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Countdown to Kecksburg: The Fireball of December 9, 1965

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posted on Dec, 9 2005 @ 02:37 AM
This is not the story of the Kecksburg Incident, as such. Instead, it's a fresh look at the Great Lakes Fireball of December 9, 1965, an event which was witnessed by spectators in at least six states, and that has a number of mysteries in its own right. It is still just theory; there are many blanks to fill in, and probably some outright mistakes.

It's around 4:30 PM, a warm Saturday in December. Many people are outside today, enjoying the unseasonably mild afternoon. Others are headed inside, getting ready for dinner: we certainly don't want to miss the premier of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" tonight!

Then, without warning, the sky lights up. Heads turn, eyes open wide: a fantastic fireball has appeared in the sky, for a few seconds becoming the brightest object in the world.

Some early reports have the unknown object going west, others, to the north. Newspapers reported confidently that the falling star appeared over Canada, travelling southeast across Michigan and directly over Detroit. Sky & Telescope would tell its readers the object was flying due east, south of Detroit, possibly plunging into Lake Erie. It seemed like thousands of witnesses each saw this thing going in a different direction.

Almost immediately, astronomers from the US and Canada, realizing the opportunity presented by the sheer number of sightings, began interviewing the populace, and eventually put together a single coherent picture of the event. The direction was primarily to the north, across Lake Erie and southern Ontario, from central Ohio toward -- and possibley into -- Lake St. Clair. The exact bearing wouldn't be known for several years. And although nobody in the scientific community, it seems, bothered to explain it to the population, it became clear that the disparate views of the trajectory were primarily due to a particularly steep entry angle, near 50 degrees.

Under these conditions, a viewer in Detroit might think the object was travelling to the northeast. Near Toronto, the same object could appear to be travelling due west. Observers on the north shore of Lake Erie might see the thing glide alomst horizontally northward. In central and southern Ohio, it seemed to drop straight down. A few select citizens of Ontario, directly in the path of the oncoming fireball, would have seen it float almost motionless in the sky.

Witnesses in southwestern Pennsylvania should have seen the object moving from their upper-left, down and to the right, and would most probably have interpreted the path close to its true direction, or perhaps as travelling to the northwest. Still, there were a few reports from that area which didn't fit with the rest. These people insisted they saw a glowing ball travelling to the south, and some even claimed it maneuvered, changing direction several times. Their accounts of the time of the sighting didn't jibe with other reports, either, some saying the incident occured over several minutes; the other hundreds of reports told of an event of just a few seconds, clustering around 4 seconds.

In 1967, astronomers Von Del Chamberlain and David J. Krause published an analysis of the path of the fireball (The Fireball of December 9, 1965 -- Part I) in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (JRASC). Their article put precise numbers on the trajectory of the object, relying particularly on two photographs of the smoke trail by photographers at two different vantage points. Even though there was a glaring typographical error in the article, and several questionable assumptions, it has been gleefully cited by UFO sceptics as a perfect example of science over superstition (even though it seems none of them actually checked the figures independently, because the originally published coordinates had the object shooting UPWARD at Mach 45. For the record, let me be the first sceptic to point out that correct coordinates were published later in the same Journal. The original is available from NASA ADS, the corrections here).

In order to complete their study of the meteor, and to determine a reasonable orbit, Mssrs. Krause and Von Chamberlain had to estimate the velocity of the object. Inexplicably, they chose to ignore their own careful interviews, which had indicated a period of about four seconds, and rely instead on the estimates by the two photographers, which averaged out at two seconds. I say "inexplicable" because the astromomers failed to mention in their article that one of the photographers, Richard Champine, was driving south in afternoon traffic on Interstate 75 during the event. Champine photographed the event with a 4x5 camera, probably a SpeedGraphic, not the easiest of cameras to manage. The other photographer, Lowell Wright, had been photographing sunsets at a nearby lake; I would guess his back was to the fireball when it appeared, and his head down, as he was using a Rolliflex camera. In any case, the estimate of the duration was obtained from two people who definitely had their attention elsewhere at the time of the event.

That same Sky & Telescope article from February 1966 gives Champine's estimate as about ONE second, and quotes Chamberlain as saying "the duration of the meteor was about four seconds". Where did two seconds come from?

If you apply a four-second estimate to the event, you'll get a a velocity under 7 kps (around 14000 mph). That's just at the bottom limit for a low-earth-orbit satellite -- the Shuttle moves at about 7.5 kph (16775 mph) -- and much slower than the normal geocentric velocity of meteors: 10-70 kps (22000-156000 mph). The Air Force said it could not possibly be a satellite, and it was coming down too steeply to be a satellite, so it had to be a meteor; ergo, the velocity had to be closer to 10 kps. In the end, an estimate of two seconds brings the apparent velocity to 14.5 kph, which is a nice number for a meteor and produces an orbit which traces back to just beyond Mars.

If they had stuck to the 4 second estimate, they would have derived a speed which was almost exactly that of an ICBM warhead: the Titan II was designed to reach a maximum velocity of 7.1 kps (16000 mph). And a Titan on a normal 9000 mile flight came down at about 20 degrees; at 3500 miles, the angle would be between 50 and 60 degrees.

There were a couple of other omisions I found uncomfortable, like the exact positions of the photographers. I always wondered why those coordinates were not included, to allow independant confirmation of the figures. (Thanks to the internet, however, I believe I have re-located the exact spots the two gentlemen were standing, and was able to confirm the trajectory to my own satisfaction.)

One further mystery surrounds this article: There are several references to The Fireball of December 9, 1965 -- Part II by authors Dr. J.A.V. Douglas and Henry Lee, which supposedly also appeared in JRASC. But Part II has disappeared completely.

In the end, those few strange reports from Pensylvania were discounted, put down to hysteria and simple misunderstanding -- but the oddball witnesses were actually correct. As pointed out in another thread, there were TWO fireballs that night.

What the folks in and around Kecksburg saw that night was a Mark Six Reentry Vehicle (MK-6 RV), manufactured by General Electric, along with its so-called "mounting spacer", and about eighteen inches of the second-stage and transition ring of a Titan II ICBM. Once that's known, the most fantastic parts of this story are not only believable, but nearly inevitible.

For instance, during the excitement which was triggered by the meteor, several people reported finding strange metal fragments. Aluminum foil was found on the southern shore of Lake St. Clair, and in forested areas north of Detroit. An Air Force spokesman explained that the substance was "just" chaff, used by WWII bombers for jamming enemy radar. The officer was undoubtedly unaware that US nuclear warheads did carry chaff -- it was Top-Secret, Eyes-Only -- and that the US was agressively testing its use for the Minuteman missile series.

As for the insistance of some witnesses in Pensylvania that the the object turned and maneuvered: they must have been mistaken, the skeptics said. Meteors don't maneuver, and neither do falling satellites. (One possiblity, a Russian space probe which reentered earlier that same day over Canada, had been eliminated from the list.) However, it was another closely held secret at the time that the MK-6 COULD maneuver: the warhead itself had alignment thrusters, as did the "spacer" it sat on. Futhermore, the spacer, normally shown in diagrams as a simple ring of alluminum alloy, was packed with electronic equipment and contained sixteen large ejection tubes, like mortars, normally fitted with flares, but capable of holding and explosivly deploying a variety of "penetration aids".


For several years intense searches were performed to locate the fragments of the December 9 Fireball; despite a very good idea of the end-point of the meteor's path, no meteoroic fragments were ever found. That's understandable if there was not a meteor. There were a few metal pieces seen along the same shore where chaff was found, but were dismissed; the area has an industrial history, including two closely-spaced rail lines.

Again, it's too late. Tomorrow, the events on the ground at Kecksburg.

posted on Dec, 9 2005 @ 09:42 AM
I never knew but apparently this happened 10 minutes from where I went to college. I might have to drive through Kecksburg sometime to check out the area this supposedly happened at.


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