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Mysterious Mayhem over the American Midwest: Drones, Ball Lightning, or Something Else?

Recently here at Mysterious Universe I blogged about the infamous “Lubbock Lights” case, which appeared in the US Air Force’s original Project Blue Book files. According to Edward Rupplet, Blue Book coordinator and author of the classic treatise on UFOs, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, Ruppelt claimed to have been given a very clear and concise explanation for the appearance of these lights, photographed over Texas in the summer of 1951; strangely, Ruppelt never revealed his “explanation” for the phenomenon, with respect to maintaining the confidentiality of his source, who apparently worked in a very demanding and prominent area of the scientific establishment at the time.

At present, if there are natural explanations for the appearances of strange, inexplicable light formations in the sky–let alone explanations that could have been satisfactory more than half a century ago–it would be very helpful to be able to know their cause at this time, since during the last several weeks, controversy has erupted surrounding a series of lights photographed during a lightning storm over Colorado in early June. As is the case with any good UFO story, these series of objects, despite my best attempts at debunking them, remain mysterious despite the accumulation of scientific data.

Several weeks ago, my colleague Scotty Roberts, editor and publisher of Intrepid Magazine, was sent a series of photographs that appear to show a long formation of lights photographed during a lightning storm over the town of Castle Rock, Colorado, on the night of June 6, 2012. The photos were taken just before 11 PM MT, and depict a formation of lights that hovered in the air for a period of close to five minutes, during which they were visible to the naked eye. The photographer, Greg Archer, had said that the lights seemed to have gradually become illuminated, and that he had managed to photograph them just prior to their becoming visible to the eye, which first brought them to his attention. They remained visible for a number of minutes, slowly fading from view just after 11 PM.

There have been a number of theories proposed as to what, precisely, these objects may be. Among the best ideas put forth are some natural formation of what is known as ball lightning or a similar atmospheric manifestation; some have also suggested more mundane explanations along the lines of Chinese Lanterns, or perhaps landing lights of incoming aircraft in the distance.

The problems associated with any of these theories involving conventional aircraft or man made objects are numerous, and cause the proposition of unmeasured conventional explanations to become more complex and difficult to accept than things such as atmospheric phenomenon or, to evoke a common term in the absence of any better cultural references, some variety of UFO phenomenon.

First of all, Archer notes that each of the photographs (which can be viewed at The Intrepid Magazine blog) was taken using an exposure of approximately ten seconds; this means that the aperture of the camera being used had been allowing the available light to expose the objects appearing in the image for a complete period of ten seconds, uninterrupted (this is helpful for purposes of capturing the sudden, otherwise unpredictable lightning strikes, which had been Archer’s original purpose for taking the photos outside during a severe thunderstorm in the first place). Furthermore, the objects remained the same distance from one another in the way the photos seem to show (confirmed using Photoshop to overlay the two images, though the position of the camera relative to the objects does change). This continued for a period spanning close to five minutes, the total length of time between the two photos included at the Intrepid blog, which were the best of the series Archer captured the night in question.

Had these objects been “Chinese Lanterns,” winds present for the time and date in question would likely have caused them to move at least a small amount during a five minute period, and likely even within the 10 seconds it took for the photographic exposures to be made. This would have caused obvious light “streaks” as the objects moved while the aperture of the camera remained open. Furthermore, information made available by the nearby weather station just outside the Denver area details stronger winds on that particular night than any other in June of 2012 (consistent with the storm taking place that evening). This data, made available by the Thornton Weather Station, can be viewed here.

The same light-streaking would apply to incoming aircraft, and even with regard to aircraft directly incoming toward the photographer’s direction at the time the photos were taken. This is especially the case in terms of visible changes in course spanning the five minutes between the times the photos were taken. But the final bit of info that seems to help rule out conventional aircraft has to do with flight data, made available and free to the public courtesy of nearby airports. After receiving help from an associate of mine with a background in engineering and aerospace (who respectfully asked me for anonymity due to his profession), it becomes clear that two key elements concerning incoming flights to the Denver International Airport, oriented directly North of Greg Archer at the time the photos were taken, seem inconsistent with the appearances of these lights:

1) The landing approach to the airport during the time period in question was from West to East.  This is confirmed by records of flights incoming for landing between 10:45 MDT and 11:26 MDT. Greg Archer was facing North.

2) There were only two flights in the air between 10:54 and 10:58 on an “approach” (within 50 km) of the Denver International Airport at that time. One had been approaching from the East, the other from the West; flight data for these can be viewed here and here. The objects in the photograph appear to number nine in total.

UPDATE: Literally as the present article was being written, one of the readers of Intrepid Magazine has supplied his own analysis of the photographs… I’ve included an update which can be seen by clicking here. If “Roger D” is right, then we’re correct in saying these lights certainly aren’t airplanes… is this the solution to the mystery?


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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