How do you do scientific research on the topic of UFOs and get it published in a journal, without shredding your reputation? That was the thought that crossed my mind when I read a recent paper that has managed to navigate that difficult route, with the ‘how’ being neatly answered by its wordy title: “Improved instrumental techniques, including isotopic analysis, applicable to the characterization of unusual materials with potential relevance to aerospace forensics“.
That’s how: make it about the science (‘improved instrumental techniques’) and make it relevant (to ‘aerospace forensics’), and don’t mention the UFO word. Because make no mistake, this piece of research – at its most basic – is really “let’s analyse some stuff that might have fallen out of a UFO”…but what journal is going to publish that?
As such, a team of researchers including Garry P. Nolan (a highly respected Stanford University scientist who has a side-interest in anomalies research) and legendary UFO investigator and author Jacques Vallee* spend the first section of the paper reviewing common modern mass spectrometry techniques applied to the analysis of unknown materials across many fields, and give an overview of improvements made to these technologies in recent years. They then “review practical experiences applying these techniques to the simplest case of the characterization of solid materials”.
It is only then that the researchers correlate these fields with the analysis of “a well-documented, still-unexplained incident, initially thought to be of aerospace origin, which gave rise to the deposition of unknown material”. But even still, they frame the introduction of this case as part of “a wider range of issues in reverse engineering of complex, esoteric materials, and aerospace forensics.”
So what is the ‘incident’ that the research refers to?
On the evening of Saturday, December 17, 1977, a “luminous red mass” was observed by two residents of Council Bluffs, Iowa falling from the sky near the northern city limits:
A bright flash was seen, followed by flames 8–10 feet high. When they reached the scene, the witnesses found an area covered by molten metal that glowed red-orange, igniting the grass. Police and a fireman arrived within 15 min and saw the mass (with estimates ranging from 35 to 55 pounds) “running, boiling down to the edges of the levee,” in an area of about 4 feet by 6 feet. The central portion remained warm to the touch for approximately 2h. No cratering was noticed. …After ascertaining that the material was not radioactive, two chemical analyses were rapidly conducted, one at the Iowa State University laboratory and the other at Griffin Pipe Products Company. Both agreed with the determination that the material was a metallic alloy, chiefly iron with small amounts of nickel and chromium. The report indicated that the micro-structure suggested the studied sample was carbon steel that was cast, subsequently re-heated to about 1000◦ and cooled at an intermediate rate, so that it resembled wrought iron (wrought iron is an alloy containing low carbon content in the 0.08% or less level). No pictures of the ‘microstructure’ were provided in the historical report. The problem with that determination was that nothing accounted for the way a large amount of that very heavy and extremely hot material could have been deposited in that area in a molten state, following the clear observation of a luminous object in the sky, (the purported source of the material) which remained unidentified.
Investigators were afterwards able to gather testimony from 11 witnesses in all, in separate groups, to the incident. Notably, two of those witnesses said that when they saw the object in the sky, it was hovering near the treetops, not falling, and they described it as round with “red lights blinking in sequence around the periphery.”
With the amount of detail given, the consistency of the observations, and the material evidence on the ground, investigators considered five hypotheses to explain the incident:
- Reentering satellite debris
- Meteoritic impact
- Fallen equipment from an aircraft
- A hoax perpetrated using thermite
- A hoax perpetrated by pouring molten metal on the ground
However, none of these explanations seemed to provide a decent answer – the first three were dismissed due to the lack of cratering and the molten state of the material, while the two hoax explanations left too many questions unanswered (what was the object that was seen falling, how was the molten metal transported, etc). Was the material on the ground, investigators wondered, actually ejected from the hovering object?
The paper then notes the results of both the original analysis of the materials, as well as their new analyses using more advanced equipment performed on a sample of the material retained by Jacques Vallee from his original investigation. From all of these, it was found that the material is composed of “chiefly iron, with less than 1% of alloying metals such as nickel and chromium…the slag was a foam material containing metallic iron and aluminum with smaller amounts of mag- nesium, silicon, and titanium.” This elemental make-up was highly suggestive that the material was not of meteoritic origin, or from a piece of man-made space hardware.
The more recent isotopic analysis also led to an initial conclusion “that sample components were consistent with a terrestrial origin”, and further advanced analysis using multiplexed ion beam imaging confirmed that isotope ratios did not differ from expected terrestrial values – although significant differences were noted in the homogeneity of the elements across samples.
Finally, researchers speculated on possible explanations for the incident. One hypothesis was that it might be related to the crash of a Soviet reconaissance satellite just five weeks later – however, it was decided that there was no connection between the two events.
Another suggestion – based on the eyewitness report that the object was hovering – was that the molten mass might have been ejected from a UFO (though the researchers do not explicitly say that in the paper). However, the researchers note:
Even in such a speculative area, the scientific steps to be taken are not fundamentally different from those we have outlined above. One would have to ask, does the catalogue of elements found in the material cause us to believe it does not come from our planet? The materials from Council Bluff show no evidence suggesting it was engineered or designed. The material would not be expected to form naturally, and as shown does have unusual inhomogeneity. While we cannot divine the purpose, that does not mean it could not be created by methods even extant in the 1970s.
The researchers do note, however, that liquid metal has been identified by some scientists as possibly being useful as “part of some propulsion or power generation system”, though they also are clear that “no such device has been reported to date, so such ideas remain highly speculative”. Nevertheless, they do mention speculation that in such a system, “depleted fluid might need to be occasionally ejected”.
In doing so, the paper sets up a rationale for further investigations along the same lines as has been carried out with the Council Bluffs material. While their analysis did not solve this particular mystery, in their final summary the researchers do feel compelled to discuss that there have been numerous cases over the last several decades of reports of material being dropped from, or ejected by, “unknown aerial objects” (the words you use when you don’t want to say UFO):
It has not been possible, or financially feasible to date, to bring full range of current materials analysis capabilities to bear. Deep metallurgical analysis by specifically trained analysts will need to be consulted for each different material as warranted.
Recently, news reports have suggested the presence of other aerial craft of unknown provenance witnessed by Navy pilots concurrently detected with electronic sensors and visual identification. While the data collected about this set of events does not include any material evidence, the day might come when materials from such events are available to be examined. Approaches that maximally provide information down to the atomic scale are now applicable to such studies, including such devices as atom probes and cryo-electron microscopy.
Since technology has considerably improved since 1977, we are now better prepared to analyze such events, with a view to bringing previously unidentified episodes into the scope of practical and reproducible science. The objective is to provide data in an open-source manner so that others might replicate the analytic approaches or divine a testable hypothesis of why and how such materials are deposited or left behind.
In regards to the Council Bluffs case, however, the researchers note that “the data is verifiable… it is only the origin and nature of the material (and the phenomenon in general) that remains open.” For his part, Jacques Vallee noted in a recent interview that he considers this investigation and published paper as a proof-of-concept pointing the way forward for ufology: “[It’s] a template for what serious UFO research could be in the future, if one plays by the rules… You have to open the door first, before you can bring in the packages.”
Additionally, Garry Nolan discussed his research analysing multiple samples of alleged UFO materials – from not just the Council Bluffs case, but other cases as well – in a recent interview with Lex Fridman. He confessed that “several of the things that I’ve looked at, we’ve found to be completely banal or were pieces of aircraft”. However, he also said that a number of the samples in his possession are somewhat anomalous, in particular those with odd isotopic ratios (which was not observed in the Council Bluffs case, but during the interview he references another case, from Ubatuba, Brazil).
Even then though, he notes that the anomalies are simply a point of departure for further research or speculation, rather than any kind of hard evidence of alien visitation:
Is this sufficient evidence? Absolutely not. But somebody’s put it forward, I have the time – and it’s my time – [so] I’ll study it, and my objective is to take those that I think are credible enough and do a reasonable analysis, put it out there, and maybe somebody else will come up with an idea as to what it is.
Nolan is a fascinating individual – impeccable scientific credentials but also a deep interest in anomalies (he has previously analysed the ‘Atacama alien mummy’) – so in a future post I’ll do more of a deep dive into his interview with Lex Fridman as there’s plenty else to unpack in there beyond this single topic.
* Full disclosure: The Daily Grail is the current publisher of Jacques Vallee’s books Passport to Magonia and Messengers of Deception.
(h/t Randall Fitzgerald)