to ninety per cent of the mass of the universe is made up of mysterious dark matter, which cannot be detected from Earth, but according to Dr Zhao, a lecturer at the School of Physics and Astronomy and member of SUPA, the puzzle can be solved if the effects of gravity increase towards the edges of galaxies.

Solving the great mysteries

There has always been a fair chance that astronomers might rewrite the law of gravity, he says. We have tested a new formula for gravity, which allows gravity to be boosted gradually from the Einstein/Newtonian prediction further away from the solar system. Our simple formula. . . is consistent with galaxy data so far, and if further verified for solar system and cosmology, it could solve the Dark Matter mystery. We may be able to answer common questions such as whether Einstein's theory of gravity is right and whether the so-called Dark Matter actually exists in galaxies.

The new theory has been met with scepticism in some quarters, but is growing in popularity. Dr David Bacon, of Edinburgh Royal Observatory, has said What Hong Sheng Zhao has done is . . . a good fit to some of the evidence the evidence from the motion of stars. It is certainly very intriguing work.

The Space Business

Historically, Scots have always led the way in trade with new markets and in new technologies here on Earth, so it is little surprise that as the mercantile possibilities of space are finally beginning to open up, after decades of tenuous steps into the unknown, Scots are in the vanguard.

Edinburgh native Will Whitehorn provides the business brains behind Virgin Galactic, which has promised to launch the worlds first commercial passenger flights into space before the end of the decade. He has his eye on Scotland as an ideal location for lift-off. He told , Its very likely we will operate from northern Scotland in the future. Its an interesting location. At 74 miles high youd see the Highlands, the North Sea and Scotlands very distinct outline. It would all be visible. The north of Scotland provides the model environment for space launches because of its large expanses of sparsely populated land, and the few over flying aircraft, both rare and essential commodities for any European space entrepreneur.

The tantalising possibility of colonising and mining the Moon is also becoming closer to a reality, thanks to work at Glasgow University. Professor Matthew Cartmell of the Department of Mechanical Engineering is leading a project that could revolutionize transport between the Earth and the Moon. The team, funded by the European Space Agency, are researching the possibility of using tether systems giant orbital slingshots to propel cargo to the moon and back using the force of gravity to propel them across the chasm of space, eliminating the need to carry expensive and cumbersome fuel for the journey between orbits. If successful, the research could contribute to making the long sought after dream of permanent bases economically feasible.

Up and coming stars

So what about the younger generation? Each year, NASA astronauts and scientists visit Scottish schools as part of Careers Scotland's Festival of Science and Enterprise. This is a two week programme of events across Scotland to inspire young people and encourage them to study science and consider it as a career. The guests include NASA astronaut Duane Carey, who piloted the space shuttle Columbia in 2002 on a successful mission to upgrade the Hubble space telescope and Dr Neal Pellis who is chief scientist of advanced programmes in the space life sciences directorate at NASA Johnston Space Centre. Groups from Elgin High School and Elgin Academy met at Moray College, where they linked up to 14 UHI Millennium Institute Centres. Each centre will host groups of pupils from their respective schools. The UHI Millennium Institute is recognised as a world leader in video conferencing technology for teaching applications. This exercise will link schools across half the land mass of Scotland.

Finally, a local company whose products are literally out of this world. Dundee-based TRAK Microwave supplies high reliability microwave and RF components and sub-systems for use in the most demanding applications and environments. Counting many of the world's leading manufacturers of defence electronics, satellite, navigation and wireless communication systems among its clients, a TRAK Microwave component made it onto the first space vehicle to land on Mars. That's progress for you nearly 400 million km of it since the 'Discovery'.

Whatever surprises the new millennium may hold in store for us, we can be certain that there will be a small country helping humanity find its place in a big universe. In the words of one notable explorer with Scots ancestry who was given the freedom of Langholm, Neil Armstrong:

Thats one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Related content