In the end of the 19th century, astronomers started analyzing the night sky and began collecting images of the bright starry cosmo using telescopes and photographic plates. Surprisingly, some bizarre flashes of light caught in these plates made astronomers think of unusual explanations: “Extraterrestrial spacecraft.”
In a recent scientific publication, entitled “A glint in the eye: Photographic plate archive searches for non-terrestrial artefacts,” a team of astronomers discussed the flashes of light that appear and then disappear like ghosts.
Beatriz Villarroel, a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Sweden said that her team had found one image of the night sky, taken by the photographic plates in the 1950s, where nine bright objects [she said “stars”] were there for some time and then vanished.
It was thought that those dots of bright light could be a glitch or defects in the photographic emulsions or image artifacts when astronomers first scanned the plates. But Villarroel and her team of astronomers closely looked into the mystery and claimed of a probability that the flashes might have been something more exciting — extraterrestrial objects.
In this paper, astronomers presented the strategy to identify Non-Terrestrial artefacts in or near geosynchronous Earth orbits (GEOs). They showed that even the small pieces of reflective debris in orbit around the Earth can be identified through searches for multiple transients in old photographic plate material exposed before the launch of the first human satellite in 1957.
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According to them, “a shiny, spinning object passing by Earth would leave a line of dots in a long-exposure image of the night sky. Asteroids or meteors aren’t likely to look like that — most asteroids are dark, and meteors are moving so fast they’d look like streaks. And, most intriguingly for the researchers, there weren’t any satellites in the night sky when the images were taken, as all the plates were before the launch of Sputnik.”
Villarroel and her team are still open to any Earthly explanation for these tantalizing dots. But in their research, they could not find any natural explanation for these disappearing dots. There are a number of things in the universe that will shine brightly for a short period and disappear again, like supernovae, actively feeding black holes, flaring stars, and more. But searching for these transient objects is nearly impossible today because of thousands of satellites and millions of pieces of space debris in orbit around Earth, many of which appear as momentary flashes of light in photos of the night sky.
That is why Villarroel and her team checked the photos that had been taken before the sky had no satellite. They used a series of plates from the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, which ran from 1949 to 1958 and covered much of the sky as seen from the northern hemisphere, on the hunt for transients.
After analyzing the plates carefully, Villarroel and her colleagues noticed nine dots of light, all in a line, appeared within half an hour on a region within ~10 arcmin of a red-sensitive photographic plate taken in April 1950. It did not look anything like the supernovas and quasars they’d normally find, which appear just as single points.
They ruled out astrophysical explanations, passing airplanes, asteroids, and other known light sources in their paper published in Scientific Reports in 2021. It was thought that the dots might have appeared due to contamination caused by nuclear fallout. But no such tests happened in 1950. This allowed astronomers to open the door to the extraterrestrial origin of the dots.
Villarroel is not saying it’s aliens, of course. “We are very careful when we write our papers, because we are not sure if they are real or not,” she says. “We need to always assume that it is the most boring explanation.”
Paul Horowitz, an emeritus professor of physics and electrical engineering at Harvard said that he used the Palomar plates earlier in his career, and the presence of odd flashes of light does not surprise him. He said depending on how often it flashes and how long the flashes are, an object could appear as a series of dots in a long exposure at a range of distances, from within Earth’s atmosphere to far beyond our planet. That could mean whatever’s on the plates could also be something launched from Earth.
Another explanation about the flashing lights is given by Eliot Gillum, the director of optical SETI at the SETI Institute. According to him, the U.S. government began testing rockets years before the first satellite launch. He pointed out that there are several military bases near the Palomar Observatory. So, according to him, the glints could come from a maneuver known as a roll program or from debris that broke off after launch.
Hence, there is no proper explanation for these nine dots, and the extraterrestrial angle is still possible. Moreover, Villarroel and her team are looking forward to studying Palomar plates themselves. Besides, they are planning to check similar transients caught in the other sky surveys.