Giant UFO Over Two Continents

James Oberg

First published in FATE Magazine, January, 1983

(Web version published with the author's permission.)

Aerial apparition sparks panic in the streets, fears of nuclear attack
and reports of extraterrestrial landings

ONE of the most spectacular and widely witnessed UFO apparitions of recent years occurred on the evening of Saturday, June 14, 1980. In its first phase it was widely seen in central Russia; Soviet ufologist Feliks Zigel was subsequently able to prepare a report based on detailed interviews with 40 eyewitnesses. In its second phase the UFO appeared one hour later over South America (at about 7:00 P.M. Argentine time) where it was seen in five countries and photographed in the western sky near the moon; this event was widely reported in the United States and was featured in a two-page International UFO Reporter analysis a few months later, A third unconfirmed phase occurred near Morocco.

Numerous highly-qualified eyewitnesses to the event exist. They include airline pilots, newspaper photographers, retired military officers and experienced UFO investigators. Photographs show the UFO along with measurable calibration objects such as the moon or identifiable horizon features. Physiological effects and sightings of occupants of small "scout ships" are on record in Moscow. Gordon Creighton, a senior consultant to the respected Flying Saucer Review, called the case "certainly one of the most fascinating yet produced anywhere in the world." J. Allen Hynek of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) termed the Argentine phase ''one of the most astonishing in years." And chief CUFOS investigator Allan Hendry wrote that "the exact nature of this one remains a mystery,"

The Soviet accounts, which appeared in various Western publications owing to the efforts of Los Angeles-based free lance Henry Gris, speak of a "huge" (more than 120-meter-wide) reddish-orange "horseshoe-shaped or crescent-shaped" object seen sequentially in Kalinin, Moscow, Ryazan, Gorkiy and Kazan. According to ufologist Aleksey Zolotov, himself an eyewitness, many Soviet air force planes were scrambled to intercept the UFO. In Moscow Feliks Zigel observed panic in the streets as old women wailed about the Day of Judgment and men directed people to airraid shelters in the face of an apparent American nuclear attack. In Gorkiy, cows bellowed and ducks flapped frantically on the banks of the Volga.

Another leading Soviet UFO expert, Sergey Bozhich, who saw it from his apartment in the Moscow suburb of Tushino, recalled that "it was a truly terrifying sight, I immediately realized that the reddish crescent simply had to be an extraterrestrial spacecraft, for I have been studying UFOs for many years now and I have already seen UFOs similar to this one."

Zigel's research uncovered two close encounters of the third kind. One came from Lt. Col. Oleg Karyakin who saw a flying saucer hovering in the street in front of his house that night; a neighbor later described "a human figure, quite small and dressed in a spacesuit, inside the transparent cupola of the saucer." In the second, television director Aleksandr Koreshkov was awakened from sleep by a noisy "object" in the street. Next to it he saw "a very small man." His wife later also awoke to find large red burn marks on her arms; these vanished by morning. Gordon Creighton later wrote that these reports indicated "in convincing fashion that a number of small craft released from the huge UFO did actually land on the streets of the Russian Capital."

The South American reports, while less sensational, were even more widespread. "So many cities in a five-country area--including Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay-- reported seeing the same type of 'UFO' , that the initial press treatment spoke of a 'fleet' of UFOs," Hendry's report for CUFOS noted. "In retrospect a single high-altitude phenomenon appears to be behind it all."

Pilots and control tower personnel at Newbery Airport in Buenos Aires reported the object hovering within a kilometer of the airport. At Ezezia Airport controllers said they could see the UFO as a dot on their radarscope. In Cordoba the object appeared to take off from the airport runway and shoot up to 25,000 feet. A "circular flying mass" chased a family driving home from a visit to Cordoba. They pulled their car off the road and stopped. The UFO descended toward them "with vertical and circular movements leaving a bright trail of whitish smoke"-and then disappeared before their eyes.

In Corrientes newsman Omar Vallejos saw the UFO "hovering over the Prana River--and then, as if [it] had seen us, it started to move north and disappeared."

Visual descriptions were mostly consistent. "It looked like a full moon but fainter," one pilot said, "and it was surrounded by a sort of halo." At Newbery Field a controller called it "a sort of sphere that was dim in the middle and brighter around the edges." Two photographs, published in the tabloid "Star" on August 19, 1980, show a tenuous ''doughnut" cloud.

Dr. Willy Smith, a CUFOS researcher specializing in South American reports, concluded that the UFO-cloud was at an altitude of "200 to 300 kilometers," with a speed of "one to two kilometers per second, and that is very reliable."

These "foggy-halo" descriptions led Hendry to suspect a high-altitude barium-cloud-release experiment, like those frequently conducted by NASA to investigate ionospheric conditions and regularly reported as UFOs. (Fortunately, they are among the easiest for investigators to identify.) But there were no such ionospheric probes on record for this case. Also, Hendry wrote, "What makes it unusual are the claims of rapid motion across the sky- especially rapid given the high altitude."

Although the South American reports were published at the time they took place, not until May 1981 did Henry Gris obtain information on the Russian phase of the case. His story, based on a personal trip to the USSR and meetings with ufologists there, appeared in the National Enquirer on July 7, 1981, and in expanded form in the Italian magazine Gente a few weeks later; the latter was the source of a feature in January 1982 Flying Saucer Review. Although Gris knew of the South American phase -- in fact he was the first known UFO researcher to connect the two phases -- he did not mention it in his articles then or since.

Intrigued by the global nature of the case, I mailed a query letter to two dozen specialists on September 30, 1981.

"Note that the two regions are connected by a great circle which is inclined to the equator by about 65 degrees," I wrote, "If the cloud were associated with an object in earth orbit, it would have taken it about one hour to traverse the distance from Russia to Argentina - and oddly enough that is the approximate time differential . . . . I point out that 63 degrees (give or take a few degrees) is an orbital inclination associated almost exclusively wi th Soviet military spacecraft." The apparitions in both countries could have been sunlit, not necessarily self-luminous, because at high altitudes the clouds were still in sunlight. It was shortly after sunset in Argentina (by one hour and 20 minutes) and it was during the season of the "midnight sun" in northern Russia, when the sun is barely below the northern horizon throughout the night.

An interesting reply came from Dr. David R. Squires of the Smithsonian Institution's Scientific Event Alert Network (the successor to the Center for Short-Lived Phenomena). He wrote, "I observed a similar phenomenon years ago when I was working at the Smithsonian's satellite tracking station in Woomera, Australia [in 1967-69]. This particular cloud was associated with a U.S. satellite that had just been launched into earth orbit from Cape Kennedy. We had set up our Baker-Nunn camera to photograph the satellite when not only did it appear but this rather startling cloud accompanied the payload as if it were attached right behind it. Others at the station recalled seeing a similar satellite-cloud relationship a couple of years before this one, and it was even more impressive because the satellite itself was visible to the naked eye. From their observing point the cloud appeared to surround the satellite as it traveled across the sky."

Another contribution came from James Cornell, public relations director of the Center for Astrophysics (formerly the Smithsonian Astrophysics Laboratory) in Cambridge, Mass. His newsletter Centerline had published a remarkable series of photographs of the "translunar injection" burn of Apollo-8 when it left its parking orbit and headed out on mankind's first voyage to the moon in December 1968. The photos, taken by a Smithsonian observation station in Hawaii shortly before dawn local time, showed a remarkable sequence of shapes and clouds as the rocket fired and then shut down. Another series of photographs showed Saturn third stages far out in space, venting great clouds of excess propellant, in 1969.

Dr. Patrick S. Osmer, director of the Inter-American Observatory at Cerro Tololo, Chile, provided an even more valuable lead. He had no data on the June 14 event but wrote, "We did have a prominent event seen from Tololo on February 12 at about 2:00 hours UT [Universal Time]. It was a luminous green cloud of appreciable angular extent that floated across the sky . Such clouds are seen here from time to time."

So with a satellite hypothesis apparently a promising lead, I made a list of space shots which occurred within a few days of June 14 (the cloud betokened a recent, relatively new event) and wrote to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md,, for tracking data from which I could extract launch time and actual path across the face of the earth for the several candidate objects and their boosters. I hoped one of them would correspond in timing and direction to the hypothetical Russo-Argentine "cloud satellite."

One did: the Soviet ''Kosmos-1188," launched from Plesetsk at about 11:55 P.M, on June 14 (eyewitness Bozhich had noted the exact time of disappearance of his red crescent UFO as "11:58 PM," after several minutes of observation), had flown across South America one hour later. It was an exhilarating moment when my computer-driven map plotter drew its ground track line right past the UFO sighting locales. And the orbital inclination was exactly 62.8 degrees, very close to my original estimate of 65 degrees.

Willy Smith's estimate, based solely on detailed analysis of eyewitness accounts, was off by a factor of four too low -- but that's not bad and it was the most accurate work done up to that point. Since there is a linear relation between range and absolute speed, scaling up Smith's estimated speed by a factor of four gives a range of four to eight kilometers per second. The actual velocity of the satellite was a bit more than seven kilometers per second-right inside the adjusted range Smith had computed.

Meanwhile a seemingly independent strand of the mystery was about to be woven into the grand tapestry of the solution. Smith had informed me that yet another "fuzzy halo" UFO had been seen and photographed on the evening of Saturday, October 31, 1981. According to the story (which was featured in two issues of the APRO Bulletin), the UFO was seen in three Argentine provinces and in Arica, Chile, at 9:00 PM. At the Felix Aguilar Observatory an official said the UFO (with a "classic" shape of a "flying saucer") crossed the sky at a great rate of speed, left a luminous, sparkling wake and disappeared into the northeast. Control tower operators and airline pilots watched it in awe; at Cordoba observers estimated it to be about 600 feet off the ground. Seven mountain climbers watched a UFO two or three miles away which "illuminated the entire area" and unnerved the witnesses as they were caught in its glow.

Astronomer Dr. Terry Oswalt (who had photographed the Cerro Tololo "green cloud" UFO and is now on the staff of Ohio State University) sent me clippings of the local newspapers' reporting of the February, 11, 1980, sighting. There were the usual accounts of bright lights, shaped like the letter "A" or a star with rays coming out; also notable was an account of a terrifying ride down a mountainside occasioned by a bus driver's fear that the flying saucer was chasing him. A young woman named Ximena Sabay reported multiple persons witnessed television interference caused by the presence of the UFO.

Oswalt himself described the UFO from detailed entries in his journal. Although there was a large, dim cloud associated with the apparition, the brightest feature was not a cloud but a set of nested V-shaped structures which moved northward in the direction of the apex of the "V." At the apex of the outermost "V" was a bright yellowish object.

Struck by the similarities of these apparitions to the one described in the June 14 case, I again checked space-vehicle launch records. I was amazed to find that all three cases correlated with satellite launchings in the Kosmos program -- particularly with the relatively infrequent subclass consisting of "Early Warning" (EW) vehicles. Each South American sighting followed by little more than one hour the blast-off of an EW satellite from Plesetsk. It could not have been coincidental. Kosmos-1164 took off at 00:56 UT on Februarv 12, 1980, and the Cerro Tololo green cloud and yellow star appeared at 2:00 UT (10:00 P.M. Chilean time); Kosmos-1188 took off at 20:55 UT on June 14, J980, and was seen over South America shortly after 3:00 P.M. Argentine time (22:00 UT); and Kosmos-1317 took off at 22:48 UT on October 31, 1981, and was seen over Argentina shortly after 9:00 P.M. (midnight UT).

The sequence of this type of space launching goes as follows: The four-stage "Molniya" booster blasts off from the officially unacknowledged "Northern Cosmodrome" near Plesetsk, with more than one million pounds of thrust from its 20 engines (the engines are grouped in quartets on a central core and on four parallel-staged "strap-on" boosters). After several minutes the four boosters fall away while the central core continues in flight (this is called "second stage"). A few minutes later the core exhausts its fuel and falls away while a smaller third stage carries the eight-ton three-part top section into a low parking orbit, then drops off. Coasting along, the orbiting vehicle is steered by a unit called the "launch platform" which aims the assembly in the right direction. The satellite crosses Mongolia, China, the Philippines and central Australia, then cuts across the far southern Pacific before swerving northward off the coast of Chile.

An hour after launch, at an altitude of 400 miles over the southern hemisphere, a fourth stage fires, Ieaving the "platform" behind and pushing itself and the actual payload into an even higher orbit which swoops more than 20,000 miles above the northern hemisphere. There the satellite becomes part of a network which watches for American missile launchings and relays real-time tracking data to Soviet military headquarters.

The multiple launch contrails, backlit by the reddish sunlight from the midnight sun, easily account for what was seen over Russia. In fact, Bozhich himself described how the June 14 UFO was "extraordinarily similar to the one that flew over Petrozavodsk on the night of September 20, 1977" -- the infamous "jellyfish UFO" which has been conclusively proven to have been caused by the predawn launch of Kosmos-955 out of Plesetsk on the same kind of booster used by the EW satellites.

The next problem was to identify which piece of the EW launch vehicle is responsible for the South American cloud: the spent third stage, the launch platform, the fourth stage, or the payload itself. Significantly, the three observed clouds were all on EW launches, even though there are far more launches of the Molniya communications satellite type -- and they follow a launch sequence almost identical to that of the EW vehicles. The sole difference is that on the Molniya satellites the fourth stage burn is performed earlier (i.e., 2000 miles farther west) on the parking orbit. The difference does not affect the behavior of the already-jettisoned third stage, so that candidate can be eliminated because its flight path cannot account for the observed differences between the Molniya and EW missions. Meanwhile, the launch platform and payload probably do not carry sufficient excess propellant to form such a visible cloud. So by elimination the only remaining suspect is the fourth stage.

This makes sense since an EW launch will just be completing its fourth stage firing when it comes up on the South American coast. The cloud could form immediately after the firing is completed and it would dissipate soon afterwards.

A Brazilian sighting of the June 14 event corroborates this interpretation. Four mathematics professors were camping near Aruana, on the banks of the Arquaia River, when they spotted the cloud. In contrast to the Argentine sightings, in which the object transited the sky in minutes (the vehicle was still in a low, fast orbit), the Brazilians saw the cloud fade away in the northeast after almost half an hour of observation. Calculations show that the upper stage in its ascending, slowing orbit would indeed have stayed above the horizon for that duration when viewed from this, the most northern of the reported witness locations.

Nonetheless the exact nature of the cloud has not been established conclusively. The "venting" theory remains only a theory. "Moonwatch" (the space observation program run by the Smithsonian in 1957-1975) photographs of moon-bound continuously-venting S4B Apollo boosters show either marked asymmetrical clouds or uniform spheres which appear brighter at the center; the Kosmos-1188 cloud was quite symmetrical and was brightest around the outside edge.

Furthermore, the size of the Kosmos-1188 cloud (known from the photographs as 1 1/2 degrees, at a computed range of 1600-2000 kilometers) was about 30 miles across less than 10 minutes after the stage had ceased burning. This implies an expansion rate of at least 200 mph and possibly several times as much, somewhat more than the expansion rates of the S-4B clouds seen by "Moonwatch." This, along with the evidently thin nature of the edge of the cloud, suggests a brief explosive type of event whose exact nature remains indeterminate. The connection of the clouds to the EW launches; however, is overwhelmingly persuasive.

After the fourth-stage burn the Kosmos-EW payload and spent (and venting?) fourth stage coasted upwards and northeastward across Amazonia and over the.North Atlantic, Full-hemisphere weather satellite photos show the north coast of South America was overcast (as were the populated areas of Peru and Ecuador), eliminatiing the likelihood of UFO reports from those locations.

But unverified reports claim a UFO was seen that night in Morocco where weather was clear. Calculations show that the Kosmos-EW and associated material would have been sunlit for the entire time interval in question; it would have risen in the west at 22:16 UT (Morocco is exactly on Universal Time, so that would have been 10:16 P.M.), drifted to the northwest and reached halfway to zenith by22:30, then moved generally horizontally until it was due north at 22:50. By then the range would have been more than 8000 miles and the cloud may have dispersed fully.

Why the sudden onslaught of this essentially new kind of UFO stimulus over South America? Writing in early 1982, Soviet space operations expert Nicholas L. Johnson pointed out, "During the past two years, the Soviet early warning satellite network has undergone a dynamic transformation from a fledgling, experimental program to a nearly complete, operational constellation (orbital networks). Although the program was begun in 1972, not until late 1980 were there ever more than three satellites operational at the same time."

Launch figures tell the same tale: there were six EW launches in 1981 and six others in 1980; before that, there had been only two each in 1979, 1978 and 1977.

At an altitude of 400 miles, where the last-stage burn occurs, the vehicles would have been sunlit a little more than two hours after local sunset or before local sunrise for observers directly below them. By taking a graph of sunrise/sunset throughout the year at Buenos Aires, adding in a two hour twilight allowance (slightly more in summer) and plotting the actual Kosmos-EW overflights from 1972 to present, we find that only two fall into this visibility band: Kosmos-l188 on June 14, 1980, and Kosmos-1317 on October 31, 1981. Both caused UFO reports.

The Kosmos-1164 (February 12, 1980, UT; February 11 in Chile) was near the boundary- and perhaps should fall within it because of "midnight sun" effects; but its presence seems connected mainly with the fact that it was a failure (it apparently did not reach the intended high orbit), probably due to a late and misdirected rocket burn. The rocket flames caused the UFO reports in that case, although normal Kosmos-EW burns should occur low in the western sky as seen from Chile. Significantly, the flame was reported as yellow, the color the boosters' propellants display when they burn.

The graph of overflights versus twilight shows that only 10 percent of the Kosmos-EW launchings fell within the visibility band. At a launch rate of six a year that comes out to roughly one visible cloud every year and a half, on an average -- and in fact the two major cloud-UFOs were seen 16 months apart. This also means that new sightings are bound to occur in years to come. But perhaps this time they won't occasion fear and confusion but will be appreciated as a beautiftil side effect of humanity's space activities.

Is this Kosmas-EW type of Identifiable Flying Object (IFO) significant to UFO studies in general?

I think so. First, of course, it is obvious foreign UFO cases often get published without adequate research and eyewitnesses frequently misreport motion, timing and appearances.

Another major factor is that there are too many UFO reports to be handled by the handful of qualified part-time investigators. As a consequence many UFOs are going to stay unidentified due simply to lack of prompt, dogged, knowledgeable investigation. The existence of a large variety of prosaic phenomena that can be mistaken for UFOs requires study by a correspondingly large number of specialists. (My specialization, for example, happens to be orbital operations and the Soviet Space program, so I started my research with a distinct advantage.) These specialists are generally neither available nor inclined to apply their knowledge (or even realize their knowledge is needed) to appropriate UFO reports. That the cases I have described were solved at all is a quirk, almost an accident -- little wonder, the skeptic might, justifiably argue that so many others go unsolved.

All of the extraneous (and obviously spurious) accounts of Kosmos-EW UFOs causing bus and aircraft chases, ufonaut encounters, television interference, radar sightings, attempted jet interceptions, telepathic messages (Bozhich reported such), zigzag course changes and the like, strengthen the arguments of skeptics who dismiss similar details connected with less well documented UFO reports. When a ufologist asks, "How can these aspects of the case be explained?" the skeptics can reply, "They don't have to be explained. They're just random noise, coincidences and embellishments and have nothing to do with the original stimulus."

But I don't mean to end this article on a negative note. After all, most of the eyewitness accounts were shown to be substantially correct and consistent with the actual phenonienon. Fortunately in these cases there were enough reports so that they could be "averaged" and the far off-center ones could be identified and ignored. Because a thoroughly documented stimulas could be tied to the reports, it was possible to calibrate them an uncharacteristic situation in the world of UFO investigations and analysis.

Therefore the great Russo-Argentine UFO of June 14, 1980, certainly deserves to be recognized as a "classic IFO" and as an instructive case study in research techniques and testimony analysis.

James Oberg is a space specialist in Houston and a writer and lecturer on astronomy and space science.


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