Skylab 3 UFO photos

UFOlogists like to make a big mystery out of four blurry photos taken by astronauts Alan Bean, Owen Garriott, and Jack Lousma aboard Skylab 3 on Sept. 20, 1973:

Here is James Oberg's response:


The Skylab 3 Mission "UFO Photographs" of 1973

by James Oberg

Published December 21, 2011, with the author's permission.

Maccabee and Sparks have an impressive web page on the notorious 'squiggle' photograph, that makes some highly dubious leaps of logic.
First, they assume that of the four photos Garriott took, the three that showed only a point of light are the flawed ones, and the squiggle is the true actual image.
Second, they assume that the unanimous eyewitness testimony of all three astronauts -- Bean, Garriott, and Lousma -- that they saw an unusually bright point of light, red-tinged and slowly periodically varying in brightness, was all disregardable when balanced against the one [of four] photograph.
Within the past two years I've met face-to-face with Garriott and Lousma, for other purposes, but discussed the sighting with them. I've also discussed it by phone with Bean [who lives in Houston, but I'm not a frequent visitor at his home studio], but read his book's account of the sighting. I first met these men in the 1970s when I went to work at the Johnson Space Center, and have stayed in touch over the years. To my knowledge, neither Maccabee nor Sparks has ever contacted them directly. 
The interpretation of the object's dimming at sunset at a different time than Skylab dimmed, as an indicator of the object's actual large range, is flawed on two counts. First, the interpretation requires assumptions of the object's altitude and other orbital characteristics that are merely convenient guesses and cannot otherwise be corroborated. Second, the assumption that there is no other possible explanation for the difference in dimming time than large physical separation showing up as different sunset times, is incomplete.
There is another common illumination phenomenon that allows objects near a space vehicle to move into or out of sunlight, that is totally independent of orbital sunrise/sunset. That is shadowing by the observing spacecraft, an optical phenomenon seen on some space shuttle TV downlinks of water dumps and views
of other small drifting nearby objects shed by the shuttle. This alternative explanation was not, as best I recall, discussed or eliminated by Maccabee and Sparks.
The prosaic explanation of the dot as a nearby Skylab-shed piece of debris is supported by three arguments:
1. Similar Skylab-shed small debris was observed on all three Skylab missions, mostly as dots transiting the solar disk during observations using the station's
solar telescope.
2. The wardroom window through which this particular object was observed was on the down-sun side of the station, and during the sunset phase of each orbit the station was casting an invisible umbra extending hundreds of meters down-sun. Because the station had already crossed the Earth's terminator, the surface below was in darkness and hence not reflecting sunlight back up into this shadow zone [as happens during most of every daylight pass] so anything in that zone would not be illuminated and would not be visible. Something moving near the station -- originally away from it but quickly into a possible parallel or closing path -- could move from sunlight into this zone and appear to vanish.
3. The long duration of the observation, measured in minutes, eliminates the possibility of it being an independent satellite in any different orbit. This is because
satellites in crossing orbits have such high relative velocity that the angular velocity is too large even for most eyeball detection, much less minutes of patient watching. Note that here I am conceding Maccabee's argument from the Gemini-11 case that the 'UFO' could not have been the Soviet 'Proton' satellite because it remained in visual and camera range too long [I now favor Sparks's view that the crew observed a bundle of surplus spacewalk tools jettisoned manually a few hours earlier]. I also can report an independent search of known large satellites in orbit at that time [including classified vehicles whose orbital data was released decades later] and agree that no other independent satellite affords an explanation of the sighting. But Skylab-shed debris was never observed from the ground [too small], and not tracked.
4. Less powerful is another argument, that an object of the actual physical size postulated by Maccabee and Sparks would have been a bizarre naked-eye object
of discernable angular size in the skies of Africa as it passed directly across that continent, yet to my knowledge no UFO reports remotely related in appearance, timing, or direction, have ever been found.  
Considering the known visual stimuli engendered by the Skylab vehicle, the particular illumination conditions of the 'sunset shadow', and the unanimous testimony of all three witnesses as verified by three of the four photographs taken, I see no compelling case to believe the fourth image is anything but a camera or processing artifact.

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