This article originally appeared in the Winter 1988-89 issue of the local astronomy club's publication "Inside Orbit."
For the astronomy amateur, the heavens are a scene of familiarity. On a clear night, one can expect to see the same star patterns, galaxies, star clusters, and nebulas that were seen the year before. Planetary positions, together with those of asteroids and most new comets, are only as far from reach as the nearest monthly ephemeris. Even the elusive aurora borealis is predictable to some measure, and meteor showers, though variable in their intensity, tend to occur annually like clockwork. Occasionally, one might be fortunate enough to witness the decent and breakup of a large fireball or a head-on "point" meteor. While unusual, such events are well known and understood.
Yet there is reasonable evidence to suggest that perhaps we haven't seen it all, and we would be wise to keep an open mind to possibilities in a universe of high complexity and diversity. Many well-documented reports by professional scientists, as well as amateurs, exist on such curious entities as ball lightning, transient sky brightenings, geographically displaced auroras and other, even stranger phenomena. These were recently compiled in a series of catalogues of geophysical anomalies by William R. Corliss, (soon to be selected and purchased by the library committee for the J.C. Veen Observatory).
This article presents two types of luminous phenomena of probable atmospheric or astronomical origin, which I myself have witnessed, and for which I have yet to hear a convincing explanation. The first occurred in the presence of a second witness, while the other has been seen on several occasions, and by many witnesses. With the exception of a single incident, both phenomena were seen during recurring episodes of the Perseid meteor shower. This of course may simply be due to the fact that my observing sessions are commonly of an astrophotographic nature and observations are thus confined to a comparatively small area of the sky, preventing me from seeing a phenomenon which may occur more frequently. Also, the night of August 11 is the only night of the year in which I find myself lying underneath the celestial vault and watching the entire sky until sunrise. The two events are separated by more than a decade in time. While my observing skills as a 16 year old, (and even those today) could be questioned by some, I believe that what I saw is worthy of discussion. I ask the reader to be critical of my reasoning.
Phenomena #1 - Bright flash followed by loud detonation.
During August of 1978, GRAAA member Peter Chan and myself were observing the Perseid meteor shower from a yard near a small Kent County lake. Just after 2 A.M., a bright flash of white light, like that of a strobe, lit up the entire landscape. Chan, whose direction of sight was near the source of this flash, reported that it happened roughly 25 degrees above the horizon in a northeasterly direction. Having been just discussing the rare occurrence of audible reports associated with fireballs, we decided to start counting (just in case): 1-2-3-4-5-6-7--BOOOOOOOM! Shortly after this unexpected sound, another flash lit up the landscape like before. I happened to be looking in the right direction this time and saw that the light radiated from just below the tree line. Again we counted. Again, after 7 or 8 seconds, we heard a detonation. This sound was much like that of a cannon blast heard from a long distance, with a sharp initial boom followed by a long, fading peal. The time lapse between visual and audio perception placed both objects at distances between 1 and 2 miles from our location.
We immediately assumed that we had witnessed the explosions of two large meteors which had been travelling through space together. Host everyone spoken to about this event has suggested the same explanation. Unfortunately, there are problems with the idea. Because of the popularity of this meteor theory among the GRAAA members I've spoken with, I will here explain these problems as I understand them.
Due to their high velocity when encountering the earth's atmosphere, meteoroids begin to incandesce between 37 and 70 miles above the ground. One would therefore expect to see a long-lived meteor prior to and leading up to each flash as it descended from an altitude of 37 to 70 miles to near ground level. Neither Chan nor myself recall seeing such a meteor prior to either flash. It is conceivable that meteors could have entered at low angles to our line of sight, such as to remain inconspicuous until their detonation, but this is unlikely considering the altitude above the horizon that each flash was observed.
At only a few degrees above the horizon, meteors along such trajectories would have traveled a distance of more than twice the thickness of the atmosphere and would surely have been seen by many witnesses over several states. The meteoroids themselves would have to be very massive to withstand the atmospheric friction, and to make such a trip of several hundred miles before exploding less than two miles above the ground.
Perhaps the most serious problem with the meteor hypothesis is the fact that the two flashes, along with their subsequent detonations, occurred over 15 seconds apart. It is possible for a meteoroid to break apart in space in response to tidal stress or other forces, and then for the pieces to travel together along a common orbit, gradually getting farther and farther apart over the years or centuries.
However, the precise path that a meteor takes through the atmosphere depends on the mass, shape and velocity of the meteoroid, as well as air density and other atmospheric characteristics. While the velocities would have been identical, the mass and shape of separate pieces would likely not have been. For the flashes to have occurred over 15 seconds apart, the alleged meteoroids would have been separated by several hundred miles in space. The earth rotates 0.06 degrees in 15 seconds. This would be enough to separate the points of entry of each meteoroid into the atmosphere by over 8 miles.
It therefore becomes difficult to visualize a meteor theory to explain two flashes which occurred very close to each other. Perhaps Chan and I were witnesses to some rare atmospheric phenomenon. Then again, children love to play with explosives. Maybe we simply saw some homemade fireworks. 285 meteors were seen between the two of us that night in addition to the two flashes.
Phenomena #2: Repeating point flash.
This phenomena will be detailed in a series of notes taken by others and myself that have seen it.
I wrote the following just after the event on 08-12-85.
Fisk Knob. 08-12-85; 00:00 EDT. Observing Perseid meteors. Strange phenomenon observed near Draco/Ursa Major border: Resembles head-on point meteor, but repeats; each flash lasting about one second. Bob Cash announced the first two sightings and pointed out the area. I counted three of my own afterward, bringing the total to five. Flashes had no apparent pattern but the last two appeared to twinkle noticeably and I detected movement as well. Cash reported a similar observation during the 1983 Perseid shower.The following was written 3 years later, a few hours after witnessing a second such event.
On the morning of August 12, 1988, between 01:00 and 02:00 hours, an unusual light was observed near the constellation Cepheus by Dawn Ludwig, Peter Chan and James Ashley from Fisk Knob in Kent County.This phenomenon or another like it had apparently been observed by Terry Hunefeld, Bruce Sidell and others that same night. Their entry in the Veen Observatory logbook reads as follows:
Conditions - Though we were not rained on, lightning from nearby storms effectively prevented us from observing well a meteor shower that had promised to be the best in several years. The new moon fell on the 12th, and the short-lived peak was to occur in the morning hours with the radiant high in the southeast, at which time we had anticipated a zenithal hourly rate near 70 or higher. Most of the meteors that were seen fell before midnight. The high water vapor content of the atmosphere together with the incessant lightning that occurred from after midnight until dawn limited exposure times for photographs and created very poor viewing in general. All totaled, we saw roughly 150 meteors between us that night, only one of which was captured on film.
Event - I happened to be gazing in the direction of Cepheus when I saw a brief but bright light suddenly appear and disappear in the same general direction (I was almost looking directly at it when it occurred). By coincidence, Ludwig was looking near the same part of the sky and also witnessed the event. The object seemed to pulse as it first brightened rapidly to maximum brilliance, then faded slightly but with equal rapidly, brightening rapidly once again to maximum or near maximum brilliance, and finally fading out completely with the same rapidity. The overall effect was thus one of watching an incandescent lamp turned on, then off, then on, then off, the sequence commencing very smoothly but all within about a second of time. Thus one might have described the event as a flash phenomenon. At the time, I noted the object's brightness at greatest brilliance to be greater than second magnitude, but as it was markedly brighter than Polaris, a more accurate estimation may have placed it nearer to zero magnitude. During the brief interval of visibility, the object seemed to advance slightly to the south.
During the next sixty seconds or so, the event was seen to occur an additional four times, bringing the total number of flashes to five. Ludwig and myself both witnessed each of these five, and Chan saw one of them. The time lapsing between each of the first four flashes seemed to me fairly regular - about 8 to 10 seconds. Between the fourth and the fifth flash, however, a greater interval of time elapsed - 15 to 20 seconds or longer. By carefully noting the position of the object relative to the nearby stars during each successive flash, I was able to calculate a steady southward progression at a rate of approximately five degrees per minute. Between each of the first four flashes I observed a nearly equal angular displacement of the object. This, along with the regular time intervals between these flashes suggests a constant velocity for the object. Consistently, a greater angular displacement than with the previous four flashes was observed between the fourth and fifth flash to coincide with the greater time interval between them.
"August 11-12 Sidell and Hunefeld observe a gamma ray mystery flasher above (5 degrees south) of the arc of the Little Dipper. 5 flashes approx. zero magnitude, little movement over 3 minutes. Sidell saw the first 2, both saw the 3rd, Hunefeld the last 2."Another incident occurred during open house week this past August at the J.C. Veen Observatory, and was witnessed by John Chapman, Dawn Ludwig, several others and myself. It was essentially identical in every respect except location to the flashes just described, and repeated some 7 or 8 times.
One of my exposures from August 12, 1988 reveals what appears to be a flash of some kind. The accompanying photo shows a bright spot near the trail of the bright star Vega in the 15-minute time exposure of Lyra and surrounding regions. Close scrutiny of the negative makes the possibility of a processing artifact unlikely.
Explanations for the flashes range from point meteors to fireflies to satellites. A point or head-on meteor might explain a single flash, but not one that repeats several times over a period of minutes. Fireflies have a distinctive yellow-green color to their photochemical emissions, and their movement, which I have photographed before in time exposure, is altogether inconsistent with that of the flashes observed. A man-made satellite is a more appeal-mg possibility. A very high altitude satellite, one with several reflective surfaces and which is rotating, and with a highly elliptical orbit, is a conceivable explanation. Such a satellite might be high enough in its orbit to be above the Earth's shadow at 2 o'clock in the morning. Depending on its size, it might then become visible only when the most reflective surfaces are turned to the proper Sun-satellite-Earth angle. My only question would be why the object does not stay visible longer than a few brief moments.
Once again, one must be willing to admit the possibility of new, rarely seen, and seldom studied natural phenomena to account for both these apparitions. Such phenomena would be difficult to study indeed, and the data would likely be in the form of typewritten reports by interested individuals such as those above. If anyone have heard of or seen anything similar to what has been described, or feel they have an alternate theory to explain what they are, I would be interested to hear your observations.