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Commentary on the STS-48 Video: A Closer Look, and Second Thoughts

Thomas. E. Carey, 1993

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: Analysis of the video of a possible UFO taken by Shuttle astronauts during the STS-48 mission.

Note: This commentary assumes familiarity with the STS-48 video sequence in its commercial edition.

On the distance to the "target"

Taking the shuttle's altitude above the surface as 355 miles, and earth's radius as (approximately) 4000 miles, the distance to the horizon works out to about 1700 miles. [(4000+355)*cos(arcsin(4000/4355)) = 1722] The so-called "target" appears to rise over the horizon; that would place it at least that far from the camera (about 1700 mi.) But this is only the minimum range; it could have been further out on the sight line.

But if the scene was staged for the shuttle camera (maybe for live broadcast too ???) the object may have been closer than the horizon. Its apparent rising over the limb could be simulated by appropriate control of timing, luminosity, and positioning, even so far as the observed brightening when the sight line transits the airglow layer. That (Byzantine) scenario aside, the case is well made that the "object" is seen through the airglow layer as it departs. This does not show it to be at the distance of the horizon, only that it is probably not much closer. At (say) twice that distance, the observed departure track (after the "flash") would look much the same; a similar brightening would appear as the line of sight crossed the airglow layer. Naturally the greater its distance from the camera, the more extreme its speeds and accelerations must be; and conversely.

Can anything be found in the video sequence, or inferred from it, to show that when the object first appeared at the limb, and/or during its horizontal traverse, it was within the atmosphere, i.e., below the airglow, rather than beyond it? It was luminous, and its brightness changed as it departed; but the same is true of the other wandering objects that we can see. They also glow, move, change course and speed, vary in brightness. Can it be shown that these objects, or any of them, are in the atmosphere? My own subjective impression is that all these wanderers are above it (some lower, maybe some higher than the shuttle). Their luminosities change, but not in proportion to velocity, as would be caused by frictional heating.

On Brightness, Color and CCD's

Over the years many eyewitness reports of so-called UFO's have stated that the object(s) observed changed brightness and/or color, sometimes coincidentally with apparent changes in speed or direction. The STS-48 sequence carries data on brightness but not on color. The CCD's used in that camera may not be equally responsive to all wavelengths; and if its spectral sensitivity profile were known, a careful densitometric study of the film might support the idea that some of the changes in brightness might be color changes instead. The sequenced "blinking" exhibited by some of the wandering objects might also be changes of color, not of brightness, or both. From the position and orbit of the shuttle, the time of the events, and the orientation of the camera, the stars seen throughout the sequence can be identified. Possibly the camera's response to different wavelengths could be calibrated by comparing the video images of the brighter stars with their (known) spectral signatures and magnitudes.

A wonderful, time-consuming project for a skilled person using first class equipment... someone's graduate assistant, say. I got to thinking about this after noticing that in the high speed run of the "flash" sequence, the two "shot" tracks appear quite different from each other. The first, at left, is of relatively constant brightness (to my eyes, at least). The second one, angling toward the right, is notably slower, and its brightness fluctuates at regular intervals (perhaps 3 or four cycles along its track). This may suggest that the track is not simply an ionization trail.

Another point: conceivably, the difference in speed of these two tracks could be partly or wholly an artifact of perspective. If the left-hand track were skewed at a greater angle to the camera's line of sight than the (slower) right-hand track, the apparent difference in speeds might be illusory.

What are Brilliant Pebbles made of?

I haven't followed the open technical literature on SDI very closely. But I have the impression that essential to the "Brilliant Pebbles" concept was a very dense ballistic projectile accelerated to a very high speed, which would deliver enormous kinetic energy disastrously to anything it impacted. Depleted uranium has been mentioned as the material of choice. One of the applications, supposedly, was to strike an ICBM in its boost phase. A distinctive thermal signature and relatively slow speed make targeting at this stage attractive. Here the "pebble", launched from space, would traverse a certain amount of atmosphere. Its high density (small cross section) would limit deflection by the atmosphere, and most of its mass would survive ablation.

Perhaps the argument was made that results might improve if the missile were targeted outside the atmosphere. With no atmospheric resistance, one could use a swarm of "pebblitos" [if this neologism is new, it's public now...], to be dispersed near the target in a controlled manner. Still, to ensure physical destruction of the targeted missile, very dense material would be preferred to maximize the kinetic energy delivered. In space a few pinto beans moving fast enough can hole a vehicle and disable its crew, but a ballistic missile doesn't need to breathe, and its warhead could be armored.

Comments on the STS-48 video seem to assume that the "target object" was in atmosphere when the railgun was fired. Can this be demonstrated? If it were in atmosphere, reference to the "shot" as a swarm of plastic pellets is puzzling. I doubt that pellets would maintain accuracy while passing through the atmosphere, or deliver sufficient kinetic energy at the target, as a result of ablation, turbulence and atmospheric drag.

On the idea of SDI

Does this video sequence record the test firing of a "Star Wars" device? Simplifying assumptions can lead one astray, but I make one here: that if SDI hardware of terrestrial manufacture is involved, it is under military, not civilian, control. And a military firing range is strictly regulated, for two reasons: safety and security. One doesn't want to lose anyone down range by misadventure; but more especially one doesn't want observant strangers out there taking notes on the performance of classified weapons systems.

Looking at the entire STS-48 sequence, with so many luminous objects wandering around at will, it's not easy to equate what I see with a military firing range. On the other hand - out there in space is the only range there is, and we can't control access to it.

There's another problem. Assume for the moment that the video does show a shot from a space-based railgun of terrestrial construction, under human direction, at a target on a test range. Clearly the capabilities of the target object are truly extraordinary. So extraordinary, in fact, that one wonders why the railgun would be needed. The object called a "target" looks to be agile enough to overtake an ICBM (or anything else) with ease, match its trajectory, and either paint "Kilroy was here" on the hull or stick a 50 kilo limpet mine on it.

Something certainly appears to have been fired at a target. It's not so certain that the target was under the same jurisdiction as the weapon.

In November 1992 some of us saw segments of this STS-48 video which don't appear in this commercial edition. I remember that the shuttle communicator seemed to have foreknowledge of something about to occur (indicating they were following the mission profile); and also that after the event, both voices (shuttle and Houston), expressed extreme surprise at what they had just seen.

I wish these voice exchanges had been included. (I know there was very little room left on the UN tape.) But this colloquy with Houston is vital, in that it almost surely refutes the idea that we're looking at a hostile shot at some intruder, since the mission planners could not have scheduled such an intrusion.

Of course, both shuttle crew and ground control may have been left out of the loop in this instance. This would raise other questions as to who's in charge, and what the real mission is.

But there is a way, after all, to make the SDI scheme fit what we see. Assume that this really was a range test of a railgun weapon in the SDI program. And STS-48 was tasked to photograph it; then NASA crews at both ends would be looking for it. But something surprised them. That surprise may have been the bizarre and unscheduled behavior of the target drone, which did not submit numbly to its fate.

In this speculative scenario, one might speculate that some other agency unexpectedly took control of the target, vividly demonstrating its capabilities to a select audience. For me this notion has a certain charm. But it doesn't account for the second shot track, on the right, or the several other objects which wander throughout the scene, apparently at will. Maybe this "happening" was laid on in the knowledge that the cameras would be rolling during the SDI exercise. Then, by accident or design, the broadcast went public in real time. Here other interesting questions arise. Whose demonstration was it, actually? whose design? and how many cooks were in the kitchen?

I don't think it's conclusively shown here that this video covers an SDI exercise, though it may have done. Nor is it certain that all, or any, of the activities we see in this sequence (aside from shuttle operations) are being conducted by human beings. Yet obviously the crew and the controllers were expecting something just then. We don't know much for sure. Where and when are pretty well established; but who, and what, and why are not. Nor is how, for that matter....

The Sixty Four Billion Dollar Question

The level of technology we see in this video (if it is not an elaborate deceit), is without question orders of magnitude beyond what we currently consider as state of the art. Any outfit with such control of inertia and (or?) gravitation could put a crew on Mars before lunch any day of the week, and bring them back home the same day - with rocks and fossils and soil samples.

Yet NASA openly budgets billions of dollars on space operations based on conventional propulsion systems, and it still depends on elaborate life-support apparatus even for relatively short cis-lunar missions. And it is designing an expensive space station around this conventional technology. Is all this just a shadow-show? Are we crazy, or what?

There is a black budget, and it is large. Over the years it may have been used to develop a limited electro-gravitic technology, even to the point of operating vehicles freely in local space. The ability to launch on opportunity may already have been achieved. The effect of recoil on an orbiting platform could be controlled. But the current level of (black) technology may not yet be compatible with crew survival, allowing use of unmanned vehicles only.

If what the video shows was indeed a railgun shot, the railgun was either already in orbit, having been launched conventionally sometime earlier; or it simply rose to the occasion from its base. Could a conventional launch be concealed? Could an orbiting platform be hidden? It would need occasional maintenance. Are maintenance missions observed? Could they be hidden?

Could some technology enable a platform to keep geographic station at less then synchronous altitude?

What, me worry?

During the war New Guinea natives saw landing strips and control towers being built in their jungles, and then day after day watched the cargo planes come out of the sky to unload the most incredible bounty. When the war was over, the planes stopped coming. So the natives cleared some strips in the jungle, built towers out of tree-trunks and branches, and waited for the planes to come down. That's what they saw the soldiers do, and they knew it worked. But the planes never came.

We call these beliefs, and their efforts, "cargo cults", and we laugh at them. But given the paradigms through which they understood their world, it was all quite logical. The problem was that an enormous and complex world was impinging upon them, the world of twentieth-century technology. A world they knew nothing about. A world for which they had no concepts, a world they had no language to describe. Our society may be in a similar situation.

Of course our cargo cults nowadays will be more sophisticated.

Not many structural conclusions can be drawn from the limited data we've got so far. The tetrahedral geometry Hoagland and others have identified, recognizable now throughout the solar system, has implications which are profound. Who will be pursuing those "implications"? Developing the new technology? Acquiring, controlling and disseminating such information?

The powerful control structures now in place on earth - economic, political, social---are not likely to give way voluntarily. Yet the logical evolution of "tetrahedral geometry" and the technologies which will follow, is certain to threaten many of these structures. Efforts to frustrate exploration and maintain control of any developments have already been made, and will grow stronger. Very likely, when Cydonia is actually explored, a good deal more will be discovered than geometric puzzles. Yet for the foreseeable future, the technical capacity of our civilization to reach Cydonia lies solely in the hands of those whose interests may not favor disclosure.

The "security" measures NASA has now installed, even for the Mars Observer photos, pretty strongly suggest that someone either knows or fears what the high-resolution camera will show on Mars. I can't conceive that anything we see on Mars could impair our "National Security" in the conventional sense. But the comfort of conventional beliefs, and the great power of established hegemonies, may well be at risk. Some people seem to be worrying!

There are indications lately that others may be intervening in some positive fashion. It would be nice to think that somebody else will fix our problems here, but I don't think it's likely to happen. Even if "George" is out there, "George" won't do it. I'm willing to bet we're going to have to do all the work down here.

We'll get some hints, some psychological interventions (as in, I suspect, this STS-48 video, and in the English crop formations). I said interventions. Not messages. These events (and others) had, and are having, consequences for our culture, largely unknown. And I assume that unhelpful interventions are also occurring.

If some real civilization is looking at this planet, they will be seeing Yugoslavia raised to the pi'th power. What's tangled in our society, we have to untangle by ourselves. If we want to, we can; and if we don't want to, it can't be done. Who else would even try?

Postscript, June, 1996

The aforementioned conventional beliefs and established hegemonies face even stronger challenges now, with the discovery of these incredible ruins on the Moon.

We don't have to wait for the government to mount a Moon mission, to investigate what it considers useful, sequester whatever information it chooses, and later disclose only what it deems appropriate. This is not like Mars.

We can get to the Moon from here. And it won't cost a gazillion dollars, either. We can see for ourselves. If all we find up there is barren regolith, craters, moon dust, and Alan Bean's footprints, so be it. At least we could believe it then.

Atlanta, June, 1996


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STS-48 Space Shuttle Video