Saturday, July 22, 2006


Alien Artifacts in the Solar System?

By Curt Sutherly
FATE Magazine - November 2005

In late 1991 a strange object approached and passed within celestial spitting distance of the Earth, causing surprise, and some disquiet, among astronomers before vanishing back into the depths of space. The object was catalogued as “1991 VG,” and to this day it remains a mystery.

Spotted on November 6, 1991, by astronomer Jim Scotti, 1991 VG was initially thought to be an NEO—a Near Earth Object, probably an asteroid, of which there are many that periodically pass by too close for comfort and of which the public is blissfully unaware. At the time of discovery, 1991 VG was approximately 2,046,000 miles from Earth and heading inbound rapidly. Scotti, who was tracking with the small Spacewatch telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona, described it as a “fast-moving asteroidal object.”

Continued observation revealed that the object did not appear to be an asteroid, or at least it didn’t behave like one. For instance, it had a tendency to “wink”: to become roughly three times brighter, then dark again, every seven and one-half minutes, behavior akin to that of a rotating artificial satellite. This led to speculation that 1991 VG was perhaps an expended rocket booster drifting through interplanetary space, maybe even an old Saturn V booster from the Apollo moon-launch days of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

As the object continued to approach Earth, astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in La Silla, Chile, began tracking with a 60-inch telescope. At this point, the media became aware that something was going on and press statements were issued. Meanwhile, the ESO team (astronomers Richard West, Olivier Hainaut, and Alain Smette) conducted precise measurements of the “winking” and confirmed that the phenomenon was reminiscent of the pulsations of light observed on reflective, rotating artificial satellites.

The mystery object came closest to Earth on December 5, 1991, when it passed 51,000 miles beyond the orbit of the Moon, or a distance from the Earth of about 288,300 miles, hardly any distance at all when measured on an interplanetary scale. Then it began drifting away. An estimate of the object’s size suggested a diameter of anywhere from 33 to 62 feet, small for an asteroid but about right for an expended rocket booster or possibly a large piece of spacecraft debris. Indeed, the object was small enough so that it was visible only as a pinpoint of light when viewed through the 2.9-foot-diameter Spacewatch telescope.

Four months later, on April 27, 1992, now well away from the Earth but following a path around the sun that was remarkably similar to the Earth’s orbit, 1991 VG was again detected by astronomers at Kitt Peak, this time with a larger telescope. It was to be the last reported sighting of the object before it vanished from ground-based visual range.

Three years passed. 1991 VG was all but forgotten, at least by the media. Then, in April 1995, a highly respected astronomer and author published an article that not only re-opened the debate about 1991 VG, but took the discussion to a whole new level.

The astronomer was Duncan Steel, then associated with the University of Adelaide in Australia, and today with the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. His article, “SETA and 1991 VG” (SETA referring to “Search for ExtraTerrestrial Artifacts”), appeared in The Observatory, a recognized science journal published in the UK.

In the article, Steel dared to suggest what other astronomers had no doubt considered but were too guarded to openly discuss: that 1991 VG might not just be artificial, but might, in fact, be a probe of extraterrestrial origin!

Three Possibilities

Steel, who has a reputation for being painstakingly thorough, was no less careful when stating his case for 1991 VG.

“The approach here,” he said in the Observatory article, “is to investigate the different probabilities for the nature of this object, given our incomplete knowledge.” He then cited three distinct possibilities: “The first is that it [1991 VG] was a natural asteroid…the second is that it was a man-made spacecraft [a spent rocket booster or an early probe launched into heliocentric orbit]. The third is that it was an alien artifact.”

In considering the three possibilities, Steel said his “personal bias” was that 1991 VG was artificial but “anthropogenic,” meaning it originated on Earth. Using the available orbital data and calculating backwards, he determined that the object was last near Earth during February or March 1975, and before that during the late 1950s. (With limited information concerning the object, he was unable to be more precise about the earlier date.)

Studying the early launch records, the astronomer found that there were relatively few spacecraft that could conceivably explain the existence of 1991 VG, and some of these were easily eliminated. He cited seven robot craft launched from October 1958 to March 1960. They included the Pioneer probes 1, 3, 4, and 5, and the Luna probes 1, 2, and 3. However, he pointed out that these probes were “generally small objects,” some of which were known to have reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, and one (Luna 2) had by all accounts crashed on the Moon.

Moving forward, Steel eliminated the probe Luna 23, launched in October 1974, which successfully landed on the Moon. There was, however, Helios 1, launched into heliocentric orbit in December 1974, and the probe Venera 9, sent to Venus in June 1975. But unless something had affected the trajectory of these two probes and their boosters “such as radiation pressure or leaking fuel,” Steel said it was unlikely they could account for the presence of 1991 VG. (Expended boosters from the manned Apollo series were not considered because the Apollo missions were flown between October 1968 and December 1972, too early for the 1975 window of opportunity.)

Along with eliminating all known launches that fit his criteria, Steel pointed to the exceedingly low odds of a returning spacecraft or booster ever being detected by an instrument as small as the Spacewatch telescope. He estimated the chances of an accidental detection at no greater than one in 100,000 per year.

Not an Asteroid

Steel next turned his attention to the idea that 1991 VG was a “natural body;” i.e., an asteroid. He quickly eliminated this possibility. In part, he based his rationale on the aforementioned “winking,” the regular light flashes exhibited by the object, which he said were “distinctly similar to rotating artificial satellite trails.” He also noted that gravitational forces arising from the closely aligned paths of the Earth and 1991 VG should have eventually kicked the object into an unstable orbit. However, 1991 VG’s orbit seemed inherently stable, so he felt fairly confident that it was a new arrival (in stellar terms) and therefore probably not an asteroid.

All of which left the scientist with only one other logical consideration: that 1991 VG was an extraterrestrial probe or an alien artifact of some sort. But if the object was truly alien, then, said Steel, it begs the question: was it under control when it passed by Earth or simply following a random path? In other words, was it operational, or was it inert or a derelict?

Steel concluded his article by noting that a continual search of the heavens should be made for other suspicious objects. In so saying, he invoked a paradox originally put forth by the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954).

Simply put, the “Fermi Paradox” questioned the commonly held belief that the galaxy, with its multitude of stars, must inevitably have produced a multitude of advanced alien cultures. Fermi wanted to know why, if these civilizations are so unavoidable, we’ve uncovered no evidence of them, such as probes, spacecraft, or transmissions. He decided that the fact that we haven’t is paradoxical, thereby suggesting a flaw either in our method of reasoning or in our observations.

Put another way, if extraterrestrials actually exist, would we recognize one of their probes if it flew right by our planet?

New Object

Nine years after 1991 VG made its close approach to the Earth, another unusual object drifted in from deep space. Discovered on September 29, 2000, by astronomers David Tholen and R. Whiteley at the University of Hawaii, the object was again presumed to be a NEO—an asteroid on a path that occasionally brought it near the Earth.

Catalogued “2000 SG344,” the object approached to within 4,800,000 miles of the Earth, or about 20 times farther away than the distance from the Earth to the Moon. This was nowhere near as close as the approach of 1991 VG, but again not all that far on a celestial scale. The object appeared to be anywhere from 98 to 230 feet in diameter, depending on whether or not it was actually an asteroid and what type of material it was composed of.

Despite its safe distance from our planet, there was some concern that SG344 might hit the Earth at a future date. Initial calculations bore out this possibility, suggesting a 1-in-500 chance of an impact in 30 years—specifically, on or about September 21, 2030. When this information was released to the media (a premature move, according to some astronomers) it caused an immediate uproar. It wasn’t long, however, before additional orbital data was available and statements about a collision were revised and reduced. The new date for a possible impact was September 2071, with the odds of a collision at that time estimated at about 1 in 1,000. (No such concern was ever raised about 1991 VG, which passed much nearer to the Earth but was also smaller and therefore not taken seriously as a long-term threat.)

In the midst of all the controversy about whether or not SG344 might someday hit the Earth, there occurred a striking instance of déjà vu. As had been the case with 1991 VG, it was abruptly noticed that SG344 was behaving less like an asteroid and more like…well, like something artificial. Said Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near Earth Object program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California: “The orbit of SG344 is so Earth-like, it makes you wonder if it came from our own planet.”

Additional Data

Checking earlier sky data, astronomers found “pre-discovery” images of SG344 in a May 1999 photo archive. These images, combined with the more current data, suggested that the object was last in Earth’s vicinity in 1971. The Apollo space program was in full swing that year, so it was immediately apparent that SG344 might be a spent rocket booster, most likely a Saturn IV-B used as the third stage for a Saturn V Apollo launch vehicle.

However, David Tholen, one of the two discoverers of SG344, was not so certain: “The only Apollo launches in 1971 were Apollo 14 and 15, but the S-IV-B stages from those missions crashed into the Moon. The wild card is Apollo 12. Its S-IV-B stage apparently wound up in an Earth-circling orbit. There is a possibility that the Moon perturbed Apollo 12’s S-IV-B into an orbit around the Sun. In that case, the important time is not when Apollo 12 launched [in 1969], but instead when the Moon might have nudged the booster into its new orbit.”

Tholen further noted that images of SG344 suggested an elongated object, rotating about once every ten minutes. “That sure sounds like the shape of a Saturn booster,” he said. “But we’ve also found asteroids that match that description. “

Whatever it is, 2000 SG344 has an orbital period of 354 days, slightly less than that of the Earth, which revolves around the Sun in 365.2 days. By comparison, the object 1991 VG orbits the Sun in a slightly greater period of 379.6 days. The objects move in orbital paths parallel to the Earth like runners on a track. They eventually overtake and pass one another, and we are left to decide whether this is a purely natural circumstance or one that is artificial…and if artificial whether it is an accident of our own space program or deliberate on the part of someone or something.

Long Delayed Echoes

The idea that one or more extraterrestrial probes might be located in our solar system is nothing new.

In 1927 ham radio operators began noticing a phenomenon they termed Long Delayed Echoes (LDEs), the reflection of their own radio signals after an odd and unexpected delay. Most echoes came back after about three seconds, though some intervals were as brief as a quarter-second and others as long as 30 seconds. The phenomenon was frequently reported during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, and is still reported today. Numerous theories were put forth by way of explanation. These included the notion that radio signals were somehow being trapped in the ionosphere and forced into multiple orbits before returning to Earth. Other explanations were that the echoes were the result of moon bounce, were a hoax, or (and this was the most unusual) they were RF signals rebroadcast by an extraterrestrial probe orbiting somewhere beyond the Moon. According to this last theory, the LDEs were the probe’s way of drawing attention to itself, letting us know that we aren’t alone in the galaxy.

The mystery of the LDEs took an added twist in February 1960 when a mysterious blip appeared on radar operated by the North American Air Defense System, which is today NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). The blip was of an object with an estimated mass of 15 metric tons flying in a polar orbit. It was tracked for three weeks and caused considerable pandemonium within the Department of Defense. Then it vanished as abruptly as it had appeared.

Months later, a story was circulated that the mystery object was the second-stage booster for the top-secret Discoverer V surveillance satellite, launched into polar orbit on August 13, 1959. Alas, the Discoverer second stage was nowhere near the estimated size of the mystery satellite. In fact, the entire fully-fueled Thor-Agena rocket used to launch the Discoverer had a mass of only 8,470 pounds (less than four metric tons), a fraction of the suspected mass of the unidentified object.

While DoD personnel worried over the presence of the mystery satellite, ham radio operators again began hearing LDEs, which some suspected were coming from the mysterious object.

Years later, the LDE phenomenon was investigated by Duncan Lunan, a Scottish researcher who charted the original 1927 echo patterns on an XY graph. His effort resulted in what he believed was a map from an alien space probe—a map showing the constellation Bootes and the binary star system Epsilon Bootis, located 203 light years from Earth. Unfortunately, the “star map” was imprecise and disputed by professional astronomers, and Lunan himself eventually backed away from his original interpretation, labeling it “speculative.”

Bracewell Probes

In 1960, the same year the mystery satellite appeared on radar, a professor at Stanford University published a significant article in the magazine Nature. The author was Ronald Bracewell, and he proposed the idea that advanced civilizations could be sending out automated spacecraft with the hope of making contact with other advanced races. These probes, he said, would be self-sufficient and possess a high degree of artificial intelligence.

After arriving in a new star system, a “Bracewell Probe” would take up orbit in the star’s habitable zone where it could scan for narrow-band radio transmissions. If signals were discovered, the probe would identify the source and re-broadcast the contents unchanged in order to draw attention to itself.

Professor Bracewell correctly asserted that probes dispatched to other solar systems would be able to communicate with an indigenous culture in something close to real time, a delay of no more than a few seconds, a decided advantage over any attempt at communicating across the void of interstellar space. Data stored aboard the probe could be easily transmitted in exchange for data from the resident civilization. Even small artifacts could be exchanged. Information obtained by the visiting probe would be transmitted back across the interstellar gulf to the parent star system.

The existence of Bracewell Probes is pure conjecture, but it is conjecture based on sound reasoning. On the other hand, the phenomenon of LDEs is undeniably real, as are the two unusual objects moving in Earth-like orbits around the Sun. The chance that both these objects—1991 VG and 2000 SG344—are leftover rocket boosters seems unlikely.

Are they Bracewell Probes? Sooner or later we are bound to find out.

Curt Sutherly is the author of Strange Encounters (Llewellyn, 1996) and UFO Mysteries (Llewellyn, 2001). A native of Pennsylvania, Curt is currently a federal civil servant for the Air Force.

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