Notes on the STS-80 UFOs" -- James Oberg January 1997
The STS-80 scenes seem to me to be identical in origin to the
infamous STS-48 scenes and to numerous others throughout the
shuttle flight program: low-light sensitive B&W cameras are
trained on the receding horizon during night passes, to observe
serendipitous lightning events for an experiment called
Mesoscale Lightning Experiment, managed out of NASA-MSFC in
Huntsville. You can see the dark horizon, the glowing 'air glow'
layer, moving stars, moving city lights below, lightning
flashes, and under moonlit conditions, dim clouds.
By the way, these low-light B&W cameras are pretty old and are
being replaced mission by mission -- the suite of cameras
carried by a shuttle (one in each corner of the payload bay, two
on the RMS, others perhaps mounted on the keel looking upwards
at target spacecraft, plus a few handheld units inside the
cabin) can be adjusted as needed, and a new color CCD camera is
much higher quality (it doesn't 'bloom' in overbright
reflections, and can't be damaged by sun exposure), but it's not
as sensitive in low light, so there are fewer opportunities to
see such views every year.
When sunrise occurs (due to the Orbiter's motion along its
orbit), even though the Orbiter is now bathed in sunlight, the
camera is still trained on the dark side of Earth. But now the
floating particles which routinely accompany every shuttle
flight (often ice particles, sometimes junk from the payload
bay, pieces of insulation blankets, a dozen or more distinctly
different sources) can become visible in the sunlight, sometimes
even moving into sunlight from the umbra of the Orbiter (and
thus "appearing suddenly"). These are close to the camera,
sometimes a few feet, at most a few hundred feet. Sometimes they
are hit by pulses of gas from the RCS jets as they automatically
fire to gently nudge the spaceship back towards a pre-set
orientation. Because of the sensitivity of the camera, moving
particles leave streaks -- even stars can be seen to do this
when the camera is being panned (usually by command from a
controller in the Mission Control Center). Tumbling particles
tend to flash. Bright particles overload the optics and appear
as "rings" or "do-nuts" with darker centers.
There's nothing else to it, as far as I can tell. Everyone in
the control center knows about this visual phenomenon, everyone
has seen it numerous times, and they laugh at notions these are
anomalous, while they grimace at yet more silly stories by
people who don't seem to understand much (or do seem to
misunderstand a lot) about "ordinary" space flight.
As far as I was able to determine, these STS-80 scenes were
recorded beginning about 11:55 PM PST on December 1, 1996.
That's 07:55 GMT on December 2. Since the shuttle was launched
on Nov 19, that is 324/19:55:47, this makes it about 12 days 11
hours 59 minutes "Mission Elapsed Time", or MET. This was on rev
197, crossing Venezuela, then the West Indies. The Orbiter
attitude was bottom forward, with the vehicle yawed somewhat so
the nose was off to one side.
According to the activity plan sent up that morning, the crew
was doing some evaluation of an EVA tool associated with their
airlock problems, and the two pilots were scheduled to begin a
review of landing procedures. Lunch was to follow. When I asked
crewman Story Musgrave, who is not shy about talking about
anomalies of any kind, he assured me he saw nothing unusual on
the flight, at this point or at any other.
The camera, "B" located at the rear of the payload bay, was in a
pre-set position which was later changed by ground commands.
Judging from the star motion at the horizon, it was looking
southwest, not precisely backwards (since then the stars would
have been setting straight down across the horizon). I don't
have the exact numbers on the camera's pan/tilt and it's too
much trouble to get them.
According to a computer reconstruction of the trajectory,
sunrise occurred at GMT 07:57. That's precisely when the picture
shows a slight foggy periphery, and when the first objects
appear. They keep showing up until about 08:01, when sunlit
clouds come into the camer's field of view and the iris
automatically stops way down so that the tiny objects (and stars
too) are no longer visible. The camera view continues in
daylight for long after that.
The crew's "Earth Obs Exposures" daily plan listed ground
targets which confirm this flight path:
12/12:19:34 Lake Nasser
12/12:21:13 Jiddah, Saudi Arabia
These are "opportunities" only, not assignments, and apparently
nobody was free to take the shots over Caracas and Montserrat.
Here is some trajectory data from which you can reconstruct the
flight path and lighting conditions at the interval of interest,
if you have the commonly- available software.
M50 State Vector
At MET 12/11:55:47 for example, position is lat 15.07N, Lon
62.06W, alt 185.4nm, inertial velocity 25245.6034 ft/sec, the
orbital range is 183.8361 to 193.8737 nm, period 91:23.435, beta
angle -34 degrees (the sun is off to the right of the orbital
plane by this angle),
The video that I saw over in the Public Affairs Office was tape
#612710. If you want to specify it to buy your own copies, give
the MET or GMT times, and order ten minutes before and after the
interval, so you can see the typical phenomena of stars leaving
trails, and auto iris control functioning, and at one point the
constellation Orion going by, and at the end a view around the
Orbiter's sunlit payload bay. All very ordinary, unspectacular,
normal space views, in my opinion.
I don't know where the impression came from that this was a
rebroadcast of daily highlights, since these programs are
invariably short (10-15 minutes), with short clips jumping from
scene to scene, usually involving views of astronauts. This
sequence, on the other hand, was continuous for at least 20
minutes from the same camera, and the geography and lighting are
consistent with the real time orbital motion. I looked at the
"Flight Day Highlights" summary for three days around this date
and that's what they consisted of, with no replay of any of
these "dancing dots" scenes (why should there have been?).
I don't expect that this will change many minds and I don't
intend to go on television to face some wild accusations that
I'm a paid liar for the grand conspiracy, and basically I don't
take anyone seriously who takes these stories seriously. Life's
too short for me to care what some people want to believe these
scenes show. I've already spent too much time, but I figured
somebody had to make a rational response, whether it was
understood and believed, or not.