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Painting of a green fireball, by Lincoln LaPaz himself

Science

The green fireballs of History Channel’s ‘Project Blue Book’ — are we overthinking this?

Ball lightning? Nuclear fallout? Or just meteors?

There’s a stereotype that all UFO witnesses are rubes or dim-witted hayseeds standing out in a cornfield somewhere. History Channel’s largely fictional Project Blue Book series has shown, however, that’s not always the case. Beyond trained military pilots, in the late 1940s, a very strange kind of object was observed on multiple occasions, even once by an actual meteor expert.

Much like in the cases of George Gorman and the foo fighters, the now-legendary “green fireballs” were first observed by pilots and their crews during flights. The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations called in astronomer Lincoln LaPaz to investigate, and he had his own sighting on December 12, 1948. This caused LaPaz to dismiss the idea that the fireballs were simple, ordinary meteors, as he thought they moved too slowly and didn’t produce an expected “trail of sparks or dust cloud.”

Project Blue Book‘s representation of green fireballs

Even scarier than the reports themselves is where they occurred — over New Mexico’s Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, where nuclear weapons were developed and produced, as shown in last week’s episode of Project Blue Book. After ruling out natural causes, LaPaz concluded the green fireballs had to be intelligently controlled and man-made, potentially tools sent by the Soviets to spy on American activities.

A specially convened Air Force investigation, Project Twinkle, decided the green fireballs were likely natural in origin (though it didn’t offer a positive identification), despite LaPaz’s protests. In 1952 Edward J. Ruppelt, the analogue of whom is Blue Book‘s Michael Quinn, interviewed scientists and technicians at Los Alamos who had witnessed the phenomenon. Many thought the fireballs didn’t have an earthly origin, and even suggested they might have been probes sent by extraterrestrials.

While the origin of those early green fireballs was never conclusively decided upon, the mystery of a more recent spate was pretty definitively meteors. Physicist Stephen Hughes at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane says a group of green fireballs sighted in Australia in 2006 were probably from the comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, and the color was likely due to the air around the objects ionizing, similar to how excited oxygen causes the green colors in aurorae.

One of the 2006 Australian green fireballs, as photographed by a Brisbane resident

Hughes also suggests a report of a fireball bouncing around after hitting the ground may have been due to ball lightning, a little-understood and somewhat controversial phenomenon of glowing orbs that sometime appear during thunderstorms and are often offered as explanations of UFO sightings. A 1969 Air Force-funded UFO investigation, commonly called the Condon Committee, mentioned in their final report that the original green fireballs may have been material ejected from the Moon following asteroid impacts.

The Geminid meteor shower occurs every year in December, usually peaking on the 14th. Originating from the asteroid named 3200 Phaethon, the Geminids are slower and brighter than most other meteors, and don’t tend to leave behind a trail. While most often white or yellow, they can also be green.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

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