Considering the amount of ground covered in each one-hour Chasing UFOs episode, it isn’t always possible to present the science of each investigation in a comprehensive way. So, for those who wish to learn more about the science behind Chasing UFOs, read on!
Star-hopping and the Saturn V Rocket
When talking about the real possibility of interstellar travel (a point that is implicit when someone alleges that Earth is being visited by extraterrestrial beings), one of the underlying problems is energy. The distances between stars are mind-shatteringly vast, and anything daring to cross the space between them in a single human being’s lifetime would have to be propelled by something extraordinarily powerful. With this in mind, James, Ryder and I visited an iconic Saturn V rocket to take a closer look at just what it would take to venture across unyielding stretches of outer space.
As fate would have it, one of the three surviving rockets powerful enough to send men to the Moon and back, the Saturn V, is conveniently located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This is within striking distance of the town of Stephenville, which was home to the mass UFO sighting that figured prominently in this episode.
The Saturn V is majestic in person – to call it simply “impressive” is a great disservice. With a diameter wider than a three-story home is tall, stretching more than a football field in height, and weighing nearly seven million pounds fully-loaded, this warhorse of the Space Race is not something to be taken lightly.
Aside from the “gee-whiz” factor, the importance of reviewing this spaceflight technology is that it provides an easy-to-grasp reality check; In a very visceral way, seeing a Saturn V rocket brings home the nearly unfathomable amount of energy required to travel to our own Moon, a scant 240,000 miles away (and the farthest from Earth human beings have yet to travel.) By contrast, anyone hypothesizing travel from another star, the nearest of which is roughly 36-trillion (36,000,000,000,000) miles away, is actually making incredible assumptions about energy.
So, when thinking about possible energy sources for a hypothesized visiting spacecraft, one can go one of two directions. The first is to invoke unproven, speculative energy sources, such as so-called “zero-point” energy or “exotic” matter, neither of which have yet to be discovered and are frankly useless to me as a field scientist. The second direction is to assume something more powerful than chemical rockets but known to modern science: atomic/nuclear power.
Whether fission or fusion, it’s hard to ignore the high energy density nuclear power possesses and the punch it provides, not to mention the fact that a nuclear power source will continue to function away from a spacecraft’s parent star and will last for centuries (a hypothetical necessity when even light takes years to travel between them!)
Note: This leads to a primary justification for choosing to perform radiation surveys at sites of alleged UFO landings or crashes. Aside from the fact that lore often describes UFO crash sites as radiological in nature, performing a radiation survey provides a way to test against the working hypothesis that during an alleged crash, either radioactive material was deposited into surface sediment from a damaged nuclear reactor or nuclear rocket, or the soil itself was exposed to a neutron radiation field that might have caused some latent radioactive activation of the soil. Unlike a speculative sort of power source, this is evidence one can conceivably search for and with a hypothesis one can rule against.
The take home? When even considering talking about space aliens from another world in our own atmosphere, you’re really talking about their ability to harness and manipulate an incredible amount of energy.
Just look at what it took us to get to our own moon.
Dr. Richard Haines and NARCAP
Our next scientific stop was to speak with Dr. Richard Haines, a former Chief of the NASA-Ames Space Human Factors Office and current director of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP). In my opinion, Dr. Haines presented a very unique, credible perspective on the need to investigate what he refers to as “unidentified aerial phenomena.”
During our interview, Dr. Haines explained that the rationale for putting some serious weight behind these investigations is not that he believes aliens are amongst us. Rather, he indicated that he believes there have been enough unusual sightings by commercial pilots to suggest there might really be unidentified physical phenomena of some kind going on in the skies. And, he adds, anything going on in the sky that we do not understand poses a potential risk to commercial air traffic.
Our interview was capped by listening to actual flight recordings between the crew of a commercial airliner over Texas in the midst of a UFO sighting and air traffic control. Listening to this recording actually presented some of the greatest suspense I felt during the investigation at-large. The chatter was real, the airline crew seemed struck with disbelief, and the air traffic controller was incredulous but eventually genuinely concerned.
Very bizarre, indeed. To me, this interview provided very real impetus to dive into the Texas investigation.
An Astronomical Analysis of Leroy Gaitan’s UFO Video
Officer Gaintan’s UFO video, which was featured at the beginning of this episode, bears the telltale hallmarks of two things. The first is what happens to a point of light when a camera zoom is taken beyond the focal point for the object, which can produce a small, central solid light with a semi-transparent halo surrounding it (Essentially, the object is out-of-focus). The second attribute relates to astronomical scintillation, the name of the process by which the light of a planet or bright star is interrupted and bounced around by the Earth’s atmosphere, which can admittedly look pretty strange. Of this, there are three dead giveaways in the video:
- The object makes no apparent maneuvers and continues on a single trajectory. As the Earth rotates, a star or planet would appear to move in the same fashion.
- The object is described as being low on the horizon. As opposed to being directly overhead, light attempting to reach our eyes (or cameras) from a low vantage against the horizon must pass through an extremely long swath of the atmosphere, which will bounce and scatter the light, making it appear to “pulsate” and flicker different colors. Think a magnified version of the “twinkle” effect of city lights at a distance, which is also due to the atmosphere.
- Leroy was looking south/southwest, and the object is seen slowly moving down and to the right (i.e., setting). It is in my opinion no coincidence that at the angle described, all stars/planets/celestial features would also appear to move in exactly the same direction.
To me, this is a very important take-home. Understanding the role of our atmosphere when attempting to look through it at objects in the sky is critical to any sort of nighttime sky-watching! So, I must agree that this video likely presents out-of-this-world evidence… However, the culprit is likely a planet low on the horizon more than an interstellar interloper!
The Stephenville Mass Sighting Flight Test – Audio
While the concept of misidentifying multiple formation aircraft as a single object was presented in the episode, one of the other primary facets of this demonstration, that of having the planes fly at multiple altitudes and measure sound intensity, was not really explained due to time constraints.
In a way, more than the potential for visual misidentification, the fact that the Stephenville mass sightings were apparently silent is a very intriguing facet. Using this information, one can either suggest a class of objects that do not make noise, or one can begin to confine the altitude of the objects sighted by witnesses by looking at the altitude from which sound carries to the ground. Our test aircraft, using conventional propellers, were clearly audible at 2,000 and 4,000 feet, though they became faint at 8,000 feet.
The results of this aspect of the demonstration indicated to me one of three possibilities:
1. The altitude of the sighted objects was underestimated.
2. The objects themselves employed advanced propulsion perhaps designed to minimize detection (military, e.g., vector-thrust engines).
3. The objects simply did not generate sound (e.g., flares.)
Without further video evidence or physical data of some kind substantiating the more exotic claims (i.e., craft of immense size, exhibiting extreme speed), it’s hard for me to speak to what it is the Stephenville residents actually saw the night of the mass sighting.
Dr. John Alexander and UFOs, Disclosure, and Peculiar Reality
While Dr. Alexander appeared briefly in the episode, what to me represented very compelling and intriguing aspects of his testimony were not included due to time constraints. These include his involvement in an internal, clandestine government investigation into whether or not any other compartmentalized facets of the government are concealing knowledge of UFOs. Think of it as a secret UFO audit conducted from the inside.
His conclusion? There is no government cover-up of UFOs! Instead, he alleges that the government has been completely forthright in admitting it has no knowledge of UFO phenomena. However, he goes on to deliver the line seen in the episode that he simultaneously believes the UFO phenomena to be very real.
How are these two views reconciled? Well, we began to peer down the rabbit hole when Dr. Alexander suggests that the phenomena might be “internal” in nature (i.e., experienced in the minds of the observer). However, he did not seem to imply that UFOs are simple hallucinations. Stranger still, when I attempted to determine what sort of view of reality Dr. Alexander espoused, he claimed to support a very scientific, deterministic view of the universe, yet he also agreed that he feels what we consider to be objective reality “has yet to be fully characterized!”
So, as I understand it, the incredible implication here is that in Dr. Alexander’s opinion, UFOs indicate the existence of facets of objective reality that are inaccessible to current scientific understanding. Certainly, this presents an extremely different take on UFOs compared to those simply espousing that “they’re real.”
Ryder’s UFO Video
While a very exciting catch, (I’ll admit to being wowed by the footage in the field), upon inspection there are aspects of Ryder’s UFO “ring” video that to me suggest a more terrestrial explanation:
- The video is being recorded in near-infrared – (light wavelength to 1000 nanometers) – which automatically has a tendency to make familiar objects appear unfamiliar.
- The sharpness of the apparent object in the frame, especially without something for the camera to focus on, to me, indicates an optical effect.
- The position of the object – being closer to the center of the frame than the object Ryder was actually following – is extraordinarily coincidental and again is indicative of optical effects, which tend to appear in the center of the frame and at the margins.
- The camera in Ryder’s hand was encircled by cameramen who were also using forward-facing infrared lights and who often changed position. This would provide multiple opportunities for an off-angle lens “flare” or other reflection effect to create a momentary elliptical shape on the camera’s lens.
One more down-to-Earth alternative is that the flash is simply a reflection from a more conventional object, like a power-pole transformer. However, there did not appear to be any such object in the frame at the time the “flash” was observed.
Another alternative explanation might be atmospheric electrical phenomena, as the appearance of the phenomenon seems to me very similar in nature to an electrical discharge of some kind, and it had stormed intensely in the area just hours earlier. In this light, my first suspicion is that it might be an “Elve,” a sort of exotic, ring-shaped high-altitude electrical phenomenon associated with thunderstorms. However, a quick conversation with Dr. Christopher Barrington-Leigh, an expert in upper-atmospheric electrodynamics at McGill University, rules out the possibility of the object being an Elve due to its brightness, sharpness, and duration.
For now, the phenomenon captured in this video remains a mystery.
A Find at the Old Grist Mill
Under ideal circumstances, all geophysical surveys would be conducted under the light of day. Unfortunately, logistical and travel requirements meant that we reached the Old Grist Mill survey location, which is the alleged site of a UFO crash in 1891, at night. However, despite this obstacle, our survey actually turned up an artifact!
In addition to collecting and analyzing several soil samples for trace metals and radioactive elements, we also uncovered a buried metal fragment from the south-central portion of the survey grid. Ultimately, sample results indicated nothing extraordinary (elevated aluminum and iron in the case of the former, and composed of aluminum in the case of the latter), indicating that trace metals in the soil as well as the metal fragment were likely the result of ordinary farming activity prevalent during the last century. The sampling effort didn’t turn up any evidence of a pervasive fire in the location either, further casting doubt on the UFO crash story.
Ultimately, as far as I believe the data suggests, the depression at the Old Grist Mill did not evidence the impact of anything extraordinary in 1891. However, it was fun to have the opportunity to demonstrate the process of establishing a survey grid, performing a survey, collecting samples, and analyzing the data to arrive at a conclusion!
Embellished Stories Common in Old Print
A pretty important follow-up point to make is that tabloid-style embellishment was actually common in respected local media at the time the 1891 Grist Mill “UFO” story was written. Believe-it-or-not, tongue-in-cheek stories would be printed, usually at the behest of town leadership or corporate or personal interests, to create a buzz about a location/product for economic benefit. Further, people understood this at the time and would apparently brush off fantastic stories as, essentially, a marketing ploy.
Give it a generation or two, and this cultural understanding has been all but completely lost. Compared to the news more than a century ago, transparency and accountability in the media have been vastly improved.
So, with this in mind, I believe it’s entirely possible that there never was a real sighting in 1891… Or at least, no deposited metal, fire, or “fragments of paper with strange markings,” which were also described at the crash site. Ultimately, I think our survey lends support to this interpretation.
Coda – The June Lyrids
As it happens, the aforementioned Old Grist Mill story may have been inspired by a rare but more conventional astronomical event – a meteor shower. I discovered a little-studied shower called the “June Lyrids” that just happens to take place at the same time as the Grist Mill sighting was reported to have occurred.
The fact that a meteor shower of any kind coincides with the event, particularly considering that the event’s description aligns very closely with a meteor burning up on reentry and potentially depositing meteorites, is awfully coincidental.
Keep in mind that something unidentified doesn’t immediately imply something extraordinary, despite the fact that it is tempting to lean that direction. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is important to delve not only into all aspects of what information is there, but also take a hard look at the underlying assumptions beneath your own “working hypothesis,” or what you think is really going on. Are there simpler explanations with less problematic assumptions? If so, figure out why these can’t work first. That’s the safest way to keep yourself honest and will set you on the firmest path toward discovering a definitive answer!
Ben McGee is a member of the Chasing UFOs team. A true skeptic by nature, Ben is Chasing UFOs’ resident scientist.
Get to know Ben and the rest of the Chasing UFOs team this Friday with back-to-back premieres of Chasing UFOs at 9P and 10P. And be sure to check back to the blog Friday night for Ben’s post-show wrap-up.