Nobody's out there

October 20, 2000

From 1978 until 1990, the USSR made a scientific study of reports of unidentifed flying objects. Juliy Platov and Boris Sokolov reveal what was found

At about 4am on September 20 1977, a strange phenomenon was seen by inhabitants of Petrozavodsk, a city in northwest Russia. Witnesses said that an enormous star flashed in the dark sky, sending pulsed shafts of light to the earth. It moved slowly in the direction of Petrozavodsk and sprawled over it like a huge jellyfish. It sprinkled with fine light rays that made an impression of a pouring rain. The phenomenon lasted for 10 or 12 minutes.

Afterwards many residents wrote to the Presidium of the Academy of Sciences wanting to know what had happened. The local authorities and neighboring countries asked whether the observed effects could be the consequences of military experiments that might harm the environment and people. The president of the Academy of Sciences appealed to the government and to the military.

As a result, in 1978, two "anomalous phenomena investigations" were put into the state research plan. The Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Defence were commissioned to do the research. The ministry collected and studied the reports of observations from military sources to see whether there was a link between UFOs and military equipment or personnel. The Academy of Sciences was to investigate the physical nature of such phenomena.

This programme was one of the cheapest scientific projects in the defence field. Its budget was limited to some salaries and travel costs. Unfortunately, the lack of means did not allow special experiments, such as reproducing a huge plasma jet in the atmosphere. The task was to analyse materials received and create models to explain the phenomena.

The programme employed the immense potential of the army, which for 13 years was put on mass duty to observe anomalous phenomena all over the USSR. Hardly anybody has ever organised such an enormous investigation. Similar observations came from the Hydrological and Meteorological State Committee stations and other institutions of the Academy of Sciences. The academy enlisted specialists in atmospheric and plasma physics, geophysicists, geochemists, mathematicians and others to the programme. About 3,000 reports were received in the 13 years of the project. Based on these reports, more than 300 anomalous phenomena were registered, analysed and identified. The investigation showed that the nature of most such phenomena is perfectly explicable. On the whole, they were connected with human technical activities or with exceptional natural phenomena.

Practically all the UFOs observed at night were the effects that follow space and ballistic rocket launches, satellite launches and tests of aircraft and space technology. The causes included the dispersion of sunlight in clouds of dust and gas formed from fuel combustion products. These effects are most prominent at twilight, when the rocket trace passes through the sunlit part of the sky while the observer is on the dark side of the earth. Such traces can measure hundreds of kilometres across and can be more than 100km above the earth, so they are seen across wide areas. This was the explanation for the "Petrozavodsk phenomenon", whose cause was the launch of the satellite Kosmos-955 from the Plisetsk spaceport. A UFO that looked like a giant dolphin, seen from European Russia on the night of June 14 1980, was caused by the launch of Kosmos-1188; the UFO seen on May 15 by Meteor-2, and on August 28 1982 by Molnia-1. Similar effects were observed from the Canary Islands at the time of test ballistic rocket launches by US submarines.

Balloon launches for atmospheric experiments and meteorology produced different types of UFO sighting. The diameter of such rubber balloons is about 2m at sea level. But after rising to a height of 30km, the diameter expands fivefold. Balloons used for scientific investigations in the upper atmosphere can drift at heights of more than 40km. Once one travelled around the world for four years and orbited the earth more than 100 times at a height of about 35km.

Balloons may be not only of classical drop-like form but also of cylindrical and tetrahedron shapes. In 1977, the observation of such a balloon caused a panic during the shooting of a film in the Baltic area. This is understandable because such a balloon is 100m-150m in diameter. At a distance of about 100km, it appears to be 1/15th the size of the full moon. About 10-12 per cent of reported UFOs are balloons.

Although the project used the huge observing potential of the army and civil institutions, no reports on UFO landing, contacts with UFO pilots or UFO kidnappings were presented. This is most surprising. For some reason, it seems that the territory of the USSR was closed to alien visits during at least 13 years. Either that or the hypothesis of the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs is unsound. Every serious investigator of the UFO problem should take this result into consideration.

Juliy V. Platov was deputy chairman of the expert group of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Boris A. Sokolov coordinated the investigations run by the Ministry of Defence and the Academy of Sciences.

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