Thursday, September 14, 2017

Another Nonsensical "Explanation" for the Kecksburg Incident

The so-called "UFO Crash" at Kecksburg, Pennsylvania on December 9, 1965 has become a UFO legend as a 'second Roswell.'  In reality, there is no mystery at all. The supposed "UFO" was simply the Great Lakes Fireball of December 9, 1965, reported by many observers over a wide area and written about by astronomers.

The train of the Great Lakes Fireball, seen across at least six states and Ontario, that started the Kecksburg 'UFO crash' story. Photo taken 9 December 1965 4:43 p.m. E.S.T. by Richard Champine of Royal Oak, Michigan. Location: 2 miles east of Pontiac, Michigan, approx. 45 seconds after event.

That hasn't stopped UFOlogists from proposing elaborate and unlikely alternate explanations, including a "UFO crash." In 2015, MUFON's Pennsylvania state director John Ventre, along with Owen Eichler, "explained" that  the Kecksburg incident was probably caused by a GE Mark 2 capsule from a Program 437 rocket launched from Johnson Island in the Pacific on 7 December 1965. Ventre already had a reputation for making dubious claims and frequently appeared on MUFON's sensation-mongering TV series Hangar 1. That reputation was enhanced by his claim that the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH-370 was probably abducted by extraterrestrials.  More recently, Ventre was at the center of a shit-storm in MUFON concerning some apparently racist comments he posted, and was (somewhat reluctantly) given the boot by MUFON's director Jan Harzan.

Canadian researcher Ted Molczan, perhaps the leading civilian expert on satellite orbits, quickly shot this claim down. He wrote that "Ventre and Eichler concluded that the Kecksburg UFO sightings were of a General Electric Mark II re-entry vehicle, launched on a variant of Program 437, called 437AP (Alternate Payload), which replaced the ASAT warhead with a satellite inspector. However, 437AP launches were sub-orbital," and hence could not possibly have orbited the earth for two days before allegedly coming down in Kecksburg. Molczan noted that "they omitted the conclusion of the experts that the flight ended with a destructive impact into the ocean... none of the key claims of Ventre and Eichler withstand scrutiny. The Program 437AP launch in question was sub-orbital and Kecksburg was far beyond the range of the Thor IRBM. That alone is fatal for their theory."
Now there is a brand new theory to explain Kecksburg, by Bob Wenzel Gross, a "semi-retired researcher and writer with a forthcoming non-fiction memoir entitled: In Pursuit of Anomalies: How Great Music and Real UFOs Can Save the Human Race. Dr. Gross has worked as a researcher, field investigator, scientist, writer, lecturer, educator, administrator, change agent, turnaround specialist, and professional musician." Published in Frank Warren's UFO Chronicles, Gross' account is very long-winded, and you can mostly ignore Part 1 - it's just Gross showing what a clever guy he is:
On or about June 1, 2016, I declared that the Kecksburg case would be my inaugural attempt at unraveling an established (fifty year old) UFO mystery. I gathered and analyzing new relevant data from the existing literature. Thus, I closed the Kecksburg case, once and for all, by applying scientific methodology to aggressive research. I strongly believe I solved the Kecksburg enigma—beyond the shadow of a doubt. (emphasis added)
Wow, what a guy!!!!

Gross' loopy "explanation" is in the second part, involving the once highly-classified Corona surveillance satellite, the earliest "spy satellite" that would fly over the Soviet Union to take pictures from orbit, then drop its film canisters back to earth for recovery.

Corona surveillance satellites were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California...Corona satellites employed Satellite Recovery Vehicles (SRVs). These recovery vehicles were essentially space capsules with nosecone-like forebodies featuring heatshields made from a type of a composite metal that, to a degree, burned away during reentry. Enclosed within the SRV’s protective heat shielded forebody was perhaps the most valuable part of the SRV. It was a gold-plated capsule designed to be recovered by parachute. ...
A Corona Satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on December 9, 1965. Due to an anomaly of sorts, its recovery vehicle separated from the satellite earlier than planned. Thus, this Corona recovery vehicle in conjunction with its film bucket is a highly viable candidate for the object that landed in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania on that same date.

The Corona KH-4A series consisted of "Film return with two reentry vehicles and two panoramic cameras."  KH-4A 1027 was launched  at 1:07 PM PST on 9 Dec 1965  from Vandenberg AFB aboard a Thor Agena D rocket. This was 35 minutes before the completely unrelated Great Lakes Fireball was widely seen across the eastern U.S. and Canada at 4:42 PM EST. The rocket was launched almost due south with an 80 degree inclination to the equator, which would allow it to fly over every part of the Soviet Union.

An Air Force JC-130B practices catching a satellite “bucket” with grappling gear and winch at Edwards AFB, Calif., 1969. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Gross speculates, based on nothing except his need for the rocket to be in Kecksburg, that
instead of heading south, the rocket system headed for a launch trajectory that would cut a northeasterly path across the United States... In an attempt to regain control of Satellite KH-4A 1027’s orientation, the foreword recovery vehicle (SRV-1) was separated from the spacecraft. The separation was done at some time before the engine burn that would have injected the satellite into orbit. This action was followed by placing the aft recovery vehicle (SRV-2) into a passive mode for the time being. Fortunately, jettisoning SRV-1 resolved the Corona satellite’s attitude problem for the time being.
According to NASA, "Erratic attitude necessitated recovery of this KH-4A (Key Hole 4A) type spacecraft after just two days of operation. All the cameras operated satisfactorily." But a satellite's "attitude" is not the same as its "orbital inclination," as Gross seems to think. The satellite could not control where its cameras were pointing (attitude), although it went into orbit exactly as planned. According to Remote Sensing from Air and Space by Richard C. Olsen (p. 239), KH-4A 1027 suffered a "control gas loss," and thus would not be able to keep its cameras pointed in the desired direction. But this means that the satellite achieved its desired orbit, and the reentry pods remained in orbit for at least two days - long after the sightings near Kecksburg. There is absolutely no evidence that one of its film recovery vehicles separated prematurely, as Gross speculates.

I sent Ted Molczan the links to Gross' articles to get his comments. Molczan consulted a 1966 document about the Corona program from the National Reconnaissance Office, originally classified "top secret," then declassified in 1997. From it he extracted the following information pertaining to mission KH-4A 1027 (emphasis added):
All launch, ascent and injection events occurred as programmed. Both Thor and Agena propulsion and guidance was normal and resulted in the desired orbit. After the Agena yaw around maneuver, the guidance pneumatics failed to switch to low gain. This condition resulted in gas supply depletion by orbit 9 and loss of stability by orbit 15.

Loss of vehicle stability necessitated first mission recovery on orbit 17 and second recovery on orbit 33. Both recoveries were executed using the lifeboat system and aircraft pickup
So, according to these once-secret documents, the Corona mission launched from Vandenberg on 9 December 1965 achieved its "desired orbit" by flying almost due south across the Pacific, and did not go careening wildly across the U.S., dropping its film payload over Kecksburg, as Gross imagines happened.

From that same NRO document:

Recovery was enabled in the lifeboat mode on pass 16 [redaction] and executed on pass 17 on December 10, 1965. All events monitored occurred within their prescribed tolerances. Lifeboat gas pressure indicated an adequate supply for a second lifeboat recovery attempt.

Predicted Impact 22° 00'N, 152° 01'W

Actual Impact    22° 22'N, 151° 50'W

The condition of the air recovered capsule was normal.


Recovery was enabled and executed in the lifeboat mode on pass 33. The capsule was air recovered on 11 December 1965, All events monitored occurred within the prescribed tolerances. See Table 5-1.

Predicted Impact  24° OO'N, 147° 03'W
Actual Impact     23° 3l'N, 146° 30'W

The condition of the recovered capsule was normal.

So, according to once-secret records, both of the film reentry capsules were recovered normally, over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Neither one fell into the woods near Kecksburg, Pennsylvania before the satellite achieved orbit. Molczan commented,
Gross and Ventre/Eichler claimed to find non-UFO explanations for Kecksburg, but failed because they relied on the methods of ufology, which tend to be unreliable.

The biggest error that both made was to ignore the scientific and journalistic evidence that the event was due to a meteoric fireball that disintegrated near Detroit, and accept the unsubstantiated claims that surfaced decades later, which are the foundation of the modern Kecksburg myth. That doomed them to try to fit a theory to what almost certainly is false data.... Gross attempted to solve some of the same problems as Ventre/Eichler. He tried to get a Corona SRV to Kecksburg by claiming that one launched that day went spectacularly off course, despite the contrary historical record. He needed a radiation danger, so he claimed one existed, without providing any evidence.

Gross and Ventre/Eichler have nicely demonstrated that the methods of ufology do not work, even when investigating non-ET solutions.
The launch in question did indeed contain an experiment:
Nuclear emulsion experiment, NSSDC ID: 1965-102A-01
Mission Name: KH-4A 1027
Principal Investigator: Mr. Robert C. Filz, Principal Investigator, Phillips Laboratory (nee USAF Geophysics Lab, nee Cambridge Labs)

Gross suggests, based on nothing more than his own misunderstanding of the term "nuclear emulsion," that there was something terribly dangerous about this Corona mission:
 It is reasonable to think that one of the SRVs had a potent nuclear experiment packed on board.

Documentation about this nuclear experiment has been lacking by design. However, it is clear that this experiment was intended to study Earth’s magnetosphere. The experiment was developed by the Phillips Laboratory in conjunction with the US Air Force. The experiment was enclosed inside a recovery capsule. Thus, the experiment would have been stowed carefully inside the film bucket of one of the satellite’s two SRV’s. For practicality and functionality, the front recovery vehicle (SRV-1) probably contained the nuclear test.

The National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) has not yet supplied sufficient details about the true nature of this nuclear emulsion experiment. From the onset, disinformation has been an integral part of the Corona program.. based on continual research, I can confidently surmise that the magnetosphere study may have encompassed at least three possible sorts of nuclear trials. I ranked these proposed experiments by danger levels. The danger levels take into account both physical and political safety considerations.

A rather low-danger-level nuclear experiment may have involved a cosmic ray study to detect radioactively charged particles trapped in an emulsion by energy generated through cosmic radiation. The radiation would interact with the emulsion. Such emulsions are made of gelatin and silver salt molecules that act when charged particles pass through. The molecules are excited by the passage for a period of time and can be converted to metallic silver. A satisfactory approach to this kind of test involves exposing the emulsion to high cosmic radiation long enough to capture particles (Stratopedia 2017).

A moderate-danger-level nuclear experiment may have involved studying organisms’ sensitivity to radiation in microgravity. As a result, such experiments may have involved placing by-products of nuclear fission in the recovery capsule along with a living animal. In this case, the animal may have been a primate (Popular Mechanics 2010).

An extremely high-danger-level nuclear experiment may have involved atmospheric tests of a nuclear explosive device. In the 1960s, the United States wanted to find out what happened when nuclear weapons are detonated in space. Regardless of the potentially great danger related to physical damage, the political damage associated with testing any nuclear device in space would have been astronomical.
Gross leaps from the first "low danger nuclear experiment" which is more or less correct (it should be described as a "no-danger cosmic ray experiment") to his speculations about an "extremely high-danger-level nuclear experiment" involving "a nuclear explosive device," which is totally absurd.

What is a "nuclear emulsion"? It sounds dangerous, but in fact it's not. According to the on-line Encyclopedia Brittanica
Nuclear photographic emulsion, also called Nuclear Emulsion, radiation detector generally in the form of a glass plate thinly coated with a transparent medium containing a silver halide compound. Passage of charged subatomic particles is recorded in the emulsion in the same way that ordinary black and white photographic film records a picture.
In other words, it's just a specially coated photographic plate, designed to detect radioactive particles. A "nuclear emulsion" is not itself radioactive! But Gross needs to stir up nuclear hysteria to justify a supposed military efforts to seal off the area and recover the supposedly hazardous "nuclear experiment."

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for Gross to tell us "How Great Music and Real UFOs Can Save the Human Race." (From what?)

Robert Young's article debunking the Kecksburg claim was published as far back as the Spring, 1991 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer magazine (Vol. 15 no. 3): "Old-Solved Mysteries: The Kecksburg Incident." An updated version of "Old-Solved Mysteries" begins on p. 177 of the book The UFO Invasion, edited by Kendrick Frazier, Barry Karr, and Joe Nickell. (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1997). So the solution is well-known and has been for over twenty-five years, although many UFOlogists have determined to simply ignore it, and claim that a UFO crashed.

Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 61 No. 4, pp. 184-190.

In this article, the astronomers actually calculated the orbit around the sun of the meteor responsible for the Great Lakes Fireball before it entered the earth's atmosphere.

The green dot shows the location og Kecksburg, PA.

The people of Kecksburg have erected this monument to the supposed acorn-shaped space capsule that allegedly crashed nearby

We will let Zippy the Pinhead have the last word on Kecksburg:

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Skeptic on "UFO Classified"

On September 8, 2017 I appeared on the internet radio show UFO Classified on KCOR radio, hosted by Erica Luke. KCOR specializes in the "paranormal" and other far-out stuff. I first met Erica at the MUFON Symposium in 2015, and spoke with her again at the UFO Congress in February of this year. She was formerly MUFON's State Director for Utah, and even received a "Certificate of Appreciation" for "outstanding service to the Mutual UFO Network." However, she has since left MUFON and has formed an organization called Unexplained Utah, which includes "paranormal research" and cryptozoology, as well as UFOs.

Erica Lukes, with Ted Roe of NARCAP, at the 2017 UFO Congress.

On the internet radio show, we spoke for two hours about many things, including the Phoenix Lights, and the reasons to disbelieve former governor Fife Symington's hastily made-up yarn about seeing them, too. We also discussed the alleged anomalous lights that have reportedly been seen at Hessdalen in Norway for at least 34 years (think, "Brown Mountain Lights" or "Marfa Lights"). Erica is heading off to Hessdalen next week, to participate in a "science camp" where people come each year to camp out and look at lights in the sky, but ultimately learn nothing about them. She has said she will be bringing, in addition to various cameras, an "infra-red thermal scanner" and a "Tri-field meter." (think, "Ghost Hunters.") What's missing, I told her, are "binoculars,"or "a spotting scope on a tripod," or indeed any optical aid of any kind. They don't need no stinkin' binoculars or optical aid at Hessdalen - they study the lights by measuring their electromagnetic and spectroscopic properties!  But, hey, best wishes to Erica for what I'm sure will be a fun trip. I can't wait to hear what she has to say when she gets back.

You can listen to the recording of the show here: