A web exclusive story from Astronomy magazine

The Zeta Reticuli (or Ridiculi) Incident

A nuclear-pulse powered starship begins a historic voyage to some nearby stars similar to our sun sometime in the 21st century. The first target is Tau Ceti, 12 light-years distant and seen in this rendering just to the right of the craft's spherical living quarters. This article chronicles how an unusual star map has led to new investigations of specific nearby stars that might harbor Earth-like planets - and possibly advanced forms of life. John Clark


In the December 1974 issue of Astronomy, the then-editors published a lead feature story titled “The Zeta Reticuli Incident.” The well-known astronomy popularizer Terence Dickinson, then Astronomy’s Editor, penned the article. It probably cost Terry his job, as he was gone from the magazine a few months later. Astronomy was just a year and a half old at the time, and this story set the fledgling magazine’s credibility back a long way.

This feature described the so-called Betty and Barney Hill story, in which a New Hampshire couple claimed to have been abducted in 1961 and taken aboard an alien spacecraft. Betty Hill famously drew a star map from memory, in 1964, under psychoanalysis. The map supposedly showed the sky as seen from a planet orbiting the star Zeta Reticuli, from which the alien abductors had arrived.

Two things happened from this absurd tale. First, it sold lots of books. Second, it nearly ruined the reputation of this young astronomy magazine. But after several years the magazine’s fortunes recovered and by 1980, the time of the Voyager flybys, Astronomy became the world’s most widely read publication on the subject.

I wasn’t around on Astronomy’s staff in the 1970s. But even in 1982, when I joined the staff as an assistant editor, the magazine crew still jokingly referred to this legendarily awful story as “The Zeta Ridiculi Incident.” 

What better time to share a silly tale of alien abduction, and bad journalism, than Halloween?

Enjoy those pumpkins. And watch out for low-flying spacecraft.
David J. Eicher, Editor

John Wenz, associate editor, note: “Every time I mention this piece, someone in the office shudders. ‘I’m going to run this for Halloween,’ I told our mild mannered senior editor Rich Talcott. ‘Please don’t,’ was his only response. I showed the issue to our other senior editor, Michael Bakich. He held his head in his hands. Our editor-in-chief, Dave Eicher, laughed it off until my face told him ‘I am serious and seriously nuts.’

Here’s the thing: I used to be obsessed with UFOs. But eventually (around the time the Contact movie came out) I wised up and realized the real hunt for life on other worlds wouldn’t come from the sky in cigar shaped flying spheres or in the middle of the night through a light in the window. It would come through tiny hunts for a needle in a haystack, the distant, minute hum of a radio signal not of natural origin.

We still haven’t found it. In some ways, the UFO folklore is fading from consciousness. After all, it’s hard to claim a UFO or alien or ghost when we all have a cell phone in our pocket. Still, it fascinates us.

This story shouldn’t have run. It’s a solid truth. But it did. It’s a good tale of hokum that went awry. I’ve annotated a few spots where our knowledge has improved.

by Terence Dickinson

A faint pair of stars, 220 trillion miles away, has been tentatively identified as the "home base" of intelligent extraterrestrials who allegedly visited Earth in 1961. (Editor’s note: by no metric is this true outside conspiratorial circles.) This hypothesis is based on a strange, almost bizarre series of events mixing astronomical research with hypnosis, amnesia, and alien humanoid creatures.

The two stars are known as Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli, or together as simply Zeta Reticuli. They are each fifth magnitude stars — barely visible to the unaided eye — located in the obscure southern constellation Reticulum. This southerly sky location makes Zeta Reticuli invisible to observers north of Mexico City's latitude.

(No planets have been discovered around either star. A 1996 discovery was retracted. There is evidence for a debris disk that may be an asteroid belt.)

The weird circumstances that we have dubbed "The Zeta Reticuli Incident" sound like they come straight from the UFO pages in one of those tabloids sold in every supermarket. But this is much more than a retelling of a famous UFO incident; it's an astronomical detective story that at times hovers on that hazy line that separates science from fiction. It all started this way:

Barney grabs his binoculars from the car seat and steps out. He walks into a field to get a closer look, focuses the binoculars, and sees the object plainly. It has windows -and behind the windows, looking directly at him are... humanoid creaturesl Terrified, Barney stumbles back to the car, throws it into first gear and roars off. But for some reason he turns down a side road where five Of the humanoids are standing on the road.

Apparently unable to control their actions, Betty and Barney are easily taken back to the ship by the humanoids. While inside they are physically examined, and one Of the humanoids communicates to Betty. After the examination she asks him where they are from. In response he shows her a three-dimensional map with various sized dots and lines on it. "Where are you on the map 7" the humanoid asks Betty. She doesn't know, so the subject is dropped.

Betty and Barney are returned unharmed to their car. They are told they will forget the abduction portion of the incident. The ship rises, and then hurtles out of sight. The couple continue their journey home oblivious of the abduction.

But the Hills are troubled by unexplained dreams and anxiety about two hours of their trip that they can't account for. Betty, a social worker, asks advice from a psychiatrist friend. He suggests that the memory of that time will be gradually restored over the next few months but it never is. Two years after the incident, the couple are still bothered by the missing two hours, and Barney's ulcers are acting up. A Boston psychiatrist, Benjamin Simon, is recommended, and after several months of weekly hypnosis sessions the bizarre events of that night in 1961 are revealed. A short time later a UFO group leaks a distorted version of the story to the press and the whole, thing blows up. The Hills reluctantly disclose the entire story.  

Can we take this dramatic scenario seriously? (No.) Did this incredible contact with aliens actually occur or is it some kind of hallucination that affected both Barney and Betty Hill? (No.) The complete account of the psychiatric examination from which the details of the event emerged is related in John G. Fuller's The Interrupted Journey (Dial Press, 1966 ), where we read that after the extensive psychiatric examination, Simon concluded that the Hills were not fabricating the story. The most likely possibilities seem to be: (a) the experience actually happened, or (b) some perceptive and illusory misinterpretations occurred in relationship to some real event.

There are other cases of alleged abductions by extraterrestrial humanoids. The unique aspect of the Hills' abduction is that they remembered virtually nothing of the incident.

(Many alien abduction stories since then have included stories brought out by hypnosis, not always under the most reputable researchers.)

Intrigued by the Hills' experience, J. Allen Hynek, chairman of the department of astronomy at Northwestern University, decided to investigate. (Hynek began his career as a debunker under Project Sign, a predecessor to the Project Blue Book also conducted by the Air Force. While he later came to believe in UFOs, he later stated he didn’t believe them to be of extraterrestrial origin. His standing in the scientific community was deeply damaged by his UFO advocacy.) Hynek described how the Hills recalled the details of their encounter in his book, The UFO Experience (Henry Regnery Company, 1972):

"Under repeated hypnosis they independently revealed what had supposedly happened. The two stories agreed in considerable detail, although neither Betty nor Barney was privy to what the other had said under hypnosis until much later. Under hypnosis they stated that they had been taken separately aboard the craft, treated well by the occupants — rather as humans might treat experimental animals — and then released after having been given the hypnotic suggestion that they would remember nothing of that particular experience. The method of their release supposedly accounted for the amnesia, which was apparently broken only by counterhypnosis."

A number of scientists, including Hynek, have discussed this incident at length with Barney and Betty Hill and have questioned them under hypnosis. They concur with Simon's belief that there seems to be no evidence of outright fabrication or lying. One would also wonder what Betty, who has a master's degree in social work and is a supervisor in the New Hampshire Welfare Department, and Barney, who was on the governor of New Hampshire's Civil Rights Commission, would have to gain by a hoax? Although the Hills didn't, several people have lost their jobs after being associated with similarly unusual publicity.

Stanton T. Friedman, a nuclear physicist and the nation's only space scientist devoting full time to researching the UFO phenomenon, has spent many hours in conversation with the Hills. "By no stretch of the imagination could anyone who knows them conclude that they were nuts," he emphasizes.

(Friedman is rather well-known. He left physics in 1970 to become a UFO researcher, and was known for a time for promoting the Roswell crash as an extraterrestrial incident as well as the widely-discredited Majestic 12 document.)

Three key phases in the analysis described in this article are illustrated here. Top diagram is a copy of the map Betty Hill drew, allegedly a duplicate of one she saw inside an extraterrestrial vehicle. Center map is derived from a model of our stellar neighborhood by Marjorie Fish. It shows the stars that coincide with those on the Hill map (the Fish model is illustrated on page 14). The only area of significant incongruity is the wide separation of Zeta Reticuli in the Hill version. Lower photo shows a cathode ray tube computer readout that was run at Ohio State University as a check on the Fish model. Data used to derive the Fish model and the computer readout were taken from Gliese catalog. Don Dixon

So the experience remains a fascinating story despite the absence of proof that it actually happened. Anyway — that's where things were in 1966 when Marjorie Fish, an Ohio schoolteacher, amateur astronomer and member of Mensa, became involved. She wondered if the objects shown on the map that Betty Hill allegedly observed inside the vehicle might represent some actual pattern of celestial objects. To get more information about the map she decided to visit Betty Hill in the summer of 1969. ( Barney Hill died in early 1969.) Here is Ms. Fish's account of that meeting:

"On Aug. 4, 1969, Betty Hill discussed the star map with me. Betty explained that she drew the map in 1964 under posthypnotic suggestion. It was to be drawn only if she could remember it accurately, and she was not to pay attention to what she was drawing — which puts it in the realm of automatic drawing. This is a way of getting at repressed or forgotten material and can result in unusual accuracy. She made two erasures showing her conscious mind took control part of the time.

"Betty described the map as three-dimensional, like looking through a window. The stars were tinted and glowed. The map material was flat and thin (not a model), and there were no noticeable lenticular lines like one of our three- dimensional processes. (It sounds very much like a reflective hologram.) Betty did not shift her position while viewing it, so we cannot tell if it would give the same three-dimensional view from all positions or if it would be completely three-dimensional. Betty estimated the map was approximately three feet wide and two feet high with the pattern covering most of the map. She was standing about three feet away from it. She said there were many other stars on the map but she only (apparently) was able to specifically recall the prominent ones connected by lines and a small distinctive triangle off to the left. There was no concentration of stars to indicate the Milky Way ( galactic plane) suggesting that if it represented reality, it probably only contained local stars. There were no grid lines."

So much for the background material on the Hill incident. (If you want more details on the encounter, see Fuller's book). For the moment we will leave Marjorie Fish back in 1969 trying to interpret Betty Hill's reproduction of the map. There is a second major area of background information that we have to attend to before we can properly discuss the map. Unlike the bizarre events just described, the rest is pure astronomy.

(Majorie Fish later repudiated her findings prior to her death in 2013. “Later, after newer data was compiled, she determined that the binary stars within the pattern were too close together to support life; so as a true skeptic, she issued a statement that she now felt that the correlation was unlikely,” Yankee Skeptic wrote.)

"Advanced life on this planet was annihilated when its sun ended it's "normal" phase as a main sequence star and ballooned into the red giant seen here. This change, which vastly increases a star's energy output, can occur at various times depending on the star's mass. It won't happen to the sun for six billion years. Don Dixon

According to the most recent star catalogs, there are about 1,000 known stars within a radius of 55 light-years of the sun.

What are those other stars like? A check of the catalogs shows that most of them are faint stars of relatively low temperature — a class of stars astronomers call main sequence stars. The sun is a main sequence star along with most of the other stars in this part of the Milky Way galaxy.

Typical giant stars are Arcturus and Capella. Antares and Betelgeuse are members of the ultrarare supergiant class. At the other end of the size and brightness scale the white dwarfs are stellar cinders — the remains of once brilliant suns. (Most “stellar remnants” are 11th magnitude white dwarfs or quite noisy pulsars. Or black holes.) For reasons that will soon become clear we can remove these classes of stars from our discussion and concentrate on the main sequence stars.

The main sequence stars can be further subdivided.

Main Sequence Stars
Spectral Class Proportion of Totals Example
A 1% Vega
F 3% Procyon
G 9% Sun
K 14% Epsilon Eridani
M 73% Proxima Centauri

The spectral class letters are part of a system of stellar "fingerprinting" that identifies the main sequence star's temperature and gives clues to its mass and luminosity. The hottest, brightest and most massive main sequence stars (with rare exceptions) are the A stars. The faintest, coolest, and least massive are the M stars. (These are often called “red dwarf” stars, and are among the most abundant in the universe.)

Each class is subdivided into 10 subcategories. For example, an AO star is hotter, brighter and more massive than an Al which is above an A2, and so on through A9.

But the bright stars pay dearly for their splendor. It takes a lot of stellar fuel to emit vast quantities of light and heat. The penalty is a short lifespan as a main sequence star. Conversely, the inconspicuous, cool M stars may be around to see the end of the universe —whatever that might be. (These stars can last on a scale of trillions of years though they may soon fade into blue dwarfs, none of which exist yet.) With all these facts at hand we're now ready to tackle the first part of the detective story.

Let's suppose we wanted to make our own map of a trip to the stars. We will limit ourselves to the 55 light-year radius covered by the detailed star catalogs. The purpose of the trip will be to search for intelligent life on planets that may be in orbit around these stars. We would want to include every star that would seem likely to have a life-bearing planet orbiting around it. How many of these thousand-odd stars would we include for such a voyage and which direction would we go? (For the moment, we'll forget about the problem of making a spacecraft that will take us to these stars and we'll assume that we've got some kind of vehicle that will effortlessly transport us to wherever we want to go.) We don't want to waste our time and efforts — we only want to go to stars that we would think would have a high probability of having planets harboring advanced life forms. This seems like a tall order. How do we even begin to determine which stars might likely have such planets?

The first rule will be to restrict ourselves to life as we know it, the kind of life that we are familiar with here on Earth — carbon-based life. Science fiction writers are fond of describing life forms based on chemical systems that we have been unable to duplicate here on Earth — such as silicon based life or life based on the ammonium hydroxide molecule instead of on carbon. But right now these life forms are simply fantasy we have no evidence that they are in fact possible. Because we don't even know what they might look like — if they're out there — we necessarily have to limit our search to the kind of life that we understand.

Our kind of life seems most likely to evolve on a planet that has a stable temperature regime. It must be at the appropriate distance from its sun so that water is neither frozen nor boiled away. The planet has to be the appropriate size so that its gravity doesn't hold on to too much atmosphere (like Jupiter) or too little (like Mars). (Mars is largely believed to have once been habitable, and there’s still a chance microbial life exists there today.) But the main ingredient in a life-bearing planet is its star. And its star is the only thing we can study since planets of other stars are far too faint to detect directly.

The conclusion we can draw is this: The star has to be like the sun. (This is no longer believed to be the case. While very large stars are unlikely to have planets, several other stellar types could host habitable planets or moons. And, in fact, icy moons could be ripe for life, as in the case of Enceladus or Europa.)

Main sequence stars are basically like the sun but differ in small, but important ways. Our last table indicated the sun (a G2 star) has a stable lifespan of about 11 billion years. We are about five billion years into that period.so we tan look forward to the sun remaining much as it is (actually it will brighten slightly) for another six billion years. Stars of class F4 or higher have stable burning periods of less than 3.5 billion years. They have to be ruled out immediately.

Such stars cannot have life-bearing planets because, at least based on our experience on our world, this is not enough time to permit highly developed biological systems to evolve on the land areas of a planet. (Intelligent life may very well arise earlier in water environments, but let's forget that possibility since we have not yet had meaningful communication with the dolphins highly intelligent creatures on this planet!) But we may be wrong in our estimate of life development time. There is another more compelling reason for eliminating stars of class F4 and brighter.

So far, we have assumed all stars have planets, just as our sun does. Yet spectroscopic studies of stars of class F4 and brighter reveal that most of them are in fact unlike our sun in a vital way — they are rapidly rotating stars. The sun rotates once in just under a month, but 60 percent of the stars in the FO to F4 range rotate much faster. And almost all A stars are rapid rotators too. It seems, from recent studies of stellar evolution that slowly rotating stars like the sun rotate slowly because they have planets. Apparently the formation of a planetary system robs these stars of much of its rotational momentum.

For two reasons, then, we eliminate stars of class F4 and above: (1) most of them rotate rapidly and thus seem to be planetless, and (2) their stable lifespans are too brief for advanced life to develop.

Another problem environment for higher forms of life is the multiple star system. About half of all stars are born in pairs, or small groups of three or more. Our sun could have been part of a double star system. If Jupiter was 80 times more massive it would be an M6 red dwarf star. If the stars of a double system are far enough apart there is no real problem for planets sustaining life ( see "Planet of the Double Sun", September 1974). But stars 'in fairly close or highly elliptical orbits would alternately fry or freeze their planets. Such planets would also likely have unstable orbits. Because this is a potentially troublesome area for our objective, we will eliminate all close and moderately close pairs or systems of multiple stars. (This also is not necessarily the case, as planetary science has proved in the interim.)

Further elimination is necessary according to the catalogs. Some otherwise perfect stars are labeled "variable". This means astronomers have observed variations of at least a few percent in the star's light output. A one percent fluctuation in the sun would be annoying for us here on Earth. Anything greater would cause climatic disaster. Could intelligent life evolve under such conditions, given an otherwise habitable planet? It seems unlikely. We are forced to "scratch" all stars suspected or proven to be variable.

This still leaves a few F stars, quite a few G stars, and hoards of K and M dwarfs. Unfortunately most of the Ks and all of the Ms are out. Let’s find out why.

These stars quite likely have planets. Indeed, one M star — known as Barnard’s Star — is believed to almost certainly have at least one, and probably two or three, Jupiter-sized planets. Peter Van de Kamp of the Sproul Observatory at Swarthmore College has watched Barnard’s Star for more than three decades and is convinced that a “wobbling” motion of that star is due to perturbations (gravitational “pulling and pushing”) caused by unseen planets. (Earth-sized planets cannot be detected in this manner.)

(While planets around Barnard’s Star haven’t been entirely ruled out, Van de Kamp’s planets have since been disproven and indeed, no large gas giants exist in the system according to the most recent research. Smaller planets around Neptune mass or below are still possible.)

But the planets of M-stars and the K-stars below K4 have two serious handicaps that virtually eliminate them from being abodes for life. First, these stars fry their planets with occasional lethal bursts of radiation emitted from erupting solar flares. (This is a topic for debate. Most ‘habitable zone’ planets discovered so far have been short period planets around M-dwarfs.) The flares have the same intensity as those of our sun, but when you put that type of flare on a little star it spells disaster for a planet that is within, say, 30 million miles. The problem is that planets have to be that close to get enough heat from these feeble suns. If they are farther out, they have frozen oceans and no life.

The close-in orbits of potential Earth-like planets of M and faint K stars produce the second dilemma — rotational lock. An example of rotational lock is right next door to us. (Many models maintain that there could be a crescent of hability or have enough atmospheric movement to distribute heat around the planet like Hadley cells on Earth.) The Moon, because of its nearness to Earth, is strongly affected by our planet’s tidal forces. Long ago our satellite stopped rotating and now has one side permanently turned toward Earth. (Enceladus and Europa are tidally locked, but gravitational tugs keep their oceans liquid) The same principles apply to planets of small stars that would otherwise be at the right distance for moderate temperatures. If rotational lock has not yet set in, at least rotational retardation would make impossibly long days and nights (as evidenced by Mercury in our solar system.)

What stars are left after all this pruning? All of the G stars remain along with F5 through F9 and K0 through L4. Stephen Dole of the Rand Corporation has made a detailed study of stars in this range and suggests we should also eliminate F5, F6, and F7 stars because they balloon to red giants before they reach an age of five billion years. Dole feels this is cutting it too fine for intelligent species to fully evolve. Admittedly this is based on our one example of intelligent life — us. But limited though this parameter is, it is the only one we have. Dole believes the K2, K3, and K4 stars are also poor prospects because of their feeble energy output and consequently limited zone for suitable Earth-like planets. (Today, K-type star stability is seen as a boon, rather than a hinderance, for their habitability.)

Accepting Dole’s further trimming, we are left with single, non-variable stars from F8 through all the Gs to K1? What does that leave us with? A scant 46 stars within 53 light years of us.

This model, prepared by Marjorie Fish, shows all the stars located in a vast volume of space extending out about 55 light-years in the direction of Zeta Reticull. The viewing angle is from a point In space beyond that limit looking back toward the sun. Each star is suspended on a separate thread at its appropriate distance and position from the sun, and colored according to its spectral type (solar type stars are yellow). The star "behind" the two components of Zeta Reticuli is Zeta Tucanae. From a model such as this, using the same viewing angle seen here, Marjorie Fish noted 16 stars whose positions are remarkably close to the stars in the drawing made by Betty Hill. The fact that all the stars in the "Hill configuration" are solar type stars is one of several intriguing areas that enshroud the "Zeta Reticuli Incident".

Now we are ready to plan the trip. It’s pretty obvious that Tau Ceti is our first target. (Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri are currently tantalyzing targets, although only one planet has been confirmed in the triple star system.) After that, the choice is more difficult. We can’t take each star in order or we would be darting all over the sky. It’s something like planning a vacation trip. Let’s say we start from St. Louis and want to hit all the major cities within a 1,000 mile radius. If we go west, all we can visit is Kansas City and Denver. But northeast is a bonanza: Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, and more. The same principle applies to the planning of our interstellar exploration. The plot of all 46 candidate stars reveals a clumping in the direction of the constellations Cetus and Eridanus. Although this section amounts to only 13 percent of the entire sky, it contains 15 of the 46 stars, or 33 percent of the total. Luckily, Tau Ceti is in this group, so that’s the direction we should go (comparable to heading Northeast from St. Louis). If we plan to visit some of these solar type stars and then return to Earth, we should try to have the shortest distance between stops. It would be a waste of exploration time if we zipped randomly from one star to another. 

An illustrated chart showing the position of nearby stars alleged to be a galactic trading route.

The route map on page 10 shows the culmination of our efforts. This group of stars is a “natural” for exploration when we achieve interstellar flight. Even if, as most exobiologists contend, we are highly unlikely to find advanced forms of life in such a small sample, the physical exploration of planets of other stars by beings from earth is inevitable, and the stars of this group should be among the first targets. 

Now we are ready to return to the map drawn by Betty Hill. Marjorie Fish reasoned that if the stars in the Hill map corresponded to a pattern of real stars – perhaps something like we just developed, only from an alien’s viewpoint – it might be possible to pinpoint the origin of the alleged space travelers. Assuming the two stars in the foreground of the Hill map were the “base” stars (the sun, a single star, was ruled out here), she decided to try to locate the entire pattern. She theorized that the Hill map contained only local stars since no concentration of stars was evident. Such a concentration would be present if a more distant viewpoint was assumed and if both “us” and the alien visitors’ home base were to be represented. 

Let’s assume, just as an astronomical exercise, that the map does show the sun and the star that is “the sun” to the humanoids. We’ll take the Hill encounter at face value, and see where it leads. 

Since the aliens were described as “humanoid” and seemed reasonably comfortable on this planet, their home planet should be basically like ours. Their atmosphere must be similar because the Hills breathed without trouble while inside the ship, and the aliens did not appear to wear any protective apparatus. And since we assume their biology is similar to ours, their planet should have the same temperature regime as Earth (Betty and Barney did say it was uncomfortably cold in the ship). In essence, then, we assume their home planet must be very Earthlike. Based on what we discussed earlier it follow that their sun would be on our list if it were within 55 light-years of us.

The Lines on the map, according to Betty Hill, were described by the alien as “trade routes” or “places visited occasionally” with the dotted lines as “expeditions”. Any interpretation of the Betty Hill map must retain the logic of these routes (i.e. the lines would link stars that would be worth visiting). 

Keeping all this in mind, Marjorie Fish constructed several three-dimensional models of the solar neighborhood in hopes of detecting the pattern in the Hill map. Using beads dangling on threads, she painstakingly recreated our stellar environment. Between Aug. 1968 and Feb. 1973, she strung beads, checked data, searched and checked again. A suspicious alignment, detected in late 1968, turned out to be almost a perfect match once new data from the detailed 1969 edition of the Catalog of Nearby Stars became available. (This catalog is often called the “Gliese catalog” – pronounced “glee-see” – after its principal author, Wilhelm Gliese.) (See above. Fish later believed her work was in error.)

The 16 stars in the stellar configuration discovered by Marjorie Fish are compared with the map drawn by Betty Hill in the diagram on page 7. If some of the star names on the Fish map sound familiar, they should. Ten of the 16 stars are from the compact group that we selected earlier based on the most logical direction to pursue to conduct interstellar exploration from Earth. (Is confirmation bias afoot here?)

Continuing to take the Hill map at face value, the radiating pattern of "trade routes" implies that Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli (again, neither are believed to have planets.) are the "hub" of exploration or, in the context of the incident, the aliens' home base. The Sun is at the end of one of the supposedly regular trade routes.

The pair of stars that make up Zeta Reticuli is practically in the midst of the cluster of solar type stars that attracted us while we were mapping out a logical interstellar voyage. Checking further we find that all but two of the stars in the Fish pattern are on the table of nearby solar type stars. These two stars are Tau 1 Eridani (an F6 star ) and Gliese 86.1 ( K2), and are, respectively, just above and below the parameters we arrived at earlier. One star that should be there ( Zeta Tucanae ) is missing probably because it is behind Zeta 1 Reticuli at the required viewing angle.

(Trade routes that would take decades or centuries if we assume the craft obey the rules of relativity, or even the notion that these stars have habitable planets. Gliese 67 is believed to have a habitable planet. Tau Ceti has a planet of limited habitability. 82 Eridani has planets too hot for life. A large Jupiter type planet exists in Gliese 86. No other star on the chart is known to have a planet, though a few have debris discs.)

To summarize, then: (1) the pattern discovered by Marjorie Fish has an uncanny resemblance to the map drawn by Betty Hill; (2) the stars are mostly the ones that we would visit if we were exploring from Zeta Reticuli, and (3) the travel patterns generally make sense.

Walter Mitchell, professor of astronomy at Ohio State University in Columbus, has looked at Marjorie Fish's interpretation of the Betty Hill map in detail and tells us, "The more I examine it, the more I am impressed by the astronomy involved in Marjorie Fish's work."

(In his book Set Phasers to Stun, author Steve Pearse reported that a professor who worked with Mitchell, Gerald Newsom, said of the map, “"i don't believe Walt Mitchell's work was ever held in high regard by the consensus of the faculty and grad students at Ohio State, and this point hardly anyone in the Department is even aware that the work was done" in a 2007 email.)

During their examination of the map, Mitchell and some of his students inserted the positions of hundreds of nearby stars into a computer and had various space vistas brought up on a cathode ray tube readout. They requested the computer to put them in a position out beyond Zeta Reticuli looking toward the sun. From this viewpoint the map pattern obtained by Marjorie Fish was duplicated with virtually no variations. Mitchell noted an important and previously unknown fact first pointed out by Ms. Fish: The stars in the map are almost in a plane; that is, they fill a wheel shaped volume of space that makes star hopping from one to another easy and the logical way to go — and that is what is implied by the map that Betty Hill allegedly saw.

"I can find no major point of quibble with Marjorie Fish's interpretation of the Betty Hill map," says David R. Saunders, a statistics expert at the Industrial Relations Center of the University of Chicago. By various lines of statistical reasoning he concludes that the chances of finding a match among 16 stars of a specific spectral type among the thousand-odd stars' nearest the sun is "at least 1,000 to 1 against".

(Today, most indications of Saunders lasting legacy are in the UFO community.)

"The odds are about 10,000 to 1 against a random configuration matching perfectly with Betty Hill's map," Saunders reports. "But the star group identified by Marjorie Fish isn't quite a perfect match, and the odds consequently reduce to about 1,000 to 1. That is, there is one chance in 1,000 that the observed degree of congruence would occur in the volume of space we are discussing.

"In most fields of investigation where similar statistical methods are usod, that degree of congruence is rather persuasive," concludes Saunders.

Saunders, who has developed a monumental computerized catalog of more than 60,000 UFO sightings, tells us that the Hill case is not unique in its general characteristics -there are other known cases of alleged communication with extraterrestrials. But in no other case on record have maps ever been mentioned.

Mark Steggert of the Space Research Coordination Center at the University of Pittsburgh developed a computer program that he calls PAR (for Perspective Alteration Routine ) that call duplicate the appearance of star fields from various viewpoints in space.

"I was intrigued by the proposal put forth by Marjorie Fish that she had interpreted a real star pattern for the alleged map of Betty Hill. I was incredulous that models could be used to do an astronometric problem," Steggert says.

"To my surprise I found that the pattern that I derived from my program had a close correspondence to the data from Marjorie Fish."

After several run throughs, he confirmed the positions determined by Marjorie Fish. "I was able to locate potential areas of error, but no real errors," Steggert concludes.

Steggert zeroed in on possibly the only real bone of contention that anyone has had with Marjorie Fish's interpretation: The data on some of the stars may not be accurate enough for us to make definitive conclusions. For example, he says the data from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Catalog, the Royal Astronomical Society Observatory Catalog, and the Yale Catalog of Bright Stars "have differences of up to two magnitudes and differences in distance amounting to 40 percent for the star Gliese 59". Other stars have less variations in the data from one catalog to another, but Steggert's point is valid. The data on some of the stars in the map is just not good enough to make a definitive statement. (The fact that measurements of most of the stars in question can only be made at the relatively poorly equipped southern hemisphere observatories accounts for the less reliable data.)

Using information on the same 15 stars from the Royal Observatory catalog (Annals #5), Steggert reports that the pattern does come out differently because of the different data, and Gliese 59 shows the largest variation. The Gliese catalog uses photometric, trigonometric and spectroscopic parallaxes and derives a mean from all three after giving various mathematical weights to each value. "The substantial variation in catalog material is something that must be overcome," says Steggert. "This must be the next step in attempting to evaluate the map.”

This point of view is shared by Jeffrey L. Kretsch, an undergraduate student who is working under the advisement of J. Allen Hynek at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Like Steggert, he too checked Marjorie Fish's pattern and found no error in the work. But Kretsch reports that when he reconstructed the pattern using trigonometric distance measurements instead of the composite measures in the Gliese catalog, he found enough variations to move Gliese 95 above the line between Gliese 86 and Tau 1 Eridani.

"The data for some of the stars seems to be very reliable, but a few of the pattern stars are not well observed and data on them is somewhat conflicting," says Kretsch. The fact that the pattern is less of a "good fit" using data from other sources leads Kretsch and others to wonder what new observations would do. Would they give a closer fit? Or would the pattern become distorted? Marjorie Fish was aware of the catalog variations, but has assumed the Gliese catalog is the most reliable source material to utilize.

Is the Gliese catalog the best available data source? According to several astronomers who specialize in stellar positions, it probably is. Peter Van de Kamp says, "It's first rate. There is none better." He says the catalog was compiled with extensive research and care over many years.

(Most of Van de Kamp’s later career was spent fighting back against those who said he’d determined the Barnard’s Star planets in error. He claimed other planets that have never been confirmed.)

A lot of the published trigonometric parallaxes on stars beyond 30 light-years are not as accurate as they could be, according to Kyle Cudworth of Yerkes Observatory. "Gliese added other criteria to compensate and lessen the possible errors," he says.

The scientific director of the U. S. Naval Observatory, K. A. Strand, is among the world's foremost authorities on stellar distances for nearby stars. He believes the Gliese catalog "is the most complete and comprehensive source available".

Frank B. Salisbury of the University of Utah has also examined the Hill and Fish maps. "The pattern of stars discovered by Marjorie Fish fits the map drawn by Betty Hill remarkably well. It's a striking coincidence and forces one to take the Hill story more seriously," he says. Salisbury is one of the few scientists who has spent some time on the UFO problem and has written a book and several articles on the subject. A professor of plant physiology, his biology expertise has been turned to astronomy on several occasions while studying the possibility of biological organisms existing on Mars.

(Salisbury is also noted for his work promoting creationism.)

Salisbury insists that while psychological factors do play an important role in UFO phenomena, the Hill story does represent one of the most credible reports of incredible events. The fact that the story and the map came to light under hypnosis is good evidence that it actually took place. "But lt lS not unequivocal evidence," he cautions.

(Dr. Simons, the hypontist in question, later stated, “The abduction did not take place but was a reproduction of Betty's dream which occurred right after the sighting.” The purported aliens were similar in form to an Outer Limits episode that aired shortly before the session.)

Elaborating on this aspect of the incident, Mark Steggert offers this: "I am inclined to question the ability of Betty, under posthypnotic suggestion, to duplicate the pattern two years after she saw it. She noted no grid lines on the pattern for reference. Someone should (or perhaps has already) conduct a test to see how well a similar pattern could be recalled after a substantial period of time. The stress she was under at the time is another unknown factor."

"The derivation of the base data by hypnotic techniques is perhaps not as 'far out' as it may seem," says Stanton Friedman. "Several police departments around the country use hypnosis on rape victims in order to get descriptions of the assailants — descriptions that would otherwise remain repressed. The trauma of such circumstances must be comparable in some ways to the Hill incident."

(There’s skepticism about the usefulness of hypnotic regression, as heavy suggestion can lead to false memories.)

Is it at all possible we are faced with a hoax?

"Highly unlikely," says Salisbury — and the other investigators agree. One significant fact against a charade is that the data from the Gliese catalog was not published until 1969, five years after the star map was drawn by Betty Hill. Prior to 1969, the data could only have been obtained from the observatories conducting research on the specific stars in question. It is not uncommon for astronomers not to divulge their research data -even to their colleagues — before it appears in print. In general, the entire sequence of events just does not smell of falsification. Coincidence, possibly; hoax, improbable.

Where does all this leave us? Are there creatures inhabiting a planet of Zeta 2 Reticuli? Did they visit Earth in 1961? The map indicates that the Sun has been "visited occasionally". (Umm, no.) What does that mean? Will further study and measurement of the stars in the map change their relative positions and thus distort the configuration beyond the limits of coincidence?

The fact that the entire incident hinges on a map drawn under less than normal circumstances certainly keeps us from drawing a firm conclusion. Exobiologists are united in their opinion that the chance of us having neighbors so similar to us, apparently located so close, is vanishingly small. But then, we don't even know for certain if there is anybody at all out there anywhere -despite the Hill map and pronouncements of the most respected scientists.

The only answer is to continue the search. Someday, perhaps soon, we will know.