I Want To Believe

This is the most puzzling astrophoto I have ever taken. I made the exposure from Emery County’s Wedge Overlook, about 3 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2001, and it has bothered me since then.

First I need to point out that I have not tinkered with it in any way, other than cropping out extraneous parts, basically stars and ground, and tilting the photo about 45 degrees to the left in order to bring the horizon into its true orientation. Also, the bright spots under the object are merely specks of dust on the surface of the flatbed scanner I used to copy the print.

The green color is a photo artifact called reciprocity failure — with long exposures old color films tended to show false color. In reality, this was a typical dark sky. The reason the horizon was off in the original view is that my ancient Nikon camera was mounted piggy-back on my telescope, which sat on a wedge adjusted to the correct latitude. When I moved the telescope around, the wedge caused the camera to tilt.

For an overall view of the photo, not trimmed or reoriented, CLICK HERE. In this wider version, the star to the lower right, forming the left point of an equilateral triangle of stars, is Acamar.

Using the Nikon, I had taken several fairly uninteresting views that night: the Pleiades, Orion, and the Andromeda Galaxy. The sky was so clear that I could see the galaxy simply by peering through my glasses. Many of the photos were about seven minutes, with the telescope tracking the stars so they did not blur. But other exposures – including, I think, this one — were shorter.

I noticed flashing in the sky, below the stars. I took several pictures of that (although today I can only find this print). Sometimes the flashes came in quick succession; sometimes there would be one or two and then a long pause before another.

I had the film developed later in the day at a one-hour processing shop in Salt Lake City. I was amazed to see this image. The explanation, as I wrote in my journal the same evening, seemed to be that a “cloud sustained many lightning strikes as the telescope (and camera) tracked the stars. The flashes lit up certain part of the cloud repeatedly as the camera moved, resulting in a well-defined glowing structure with repeated forms, like a strange flying saucer.”

There may be problems with that, however:

— I don’t remember thunder and I did not mention thunder in my journal.

— The replicating features apparently blend into each other seamlessly without overlapping. It’s hard to imagine how that would happen with a cloud lit from inside by lightning strikes.

— The top of the object has six or eight humps, while the bottom row has something like 20 bumps. If strobes of lightning were lighting up a cloud a certain number of times, I would expect the same features would appear per strike, so that the photo would show the same number of big and small features.

— By running the Starry Night Pro 6 planetarium program back to 3 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2001, I was able to identify the star pattern. For example, the star just to the upper right of the object is designated HP18213. Starry Night Pro 6 allowed me to correct the orientation of the photo; it was tilted drastically because of the telescope’s wedge. Correctly aligned, the object itself is tilted at a steep angle — not particularly cloudlike.

HP18213 was east by south-southeast from my position on the Wedge Overlook. And that fact may offer an explanation. That direction points toward Arches National Park and Moab. The city is about 58 miles away as the saucer flies.

Was something going on in Moab? Was it a memorial of some kind to the victims of 9-11, which had happened only a few days before? Was I seeing flashes of lightning inside a cloud, which some meteorological records could verify?

Or was it something else — a flashing UFO?

My scientific mind forces me to lean toward lightning as the explanation. But my heart has other ideas. As Fox Mulder’s poster used to proclaim on the late, lamented TV series The X Files, “I want to believe.”

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