Green Fireballs

Since the late of 1940s a strange aerial phenomenon briefly appeared in the Earth’s lower atmosphere. For a time sightings, virtually all of which occurred in the southwestern United States, were taking place with such intensity that military and civilian government agencies feared enemy agents had penetrated some of America’s most sensitive national-security bases. The epidemic of “green fireballs” first attracted official attention on the evening of December 5, 1948, when pilots flying over New Mexico reported two separate observations, twenty-two minutes apart, of a pale green light that was visible for no more than a few seconds. The witnesses insisted these were not meteors but flares of a decidedly peculiar kind.

On December 6, a similar “greenish flare” was sighted for three seconds over the super-secret atomic installation Sandia Base, part of the Kirtland Air Force Base complex in New Mexico. That same day the Seventh District Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), at Kirtland, commenced a probe. On the evening of the eighth, the two investigators, both pilots, saw one of the objects from their T-7 aircraft. They described it this way:

“At an estimated altitude of 2000 feet higher than the airplane . . . [t]he object was similar in appearance to a burning green flare of common use in the Air Forces. However, the light was much more intense and the object appeared to be considerably larger than a normal flare. No estimate can be made of the distance or the size of the object since no other object was visible upon which to base a comparison. The object was definitely larger and more brilliant than a shooting star, meteor, or flare. The trajectory of the object was almost flat and parallel to the Earth. The phenomenon lasted approximately two seconds at the end of which the object seemed to burn out. The trajectory then dropped off rapidly and a trail of glowing fragments reddish orange in color was observed falling toward the ground. The fragments were visible less than a second before disappearing. The phenomenon was of such intensity as to be visible from the very moment it ignited and was observed a split second later.”

The next day one of the officers, Capt. Melvin E. Neef, conferred with Lincoln La Paz, director of the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Meteoritics and an Air Force consultant with Top Secret clearance. La Paz said these were unlike any meteors he had ever heard of. Within days La Paz had seen one of the objects himself. Two inspectors from the Atomic Energy Security Service (AESS) independently witnessed it; from their observation and his own, La Paz was able to establish that it had flown too slowly and too silently to be a meteor. He wrote in a confidential letter to the Seventh District AFOSI commanding officer that “none of the green fireballs has a train of sparks or a dust cloud. . . . This contrasts sharply with the behavior noted in cases of meteoritic fireballs — particularly those that penetrate to the very low levels where the green fireball of December 12 was observed.”

Acting on La Paz’s suggestion, the AESS organized patrols to try to photograph the fireballs. As the sightings continued, scientists and engineers at New Mexico’s Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory set up an informal group to evaluate the reports, and the Army and the Air Force grew increasingly concerned. By late January, 1949, La Paz, who had interviewed witnesses to some of the sightings, was convinced the objects were artificial.

On February 16 1949, a “Conference on Aerial Phenomena” brought military officers and scientists to Los Alamos, where they were told that whatever the nature of the objects, they were not the product of a “classified training exercise.”

La Paz challenged conference participants to “find anywhere among meteorites examples of conventional meteorites that move over long horizontal paths reserving nearly constant angular velocities and therefore, on the average, constant linear velocities, at elevations of the order of eight to 10 miles.”

Late in April 1949 Major Charles Cabell, director of Air Force Intelligence in the Pentagon, and Theodore von Karman, chairman of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, dispatched physicist Joseph Kaplan to Kirtland. Kaplan, La Paz, and others discussed plans to establish an observational and instrumental network around several New Mexico installations. Meanwhile, since early March tiny white lights or “flares” had appeared regularly near Killeen Base, a nuclear-weapons storage site inside Camp Hood in central Texas, leading both to high-level alarm and to efforts to set up observation posts. Col. Reid Lumsden, commander of AFOSI at Kelly AFB, San Antonio, declared that the “unknown phenomena in the Camp Hood area could not be attributed to natural causes.”

The testimonies of virtually all local experts and witnesses notwithstanding, the word came down from Washington: the fireballs and lights were natural even if they had features that were, as Kaplan acknowledged, “difficult to explain.”

Yet the sightings continued, and in the summer analyses of samples of the New Mexico atmosphere revealed an unusually large and unexplained quantity of copper particles, apparently associated with the fireball sightings. “I know of no case in which even the tiniest particle of copper has been reported in a dust collection supposedly of meteoritic origin,” La Paz wrote to Lt. Col. Doyle Rees.

After meeting with high-ranking Air Force intelligence and scientific personnel, Kaplan urged the creation of a photographic and spectrographic patrol whose purpose would be to obtain quantitative data on the fireballs and lights. A Los Alamos conference discussed the situation and backed the plan, to be run by the Air Materiel Command’s Cambridge Research Laboratories.

In December 1949 Project Twinkle, a network of green fireball observation and photographic stations, was established and it set up shop with an operations post manned by two observers at Holloman AFB in New Mexico. One of its critics was La Paz, who thought the matter was of sufficient gravity to deserve a far more “intensive, systematic investigation.”

It was discontinued two years later in December 1951, with the official conclusion that the phenomenon was probably natural in origin, owing to the incompetence of its personnel, poor funding, bureaucratic infighting, and inadequate instrumentation. It was a tragically missed opportunity to obtain solid information on at least one kind of unidentified flying object.

Many of the scientists who participated in the investigation remained convinced that the fireballs were artificially created. In 1953, when Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, head of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book, talked with Los Alamos scientists about the episode, they expressed the conviction that the objects were projectiles fired from extraterrestrial spacecraft.

There have been reports of green fireballs long after the early days of Project Twinkle outside the U.S. often near sensitive government or military bases: In 1983 a Royal Air Force pilot had a near collision with three unusual green fireballs near Manchester, England, and were also sighted near a nuclear power plant in Suffolk. On May 16, 2006 at least three traffic-light green fireballs brighter than the moon but not as bright as the sun blazed over northeast Australia. A farmer saw one with a blue tapering tail pass over the mountains of the Great Divide about 75 miles (120 kilometers) west of Brisbane, then watched a phosphorescent green ball about 12 inches wide (30 centimeters wide) roll slowly down the side of a mountain, bouncing over a rock along the way. In the summer of 2011, there was also a sighting of a green fireball in Cold Lake, AB, Canada.

Unexplained: “Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena” by Jerome Clark;;

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Unexplained: “Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena” by Jerome Clark page 47

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