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In 1883, in the fields near Marfa, Texas, cattle was being herded by the thousands, and one night, Robert Ellison, a cow hand noticed something strange in the distance. It was a strange light hovering a few feet above the ground, a few miles away. His daughter claimed that they thought that it was a campfire, Indians, or other travelers, until they kept seeing it several times within the next few years. In 1916, eighteen-year-old Hallie Stilwell was coming to Marfa for business when they were driving and saw lights on a nearby mountain range. They first thought it was a campfire, or Indians, or ranchers, until it started moving strangely, and they soon believed that it was "ghost lights".
If Cox’s grandfather didn’t actually write about the lights, the state of Texas said that Clayton Williams’s grandfather did, so I called the ex-politician to ask about it. He explained that O. W. Williams was a former lawyer who had become a surveyor in the Terlingua area in the 1880’s. “He had a Mexican guide named Juan Cano,” said Williams, who donated ten acres of land for the viewing center, “and he told my grandfather stories by the campfire that the Indians had told the Mexicans, including one about the Marfa lights. The Indians called them Alsate’s Ghost, for the Apache chief who had been killed by the Mexicans. My grandfather wrote a lot of stories—Indian stories as told to Mexicans, who told my grandfather. He saw the lights too, but I don’t think he ever wrote down his observations. But he told me about seeing them.”
Alto Technology Resources acquired hyperspectral data of portions of West Texas and New Mexico in July-September, 2000 for the purpose of establishing environmental baselines and soil and vegetation types in the region. One of these projects was geographically close to Marfa, TX, south of where The Marfa Mystery Lights reportedly exist. Because little new data have been added to the body of knowledge about the phenomena, we decided to perform a daytime-nighttime hyperspectral analysis of the area and make our findings available to the public.
A ground observer was stationed at the Marfa Mystery Light Observation Site while the aircraft was acquiring data. He saw the Marfa Lights in action and recorded them as well as conversations with the pilots on a conventional camcorder. Exact positions were known from onboard GPS units. The following is a summary of our findings:
1. While the ground observer saw Marfa Light activity, the pilots overhead saw nothing. They saw only known light sources from the town of Marfa, isolated cars on the roadways, a weigh station (or other permanent building along Hwy 67), and the radio beacons.
2. Nighttime sensor thermal infrared data confirmed the pilots' observations. While the sensor was capable of discriminating among soil types, soil conditions, lights, vegetation and roadways, no anomalies were detected. This lack of data effectively rules out ball lightening/plasma, burning swamp gas, radiant gas, pranksters carrying flashlights or lanterns, or direct car headlight beams.
3. Daytime sensor data showed the presence of areas with highly reflective soil in the extreme southwestern portion of the study area. Much of this soil flanked Highway 67 descending from the Chinati Mountains.
4. We combined the computer-generated soil distribution with the US Geological Survey topographic maps and Digital Elevation Models (DEM) that allowed us to view the soils and the topography as they would be seen from the Marfa Lights Observation Site.
We believe that the Marfa Lights are phenomena that are created by cars descending from the Chinati Mountains. As the cars descend along Highway 67, their headlights, shining northeast along the approximate azimuth of 220°, encounter the concave surface of the land that contains a coating of highly reflective soil. The soil creates a reflected beam that appears magnified and can appear to split and merge to an observer at the Marfa Lights Observation Site. This duplication, splitting and merging is likely the result of the cars' movements along the highway. At some point, the car is completely on the plain and no longer reflects its lights in the direction of the observer. Furthermore, the Rancheria Hills and other topographic features begin to block light transmission at that point.