Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Jimmy Carter's UFO Sighting - Was it Venus, or a Space Cloud?

 A NASA rocket launch with a barium payload.

A UFO sighting was reported in 1973 by at-that-time future president president Jimmy Carter. It didn't attract much attention at the time. I began investigating the case in 1976, when Carter was running for president. However, there was no accurate information available to make it possible to find out what Carter saw. I began making various inquiries, looking for someone who might be able to provide some facts on the case. Finally, someone suggested that I contact Hayden Hewes, director of the International UFO Bureau, who had written a brief piece on the Carter sighting for Argosy UFO [Nov., 1976]. I reached Mr. Hewes by telephone at his home in Oklahoma City, and it was he who provided the first significant lead. When brief press reports appeared during the big UFO flap of 1973 to the effect that Governor Carter had previously spotted a UFO, the International UFO Bureau mailed a UFO sighting report to Carter at the State Capitol in Atlanta. Carter apparently filled out the form in some haste, his handwritten replies brief and not easily legible. He then mailed it back to Oklahoma. Mr. Hewes was kind enough to lend me a photographic transparency of the 1973 report in Carter's own handwriting.

It turns out that the sighting occurred in Leary, Georgia, about forty miles from Carter's home town of Plains, on the evening of January 6, 1969. (Carter mis-remembered the date as sometime on October, 1969, but I contacted the Lions Club headquarters in Illinois, which established the date as January 6). The future president was then the local district governor of the Lion's Club, and had come to Leary to boost the local chapter. While standing outdoors at approximately 7:15 pm, waiting for the Lion's Club meeting to begin, Mr. Carter reported seeing a single "self-luminous" object, "as bright as the moon," which reportedly approached and then receded several times. A reporter taped Carter's exact words in 1973 describing the UFO sighting. Carter said, 
There were about twenty of us standing outside of a little restaurant, I believe, a high school lunch room, and a kind of a green light appeared in the western sky. This was right after sundown. It got brighter and brighter. And then eventually it disappeared. It didn't have any solid substance to it, it was just a very peculiar-looking light. None of us could understand what it was. I've never made fun of people who've seen other things of that kind (From the documentary recording Factual Eyewitness Testimony of UFO Encounters, Chicago: Investigative Research Associates, Inc., 1978).
A copy of Carter's hand-written UFO sighting report, that I obtained from Hayden Hewes.
Although Carter reports that "ten members" of the Leary Lion's Club also witnessed the event, attempts to locate ten other witnesses proved fruitless. No one else seems to have paid much attention to the "UFO." While most Leary residents I interviewed did recall Mr. Carter's visit, even those who attended the meeting had no recollection or knowledge of any unidentified object being sighted.

I began making inquiries of various UFO researchers, looking for someone who might be able to provide some facts on the case. Finally, someone suggested that I contact Hayden Hewes, director of the International UFO Bureau, who had written a brief piece on the Carter sighting for Argosy UFO [Nov., 1976]. I reached Mr. Hewes by telephone at his home in Oklahoma City, and it was he who provided the first significant lead. When brief press reports appeared during the big UFO flap of 1973 to the effect that Governor Carter had previously spotted a UFO, the International UFO Bureau mailed a UFO sighting report to Carter at the State Capitol in Atlanta. Carter apparently filled out the form in some haste, his handwritten replies brief and not easily legible. He then mailed it back to Oklahoma. Mr. Hewes was kind enough to lend me a photographic transparency of the 1973 report in Carter's own handwriting.
Mr. Carter reports that his "UFO" was in the western sky, at about 30 degrees elevation. This almost perfectly matches the known position of Venus, which was in the west-southwest at an altitude of 25 degrees, azimuth 237 degrees. It was shining brilliantly at Magnitude -4.3, brighter than anything else in the sky. Weather records show that the sky was clear at the time of the sighting. Given the long history of Venus as "Queen of the UFOs," it seemed that we had the clear solution on hand. I wrote in  The Humanist magazine (then edited by Paul Kurtz), July-August, 1977 (p.46)

President Carter's "UFO" Is Identified as the Planet Venus

President Jimmy Carter's widely-reported "UFO sighting," which he made public while Governor of Georgia, was in fact a misidentification of the planet Venus. Several errors of identification within Mr. Carter's report demonstrate that the eyewitness testimony of even a future president of the United States cannot be taken at face value when investigating UFO sightings.

The incident occurred in Leary, Georgia, about forty miles from Plains, on the evening of January 6, 1969. Mr. Carter was the local district governor of the Lion's Club, and had come to Leary to boost the local chapter. While standing outdoors at approximately 7:15 pm, waiting for the Lion's Club meeting to begin, Mr. Carter reported seeing a single "self-luminous" object, "as bright as the moon," which reportedly approached and then receded several times. Mr. Carter reports that his "UFO" was in the western sky, at about 30 degrees elevation. This almost perfectly matches the known position of Venus, which was in the west-southwest at an altitude of 25 degrees. Weather records show that the sky was clear at the time of the sighting.

No other object generates as many UFO reports as the planet Venus. Venus is not as bright as the moon, nor does it actually approach the viewer, or change size and brightness, but descriptions like these are typical of misidentifications of a bright planet. Every time Venus reaches its maximum brilliance in the evening sky, hundreds of "UFO sightings" of this type are made. At the time of the Carter UFO sighting, Venus was a brilliant evening star, nearly one hundred times brighter than a first-magnitude star.

And for the most part, serious UFO researchers accepted this identification. After all, Jacques Vallee, who is certainly no debunker, had written,
No single object has been misinterpreted as a "flying saucer" more than the planet Venus. The study of these mistakes proves quite instructive, for it shows beyond all possible dispute the limitations of sensory perception and the weakness of accounts relating shapes and motions of point sources or objects with small apparent diameters. (Challenge to Science, 1966, p. 110).
The southwest sky as seen from Leary, Ga, at 7:15 PM January 6, 1969. The Bull's Eye shows the calculated position where a barium cloud might have been visible, quite close to Venus. (Sky chart generated using the free open-source program Cartes du Ciel.)

So there the matter stood for forty years. Then just a week ago, an associate of space writer and skeptic James Oberg contacted him, suggesting the possibility that what Carter might have seen was a bright barium space cloud from a NASA rocket, launched to study the behavior of the upper atmosphere. In fact, this possibility was discussed in episode 561 of the popular skeptics' podcast Skeptics Guide to the Universe on April 9, 2016, although neither Oberg nor I was aware of this. I was familiar with such launches, and even saw one in the 1970s when I was living in Maryland. (Frankly, the one I saw was not all that bright or spectacular.) 

James Oberg made this map, showing the location of Leary, Georgia, and the path of the rockets.
It turns out that there were in fact two rocket launches from Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle on the evening of January 6 that might possibly have been seen from Leary. The first one was launched at 6:41 PM, and contained Barium, which would usually appear red. The second was launched at 7:35 PM, and contained Tri-methyl aluminum (TMA), which would appear white or blue. Each would have become visible about 3-4 minutes after launch, and might have remained visible for 30 minutes or more. Carter said that he was "Outside waiting for a meeting to begin at 7:30 PM." If that information is correct, it would seem to rule out them seeing the second launch. However, the cloud that became visible about 6:45 PM might still be visible at 7:15. And that cloud would have been right next to the brilliant Venus!

Supporting the Barium cloud hypothesis are Carter's statements that the object "Seemed to move tow(ard?) us from a distance - Sto(p?) move partially away Return then depart Bluish at first - then reddish - Luminous - not solid.

Against the Barium cloud hypothesis is Carter's statement that the object was "sharply outlined."

More research needs to be done before we can conclude that a Barium space cloud was definitely responsible for this famous sighting. But it seems an intriguing possibility.

For a lot more information on the Carter UFO sighting, see my book UFO Sightings - The Evidence (Prometheus, 1998) and my page on the Carter sighting on Debunker.com.

9 comments:

  1. Here is a letter sent to Carter last year, which has been shared around....

    I'm sorry to have missed your recent presentation to the Alpharetta Historical Society. Friends of mine who attended said it was quite good. I am a native Atlantan, former Professor at GA Tech, longtime admirer of President Carter, and longtime contributor to The Carter Center. After recently reading the book 'Georgia Myths & Legends', by Augusta Chronicle columnist Don Rhodes, specifically Chapter 5 'Jimmy Carter and the UFO', I am virtually certain that I have identified the source of what it was that President Carter saw. In the 1960s and early 70s I worked on an Air Force sponsored project that studied the upper atmosphere using releases of glowing chemical clouds, produced by rockets launched from Eglin AFB rocket range in Florida. Some of these chemical clouds, notably sodium and barium, were visible by the process of resonance scattering of sunlight. Clouds of this type had to be launched not long after sunset or not long before sunrise. This was due to the fact that the cloud had to be in sunlight at high altitude, while it was still dark enough at ground level for the cloud to be visible against the dark sky. In Carter's official 1973 UFO report, as given in the Rhodes book, he stated that he had seen the phenomenon in October, 1969, at 7:15 pm EST. However, it has been determined from Lions Club records that Carter must have seen the 'UFO' when he spoke to their Leary, GA Chapter on January 6, 1969. The report 'U.S. Space Science Program Report to COSPAR, 1970' (QB504.U54, Appendix I, page 154), documents that there was a barium cloud launched from Eglin AFB (Rocket Number AG7.626) and released on January 6, 1969 at 7:35 pm EST (January 7, 1969, 0035 UTC) [COSPAR stands for Committee on Space Research]. The reported altitude for this cloud was 152 km. With a distance between Leary, GA and Eglin AFB, FL of about 234 km, this cloud would have appeared in the sky at an elevation of 33 degrees (consistent with Carter's estimate of a 30 degree elevation). Carter's report notes that stars were visible, so the night must have been clear. I can verify from personal experience that under clear skies, a barium cloud such as this would easily have been visible from the distance of Leary, GA. Carter reported the UFO 'appeared from West'. The direction of Eglin AFB from Leary, GA is approximately WSW. Thus this barium cloud at Eglin is consistent with Carter's reported 'UFO' as to time, elevation, AND direction. Furthermore, the appearance reported by Carter is totally consistent with a high altitude barium cloud. His report stated that it was 'bluish at first, then reddish, luminous not solid'. A neutral barium cloud would initially glow bluish or greenish, with parts of it taking on a reddish glow as some the barium becomes ionized in the high altitude sunlight. The size and brightness, reported as being about that of the moon, would also be consistent with a barium cloud at Eglin, as viewed from Leary, GA Carter has been reported as saying that he never believed that he had seen an alien spacecraft, but that he had no idea exactly what it was. I'm interested in exploring if this information could be relayed to President Carter, so that if he wishes to, he can better understand what it was that he saw back then. Do you have any suggestions? In the past few weeks, I have used several avenues for sending this information to the Carter Center Library and have yet to receive a reply. A Facebook Messenger inquiry to the Carter Library FB page provided me with the email address of Tony Clark, Public Affairs Director of the Carter Library. I emailed him the above information, but have yet to receive a reply. Thanks, Carl G. 'Jere' Justus

    ReplyDelete
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    1. You do know, don't you, that posting massive walls of text with no paragraph breaks is basically equivalent to saying: "Hello, internet, don't read this because I'm a loony"?

      You might perhaps argue that the presumably borderline autistic author of the text you copypasted didn't use paragraph breaks either. In which case you've just made two people look like loonies for the price of one. No wonder ex-president Carter didn't answer.

      Delete
    2. Since Jim posted this, I have added the link to the SGU page about this in the text above.

      Delete
    3. Count Otto graces us with another of his erudite complaints.

      Actually that's exactly how the text appears on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe web page. I saw a few other letters on that site, and I didn't see any paragraph breaks on any of them. So I think you need to blame the SGU webmaster, and not the letter's author.

      Now, don't you feel sorry about shaming an innocent man like that?

      Delete
  2. If the UFO was something other than Venus, it's interesting that Carter didn't report that the UFO was near a very bright "star" (i.e., Venus). Could this pose a problem for the space-cloud hypothesis?

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    1. My thoughts too. How anyone could report a UFO and NOT report Venus right beside it, is puzzling.

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    2. Well, if you check on-line report datsbases for that date, several people in the same viewing area filed reports during that hour.

      http://thecid.com/ufo/chrono/chrono/1969.htm

      6 January 1969 18:30 - Auburndale, Florida, USA - One object was observed by three witnesses. 153 Keel, John A.
      UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse; 208 Huyghe, Patrick
      Special Report on 1968 Cases; 305 Eberhart, George M.
      A Geo-Bibliography of Anomalies
      Greenwood Press, Westport, 1980
      6 January 1969 18:30 - Spartanburg Sw, South Carolina, USA - Nocturnal lights were observed by a male witness (Beliste). 305; 676 Hatch, Larry *U* computer database Author, Redwood City, 2002
      6 January 1969 19:00 - Greenwood, South Carolina, USA - More than two objects were observed by a male witness. 153; 208; 305

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  3. Is this entire blog an argument against the existence of UFOs or to argue against specific UFO cases?

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  4. Doesn't Barium burn a brilliant green where does red and blue come into it? Just curious Les.

    ReplyDelete

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