Sunspots, Roswell, & Wright Field

On April 7, 1947, the largest sunspot in recorded history was observed.  Forty times the diameter of Earth, this solar activity would be connected with some odd happenings later that year in Roswell, NM.  That’s a testament, as we’ll see, to humans’ ability to connect dots that really are not there.  Nonetheless, this event does offer the opportunity to explore solar physics along with history.

Sunspots were first observed by ancient Chinese astronomers around 800 BC.  The invention of the telescope accelerated the study of sunspots and Galileo spent several years observing them.  Sometimes it takes a few centuries of observations to discern a pattern and that was the case with sunspots.  In 1843, Samuel Schwabe discovered sunspots appear in roughly 11-year cycles.  One major exception to this was the Maunder Minimum from 1645 to 1715 when very few sunspots appeared at all.  It would not be until the early 20th Century and the work of George Ellery Hale that the physics of sunspots would be understood.

Animation of Galileo’s sunspot drawings from June 2 to July 8 in 1613. The Sun rotates once every 25 days. Credit: Rice University Galileo Project.

From 1897 to 1993, the world’s largest telescope was one built by Hale.  These telescopes discovered galaxies existed beyond the Milky Way, the expansion of the universe, and quasars, the most distant objects known.  Somewhat overshadowed by all this was Hale’s work in solar physics.  In 1908, Hale discovered sunspots were regions of intense magnetic activity.  The magnetic field acts as a bottleneck for convection to the solar surface.  As a result, sunspots are a few thousand degrees cooler than the surrounding region and consequently appear dark.  Hale would also discover the polarity of sunspot magnetic field flips after each 11-year cycle as part of an overall 22-year cycle.  It was the 150-foot solar tower at Mt. Wilson that imaged the great sunspot of 1947.

Great sunspot of 1947. Earth and Jupiter added to image for scale. Credit: Mt. Wilson Observatory

Despite the darkness of the sunspots, this type of solar activity does not significantly change visible light radiation received on Earth.  However, high energy ultraviolet and x-ray radiation increases during times of intense solar activity.  This radiation is harmful to life but thankfully, an upper layer of the atmosphere called the thermosphere absorbs it.  This layer, 500 to 1,500 km above the surface, is where the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, and many other satellites reside.  We think of this region as outer space as the atmosphere is so rarefied here, but rarefied as it is, an increase in solar activity can expand and increase the density of the thermosphere enough to drag orbiting objects to a lower altitude, or in the case of Skylab in 1979, back down to Earth.

Skylab was America’s first space station. This image was taken on February 8, 1974 as Skylab’s final crew departed. Credit: NASA

Some have claimed the massive solar activity of 1947 is responsible for an extraterrestrial space vehicle crash near Roswell, NM that year.  What crashed in New Mexico was earthly in origin, but solar activity would not bring down this type of craft at any rate.  Skylab was an abandoned space vehicle and it took several years for the energized thermosphere to drag it down to Earth.  An advanced space vehicle with propulsion would simply compensate for any decay in its orbit with a minor burn.  Orbiting satellites perform this maneuver routinely.  So what happened in the New Mexico desert in 1947?

In mid June, rancher W. W. Brazel found a crash site filled with debris he thought may have been part of a flying saucer.  By early July, Brazel notified a nearby Army Air Force base and three men were sent to investigate.  Here’s where things got complicated.  The debris field contained items described as foil, balsa wood beams, and other parts held together with scotch tape.  There was also a black box which looked like some sort of radio transmitter.  Now, this obviously is not something built to withstand the rigors of interstellar travel.  However, the United States was in the mist of the great flying saucer wave of 1947 and a Roswell paper famously reported the military captured the remains of a crashed saucer.

The term flying saucer had just been coined in late June of that year when pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine saucer type objects near Mt. Rainier.  A wave of sightings was followed over the summer.  The military quickly backtracked on that initial news release and stated it was a weather balloon that had crashed.  Brazel knew that wasn’t quite right as he had seen weather balloons before and what he discovered this time did not look like his previous finds.  Annoyed by the publicity, even the Russians chimed in, joking that the flying saucers reports were the result of too much scotch whiskey, he kept quiet and the story of Roswell died down until the late 70’s when new claims of a government coverup emerged.

Brazel was right, it was not a weather balloon, and there was a coverup by the government, just not the one usually promoted by those who make a living off this event.  I can recall a 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries sensationalizing the Roswell incident.  I happened to like Unsolved Mysteries quite a bit back in the day.  However, television is a business and sensationalism sells.  In between the 4-5 legitimate mysteries presented each week the show would delve once into the paranormal.  Even then, you had to discern what was real and what was fake.  Roswell was a legit mystery that would be resolved in the mid-90’s.  In retrospect, looking at the 994-page Air Force Roswell Report, it was well beyond the scope of Unsolved Mysteries or ufologists to untangle Roswell.

Unlike most ufoligists accounts of Roswell, the Air Force investigation interviews first hand sources.  Three key interviewees are Sheridan Cavitt, who recovered the original remains at Roswell with Jesse Marcel, Irving Newton, who inspected the debris in Fort Worth, and Albert Trakowski, who was director of Project Mogul.  Jesse Marcel died in 1986.  It was Marcel from the military side who was a key force in reviving the Roswell story in the late ’70’s.  Cavitt described Marcel as a good man but was prone to exaggeration.  Cavitt confirms the original debris field was consistent with a balloon crash.  Newton confirms the same and in fact, broke out laughing at the thought the debris might come from an alien craft when he saw it in 1947.  It was Marcel again who pushed that idea in Fort Worth, noting what he thought was alien writing on the balsa wood beams.  The Roswell story lied dormant until 1978, when Marcel appeared in a National Enquirer article claiming he recovered a flying saucer at Roswell in 1947.

From there, the Roswell myth picked up steam until it became a cottage industry onto itself.  The report interview with Trakowski is key.  This interview provided information on a project that was classified in 1947 and when unclassified in 1994, solved the Roswell mystery.

In the dawn of the Atomic Age, the United States was researching methods to detect atomic bomb tests in the Soviet Union.  One such effort was Project Mogul.  This program designed high altitude balloons to detect sound waves from atomic explosions.  The balloons were unusual in design, consisting of balloon trains up to 600 feet long.  The balloons were made of polyethylene material and the train included radar reflectors.  The original find by Brazel indicated the lack of an impact crater.  And the alien hieroglyphics?  Those were flower/geometric shaped figures on tape used to seal the balloon’s radar targets.  This tape was procured from a toy manufacturer when the targets were built during World War II.  The material shortage during the war forced the use of a toy manufacturer’s tape and was often the source of jokes within the Project Mogul staff.

Schematic or 600-foot project Mogul balloon train. Credit: USAF.

The materials discovered fit the description of the Mogul balloons.  Brazel’s intuition was correct, it wasn’t a weather balloon, but given the then classified nature of Project Mogul, the military could not disclose its true nature in 1947.

The debris was to be shipped to Wright Field (now Wright-Patterson) in Ohio with a stop in Fort Worth where it was photographed.  The purpose of sending the debris to Wright was to properly identify it.  However, the debris never made it to Wright as it was identified as some sort of balloon rather than a flying saucer in Fort Worth.  In fact, the entire contents was described as being able to fit in a car trunk.   Another aspect of the Roswell myth was a second crash where alien bodies were discovered and shipped to Wright.  No first hand accounts of a second crash exist and those who make this claim can’t even agree on its location.  Fact is, it never happened.  While the people at Wright Field were not examining alien bodies, they were at work making aviation history.

After World War II, Chuck Yeager was assigned to Wright Field where the Army Air Force maintained its test flight center.  The Bell X-1 was built in Bell Aerospace’s plant in Niagara Falls, but many of the design features came from the engineers at Wright.  It was at Wright where the decision was made to model the Bell X-1 after a .50 caliber machine gun bullet.  When the push came to move the X-1 past the sound barrier, operations were transferred to Muroc Air Base in the Mojave Desert and Yeagar went supersonic on October 14th.  There were a lot of interesting going-ons at Wright Field in 1947, just none of it involving extraterrestrials.

Bell X-1 during a test flight. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

So why does the myth of Roswell endure, more than two decades after it was debunked?  As the poster from the X-Files says, “I want to believe.”  People naturally want to be in on the discovery of something momentous as alien life.  Problem is, science requires evidence and all that evidence points towards Project Mogul as the source of the Roswell crash.  That, and the Roswell UFO story is a livelihood for authors.  As I said before, sensationalism sells, and as much as people don’t want to give up on myths, they are more stubborn giving up a cash cow.

It’s unfortunate that the remains of the Project Mogul balloon crash was disposed of.  Wright-Patterson is now the home of the National Museum of the USAF.  A fabulous collection of aviation history from the Wright brothers to the Space Age, an exhibit of the crash remains from Roswell would have been a great addition.  Besides an interesting historical artifact from the nascent atomic age, one could laugh just as Warrant Officer Irving Newton did in Fort Worth back in 1947, when told this debris was the flying saucer found in Roswell.

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