The Strange, Sordid History of the ‘Black Knight Satellite’
NASA has reported that it has received a message from distant space, having traveled to Earth from 540 million miles away, in the far reaches of our solar system.
However, this message wasn’t of mysterious origins; it was actually sent to Earth by an unmanned spacecraft we sent hurtling off toward Jupiter nearly five years ago. Now, like a conscientious teen texting to let mom know she arrived safely at her destination, our Juno spacecraft has done the same, after traveling 1.8 billion miles, and to the tune of 1.1 billion dollars spent funding the program.
In our current stage of development, it simply makes more sense to send an unmanned probe that can orbit a distant planet, gathering information that it transmits back to us as we study it from afar. Some might argue, since this has proven to be an effective strategy for humans, that perhaps one day we will discover evidence of other life forms that have done this just as well. In fact, this scenario is one interpretation behind a long-held mystery involving a mysterious “dark satellite”, said to be drifting above our planet in a retrograde orbit. Observed since the 1950s, many have referred to these objects over the years, which seem to have collectively become known today as what is called the “Black Knight Satellite.” However, the history underlying this unusual claim is actually far more strange than most realize.
As far back as 1899, Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla had begun to monitor what he believed were possible “transmissions” from deep space; the same radio signals were apparently intercepted by Guglielmo Marconi as well, which had actually been natural radio emissions from areas further out in our solar system. Later in the 1920s, ham radio operators would again begin intercepting signals, erroneously believed to have had extraterrestrial origins. These discoveries served the basis for a later claim by Scottish researcher Duncan Lunan, who said he uncovered evidence of an alien probe near Arcturus (he later partially withdrew this theory).
On May 14, 1954, the Saint Louis Post Dispatch carried a story titled, “Artificial Satellites Are Circling Earth, Writer on ‘Saucers’ Says.” The writer in question had been Donald E. Keyhoe, who had been promoting the idea that one or more artificial satellites were in Earth orbit at that time. A portion of the article read, “United States Government scientists at White Sands, N. M., Keyhoe said, are making an intensive effort to locate and chart the course of the satellites in an attempt to determine what they are and where they came from.”
Apart from the statement issued at White Sands, where might Keyhoe have initially learned about this “mystery satellite”? One early source could have been the observations of Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, who had served as the head of the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of New Mexico. Sometime in 1953, LaPaz purportedly observed such an object orbiting the Earth, during experimental tests that involved long-range radar equipment.
As Keyhoe later described in his book Aliens From Space:
“During 1953, the AF began experiments with new long range radar equipment. While making the initial tests, AF operators were astonished to pick up a gigantic object orbiting near the equator. Its speed was almost 18,000 miles an hour. Repeated checks showed that the tracking was correct. Some huge unknown object was circling Earth, six hundred miles out.”
The object was later “joined” by another strange satellite, observed in an orbit approximately 400 miles from Earth. Following these observations, the Defense Department assembled an “emergency satellite detection project” at White Sands, New Mexico. Dr. Clyde Tombaugh (who was known for his discovery of Pluto) was put in charge of the project, as was overseen under Army Ordinance Research. By March 3, 1954, an official explanation was released at White Sands, under approval by the Pentagon. Keyhoe describes it thusly:
“The armed forces, Army Ordinance stated, were searching for tiny moons or ‘moonlets,’ natural objects which had come in from space and were now orbiting the Earth. They had not been tracked or discovered sooner, a spokesman said, because they were following orbits near the equator and the scarcity of observatories there made them harder to locate. Also, special automatic-tracking cameras moving at the satellites’ speed would be required, because such fast-moving objects gave off very little light and ordinary telescopic cameras would not reveal them. The armed forces’ intention, the spokesman explained, was to locate suitable ‘moonlets’ which could be used as space bases and for launching missiles for the country’s defense.”
Keyhoe was highly skeptical of the assertion that these satellites “were objects like asteroids,” and thus, that “nothing serious was involved.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon-approved statement released at White Sands in 1954 predated Keyhoe’s public statements about “artificial satellites” that appeared in the Saint Louis Post and San Francisco Examiner by only two months. Another development occurred later in October of 1954, when it was reported that NASA detected signals from “an unknown orbiting object.” The signals, according to Keyhoe, were corroborated by a French astronomer, who also claimed to have detected signals from an unknown source orbiting the Earth.
In retrospect, we can easily understand the necessity for a program in search of artificial satellites: during this crucial period of the Cold War, America had been concerned that Russia might be launching spy satellites, or even “space weapons” into orbit. Hence, in an effort to conceal what technologies might be used to discover these orbital objects, the National Security Council and the Pentagon became more tight-lipped about satellite-sweep programs operating at the time.
However, this didn’t squelch all discussion of “mystery satellites.” Another strange object, photographed by Dr. Luis Corralos with Venezuela’s Communications Ministry, made headlines in 1957. Corralos had been observing Sputnik II at the time, and noticed the mysterious object, which was moving east to west in a retrograde orbit above the Earth; this would remain a consistent feature of the numerous observations of mysterious “dark” satellites in years to come.
By 1960, the debate had arisen again in the U.S., following an incident on August 25 in which the Gruman Aircraft Corporation also managed to photograph a mystery satellite. The following spring, it was announced on May 18, 1961 that the Smithsonian Observatory at Cambridge, Massachusetts, also spotted an object. “The satellite was first spotted at Jupiter, Florida,” a press spokesman stated. “An unsuspected, unpredicted bright satellite…. tracking stations around the world have been asked to help track it.”
This is precisely what happened. Elsewhere in the world, a young astronomer named Jacques Vallée had been among the staff with the French Space Committee who observed the unusual retrograde satellite. Vallée and the other staff members had been excited by this discovery, which to them suggested a natural satellite — possibly an asteroid — that was captured by Earth’s gravity, since it was believed, at that time, that no rockets existed that were powerful enough to launch such a satellite into orbit. The team, who managed to document the discovery, were shocked later when a superior observed what they had found, and erased the tape.
Why would such information be destroyed in this manner? This lingering question has often been cited by Vallée over the years as a formative moment in his interest in the broader study of UFOs, an interest he has maintained throughout the years in his research and written works.
By June 1961, researcher Harlan Wilson had penned an article about the now numerous appearances of the mysterious, retrograde satellite, which appeared in FATE Magazine. Citing the opinions of the Stanford-based Australian radio astronomer, Professor Ronald H. Bracewell, Wilson wrote that, “If a superior civilization really wanted to pick up signals it would do much better to send an interstellar probe to the vicinity of a star being investigated. Such a civilization could even send a “spray” of probes aimed at 1,000 likely stars, Bracewell says. The probes would be programmed to rebroadcast any radio transmission they might hear.”
So what were the objects that were being seen during this period? Were they indeed the “moonlets” described in the official statement released by Army Ordinance Research at White Sands? Or could some have them have had a different origin? Whether or not all of the accounts in this chronology describe the same object, it would seem that the accumulation of the aforementioned data has largely informed the theories about a supposed “Black Knight Satellite”, referred to variously as a probe, or perhaps a giant alien ship of some variety, drifting high above our planet as it monitors the affairs of Earthlings below.
Some time ago, I spoke with an aerospace engineer (who kindly asked that he not be named here), and got his perspectives on the case of the mysterious “dark” satellites, particularly the one observed by a number of astronomers during the period spanning the years 1959-1969. My contact had, in fact, taken a similar interest in the situation, and admitted that while scanning old articles on the subject from a number of decades ago, he did manage to find some interesting data:
I dug through the old newspapers a while back, and (the 1961 object) turned out to be a lost Discoverer V capsule. They stated this specifically back in the day, also giving its launch date of August 1959.
If you look at the spacetrack.org orbital data for the time period, you will see that one object turned up in their database on May 1, 1960 called the “Discoverer V capsule”. Its inclination and altitudes match the mystery object.
But there was a problem. The database my contact described said that the mystery object had first been spotted in 1959, not 1960, as the article he found (appearing in the March 7, 1960 edition of Time) had stated. Why the discrepancy? Mark provided us with an answer:
Sadly, the orbital data is a little messed up. I guess it’s excusable, considering these are the early days of satellite tracking. The capsule is Item 26 (!!! yes that’s how early) in the tracking database, so this shows how early it is. Anyway, seven of the orbital elements for this object have the wrong date. This is obvious, since they occur before the Discoverer V was even launched! I really do not think this is suspicious, it’s just an error with old data. If you change the date from 1959 to 1960, it makes much more sense. Making that change indicates they started recording orbital elements for the capsule around Feb 16, 1960, when the furor (surrounding the Black Knight Satellite) started on Feb 11, 1960.
I think it is common practice for the radar trackers to gather a number of passes to better estimate the orbit of a satellite, so I can see this taking a few days. The only odd thing is that the story would hit the newspapers so soon though, since I thought those guys would be a little more reluctant to disclose such a finding. But I guess the Cold War and Soviet Union made the world more hyped up back then.
And as far as there being other bad dates in the database, by looking at the first 1000 objects in the database, there are only a total of three objects with odd dates. One can be logically fixed by adding 100 days (for some unknown reason) to the 5 odd elements. The other has just one odd element.
This seems to be the most plausible explanation for the discrepancy in the data, and when compared with what the Time article from March 1960, we do indeed find that the scenario seems to have been accounted for long ago:
Three weeks ago, headlines announced that the U.S. had detected a mysterious “dark” satellite wheeling overhead on a regular orbit. There was nervous speculation that it might be a surveillance satellite launched by the Russians, and it brought the uneasy sensation that the U.S. did not know what was going on over its own head. But last week the Department of Defense proudly announced that the satellite had been identified. It was a space derelict, the remains of an Air Force Discoverer satellite that had gone astray. The dark satellite was the first object to demonstrate the effectiveness of the U.S.’s new watch on space.
“The three-week time lag in identification,” the TIME article read, “was proof that the system still lacks full coordination and that some bugs still have to be ironed out.” Hence, the “dark” satellite of 1960 was indeed identified. But if that’s the case, how come there have been so many theories that continue to suppose it was never identified, or even that the object might still exist?
For one thing, a number of photos appearing online do appear to depict some kind of an object. Some of the photos are actually quite good, as can be seen below:
In some of these images, all one needs to do is put a bit of imagination behind things in order to see what actually does, at times, resemble some kind of aircraft:
Still, maybe this isn’t the “smoking gun” that many have made it out to be. In truth, my contact’s opinion on the subject mirrored that of researcher James Oberg, each of whom suggest that the object in these photos is merely a heat blanket; specifically, what was called the trunnion pin thermal cover, which had been one of the many items of debris left behind during the STS-88 mission. This particular mission was notable for being the first Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station, flown by the Shuttle Endeavor, which was launched on December 4, 1998. The mission lasted just under twelve days.
So the mystery of the “Black Knight Satellite” does seem to have a plausible explanation, at least as far as the post-1959 instances that involved the observation of mystery satellites, as well as objects released in NASA photos more recently.
This does, however, leave us with some potentially interesting questions about the earlier observations from the 1950s, particularly those occurring between 1953 and 1957. Had there been objects launched into space on earlier occasions that, much like the Discoverer V’s capsule had done in 1959, entered a retrograde orbit? As the TIME article mentioned earlier had noted:
“[T]he Department of Defense explained that the retrorocket had probably fired when it was pointing in the wrong direction. Instead of slowing the recovery capsule and bringing it down, the rocket’s thrust had increased the capsule’s speed and put it in a different and higher orbit, where it circled for five months before the still-inexperienced Dark Fence watchers noticed it.”
The question, of course, when it comes to possible earlier launches is a matter of who, precisely, would have launched such aircraft. Data available in relation to the operations of the U.S. space program doesn’t seem to be able to account for such objects as far back as 1953; could the objects seen around that time have been of Russian origin? Or, as the White Sands statement suggested, could they have been “moonlets” that entered Earth orbit for a short time?
Some modern data, including the work of J.P. Bagby (who wrote an article for Nature in 1966 documenting possible “moonlet” observations from Nov 17, 1956 to Dec 14, 1965), does at least suggest that the moonlet theory is possible, though perhaps not highly likely. The notion has been implied elsewhere over the years, including the November 1958 Science article, “Ephemeral Natural Satellites of Earth“, and the similarly-themed “Meteoroids captured into Earth orbit by grazing atmospheric encounters“, a 1997 theoretical astrophysics paper available at Harvard.edu.
So in essence, no, there doesn’t appear to be a 13,000-year-old alien satellite drifting above us, and occasionally showing up in NASA photos. However, there are still some instances where strange objects might have appeared in Earth’s orbit. Thus, as is the case with so many modern UFO mysteries, while the primary “myth” may be explainable, looking deeply at the subject and its history may still raise questions about strange phenomena of the “natural” kind, which may yet assist us in learning new things about our universe.