Skip to comments.Mystery Object Encountered By Russian Phobos Spacecraft
Posted on 03/25/2005 9:18:52 PM PST by vannrox
March 15, 1992 was the cover date on the first issue of a new astronomy research publication, the Meta Research Bulletin (MRB). Its purpose was to draw attention to deserving astronomy findings and ideas ignored solely because they did not fit well into mainstream models of the field. Such mainstream models include the Big Bang, the primeval Destination: Space nebula, the Oort cloud, and the Dirty Snowball, among many others. The MRB reported on matters that simply did not fit within these conventional frameworks.
Such ideas have since become known as "meta astronomy", fitting with the definition of the prefix "meta": "later or more highly organized or specialized form of; more comprehensive; transcending; used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one."
The lead article in that first issue had the same title as this article. In it, we attempted to examine an astronomical mystery of the time. The conclusion suggested a hypothesis, but left the mystery unsolved. In the time since then, the mystery has been solved, but the solution has not yet been widely reported. So it seemed especially fitting to help launch this new web site (Final Frontiers) with excerpts from the same article, adding the solution to the mystery. Here is the story.
Meta Research, Inc. is a scientific non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation run by a 7-member board of directors. It was founded in 1991 in response to the broad problem of getting support to do research on promising but unpopular alternative ideas in astronomy that have trouble getting funded from the usual sources. The organization supports and encourages research or observations in connection with astronomical theories that are in accord with observations and experiment, add insight or understanding, and make testable predictions; but that are not otherwise supported solely because they lie outside of the mainstream of the field of Astronomy.
Meta Research is registered with GuideStar, through which anonymous donations may be made to their research activities.
The name "Meta" (pronounced with a short "e") comes from the dictionary meaning of that prefix: "later or more highly organized or specialized form of; more comprehensive; transcending; used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one."
The Russians sent two spacecraft toward Mars, scheduled to arrive in 1989. The first failed shortly after launch. The second arrived and went into orbit, taking pictures of Mars and one of its large asteroid-like moons, Phobos. The spacecraft was scheduled to send a lander to the 20-km Martian moon, but it was never released because the ground controllers suddenly and unexpectedly lost all contact with the spacecraft on March 28, 1989. Reports surfaced that the last photograph taken and returned to Earth prior to the failure "contained an object which shouldn't have been there".
This mysterious "last photograph", taken about three days before the communications failure, found its way out of Russia. It is shown in Figure 1. The photo has an overexposed appearance, with all surface detail washed out for both Phobos and for the "Phobos mystery object" (PMO) in the same picture. The PMO image extends from about one Phobos diameter to about two Phobos diameters from the center of the moon Phobos. Mars is not visible in the picture. A few faint streaks and specks may be seen in the original, which might be photographic defects. Two faint but conspicuous irregular streaks (in the original) are not parallel, so they can't be trailed star images. These may also be defects.
The PMO image is roughly rectangular, perhaps 10 times longer than its width. If it were of an object at the same distance from the spacecraft as Phobos, that width would correspond to about two kilometers, and the length to about 20 km, about the same as the mean diameter of Phobos. The surface brightness per unit area of the PMO is about the same as that of Phobos, suggesting that might also be visible by reflected sunlight. The shape of the PMO image shows some slight detail near each end, but not in the middle, where its sides are perfectly parallel. Its long axis points in the general direction of Phobos, though not aligned with the moon's center of mass. The end of the PMO toward Phobos narrows slightly, and is distinctly rounded at the tip. The opposite end seems to have a slight protrusion to one side, and is also somewhat rounded.
Three days after this photo was taken, all communications with the spacecraft were lost. Brief, faint subsequent signals from the spacecraft suggested that it had begun spinning so rapidly that it could not re-establish its lock on Earth for radio transmissions. A news report said that "an erroneous command sent to the spacecraft by a backup ground controller caused the failure".
The circumstances surrounding the sudden and unexpected failure and rumors of a final photo "containing an object which should not have been there" have led to extensive speculation about the mystery object being a UFO, and even of possible extraterrestrial intervention in the Russian mission. The newly released photo is the basis for the lead story in the first 1992 issue of UFO Magazine. Conjecture in recent years about the moon Phobos being a possible base of operations for hypothetical extraterrestrials served only to provide a context to support this speculation, and make it seem more plausible. Let's analyze what we see in the spacecraft photo, and determine if the speculation is still warranted.
The moon Phobos is a very dark, low reflectivity, carbonaceous-type asteroidal body. It is therefore quite a coincidence that the PMO and Phobos have a similar surface brightness, unless the PMO is itself made of materials with light and heat reflectivity similar to Phobos. This is true regardless of the distance to the PMO.
If the PMO had been more nearly round instead of rectangular, scientists might immediately have thought that they had just discovered another small asteroidal moon in or near the orbit of Phobos. With a mean diameter of two kilometers or less and close proximity to Mars, such a moon could not have been seen previously from Earth; nor was it likely to be spotted in any of the Viking photos from earlier U.S. missions to Mars. The existence of other moonlets close to Mars has been conjectured. Since the chances of photographing one by accident are small, such a discovery would suggest the likelihood of many additional small asteroidal moonlets orbiting Mars. The orbit of Phobos is itself one region of stability where other moonlets might be found. There are precedents among the outer planets for multiple moonlets in a single orbit. And we note recent observational evidence for a dust torus in the orbit of Phobos. This torus might contain other, larger asteroidal objects as well as dust.
However the actual PMO is so elongated that it looks rectangular, not roughly round like a moonlet. The simplest explanation for a rectangular appearance is that the PMO has a relative motion with respect to Phobos and/or the spacecraft, such that its image was trailed during the long (8 second) exposure. The parallel sides of the PMO image make it look very much like a trailed image of a smaller object, such as another asteroid-like moon. The ends of the PMO image, which presumably show the ends of the object producing the trail, do look rounded and irregular in shape, as an asteroidal moon would. The narrowing of the PMO image at the end near Phobos suggests that the untrailed image would be more elongated than round, with the narrow end toward Phobos. It is not at all unusual for asteroids to be twice or more as long as they are wide. The perfect smoothness of the PMO image between ends is likewise consistent with this "trailed-image" hypothesis.
There is nothing obvious about the Phobos Mystery Object (PMO) image that suggests to the eye that the PMO was a manufactured or artificial object; e.g. windows or "structure" along its "body", antennae or protrusions, a functional spacecraft-like shape, or metallic reflectivity. If it were artificial, any sort of structure anywhere along its length other than near the ends would have made it appear so. But there was no such structure, only a smooth "trail". Moreover, if it were not made of materials similar to Phobos, especially if it were metallic, its reflectivity would have given that fact away. Only the slight protrusion close to the far end can be pointed to as a "feature" of the PMO. But that feature is subtle enough that photographic defects or camera vibrations from the shutter might account for it. It is the one thing that UFO advocates can point to as not fully explained by the trailed moonlet hypothesis alone.
One further test of this working hypothesis, that the PMO is a trailed image of a small asteroidal moonlet near Phobos's orbit, is possible. We can ask if the velocity of the PMO implied by the length of its trail in the 8-second photo is consistent with the orbital velocity of a moonlet. If the PMO were at the distance of Phobos from the spacecraft, the moonlet motion would correspond to 20 km in 8 seconds, or 2.5 km/s perpendicular to the line of sight. This is below escape velocity from Mars at the orbit of Phobos, 3.0 km/s. It is above the 2.1 km/s circular velocity at the orbit of Phobos. However the velocity component toward or away from the camera would increase the total PMO velocity; and the fact that the distance of the PMO may be closer or farther than that of Phobos itself would also decrease or increase the total PMO velocity. So we can only conclude that the apparent PMO velocity is a reasonable number for an object orbiting Mars. It might easily have been a large number, forcing us to conclude that the PMO had more than escape velocity or was close to the spacecraft photographing it. It might also have been a small number, implying that the PMO was moving mainly in the line of sight or was close to Phobos. Any of these conditions would have been suspicious, and consistent with the UFO idea. Instead the apparent velocity was consistent with the trailed moonlet hypothesis.
Other lines of evidence support a similar conjecture. The Phobos 2 spacecraft discovered a gaseous torus in the orbit of Phobos which may very well contain more asteroidal moons as well. There is much cratering evidence on Mars for a large former population of equatorial moons which impacted the surface at low angles. Some of that former population of moonlets, which certainly existed in the past, may still exist today. On the other hand, a Viking Orbiter search of the region between the top of the atmosphere and the orbit of Phobos turned up no new satellites [T,C. Duxbury and A.C. Ocampo, Icarus 76, 160-162 (1988)].
Our conclusion is that the trailed moonlet hypothesis is a reasonable explanation for the Phobos Mystery Object. Even if the surprise rectangular shape in the final Russian spacecraft photo of the Martian moon Phobos was not under the control of extraterrestrials, it probably still represents an exciting astronomical discovery of additional moonlet(s) near Mars, which is sure to fuel the lively ongoing debate over the origin of all Martian satellites.
In a letter to the editor, Daniel Fischer of Skyweek, the German astronomical weekly, disputed this analysis, arguing instead that the PMO was "a CCD artifact and nothing more." As evidence, he notes that the PMO's orientation is exactly parallel to the lines of the CCD pixels, and shows pictures of actual artifacts with a superficial resemblance. I objected that the "artifact" did not go to the lower edge of the image, which any CCD artifact would do.
I concluded, "My counter-arguments to Mr. Fischer should not be taken as ruling out his conjecture, but only as showing why I rejected it as the most probable explanation in my original analysis. I also do not discount the possibility that the photo was altered by the private sources which first published it. But efforts to obtain an original image have so far been unsuccessful."
Not long after this was written, I obtained a set of photos taken by the spacecraft through the courtesy of a colleague at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This information should now be available at NASA’s Space Science Data Center, the repository for data and images from all space missions. The mystery was solved at a glance. Many of these spacecraft images contain a similar "mystery object", in the identical location, which (to simplify a complex description) can be described as a calibration marker in the spacecraft camera. The particular image in the set that most closely matches Figure 1 is shown in Figure 2, although this one was not the spacecraft’s final image.
One can easily reproduce Figure 1 exactly by suitable adjustment of the brightness levels displayed in the image until they are all black or all white with no shades of gray., and by suitable cropping of the image borders. Now the original person creating Figure 1 had access to this original image, and presumably the whole set of images as well. Processing it to eliminate grayscale levels, claiming it was "the last image taken", and insinuating that it was unique, are all clear fabrications with the intent of creating a mystery where not actually existed. We do not know if the person who brought this photo to the U.S. was the perpetrator, or was herself duped. But it is clear that this whole episode was a hoax from the outset.
The lesson here is simple, and has wide applicability. Lots of people have motives and incentives to perpetrate hoaxes. When I was in college, it seemed that around exam times many students got the urge to hoax, perhaps as a form of stress relief. One pastime was a recurring contest to call radio talk shows and see who could make up a yarn that would keep him/her on the air for the maximum amount of time. There was always a convincing winner.
This brings up the subject of UFOs in general, although the lesson applies in many areas of science. There may or may not be piloted extraterrestrial craft flying through our skies. But the field of UFOlogy has attracted people and authors whose criteria are far too lax, some with financial or other motives, with the result that nearly every hoax that has come along has been accepted as true by a sizable portion of the field. Even when a sighting is later exposed as a hoax, many UFO proponents reject that explanation in favor of conspiracy theories coupled with real phenomena. This, more than the disposition of any single incident, is responsible for the loss of credibility of the field among the public and mainstream media.
Most UFO reports have natural explanations in terms of familiar phenomena. Most of the remainder are hoaxes. Most of the unexplained phenomena are unexplained for lack of sufficient data or corroboration rather than because they are intrinsically unexplainable. If the field is ever to regain the level of credibility needed to be persuasive to open-minded scientists and individuals, it will need to do some in-house cleaning and eliminate most of the reports it now showcases. Only then will the number of interesting cases be reduced to a level where a true signal might remain in a manageable number of cases, allowing credible investigators to concentrate on the phenomenon instead of on the thankless and hopeless task of educating the victims of hoaxes that their credulity standards need adjustment.
LOL - How'd you know it was me?
I hear from reports that they heard something singing, "A Bicycle Built For Two."
Are we sure this wasn't from Pravda?
No but seriously, If I know the Russians then this will turn out to be caused by your run-of-the-mill ghost with psychokinetic powers.
The probe just caught an image of the plasma bolt just before it was vaporized...
What are all those intestines doing in one's head?
It looks like a rod.
Wait...terribly sorry - wrong planet....
What a great picture. It looks like....a featureless white streak.
It because Martians are the s.itheads of the Galaxy.
It's a. . .
It's a. . .
It's a. . .partially unwrapped drinking straw
next to a cornflake!
And it's here before 2012!
Grab your portable DVD player and
run for the caves.
(If you don't have a cave to run to,
grab the milk and a really big spoon.)
Its the monolith!
Thank God for Starfleet!
Doom 3. The first computer game that I've played that was too scary for me to continue. <:^0
I can still hear the horns blowing
woo wuhh wooo wuhh woo wuhh wuhh wooooooooooo
Cue up Soul Finger.