UFOs, Mars and Space Science

30 October 2005
Presented by Chris Smith.

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This week we delve into the unexplained as Nick Pope discusses Britain's biggest UFO case, the Rendlesham Forest Incident, Anna Lacey visits Rendlesham Forest to talk to Vince Thurkettle and Brenda Butler about their involvement in the Rendlesham sightings, Lisa Jardine-Wright discusses Mars, asteroid impacts and life on other planets, and Surendra Verma tells the true story behind his new book, The Tunguska Fireball.

In this episode

- Rendlesham Forest

The Naked Scientists spoke to Anna Lacey interviews Brenda Butler from Suffolk, and Vince Thurkettle from Norfolk.

Rendlesham Forest
with Anna Lacey interviews Brenda Butler from Suffolk, and Vince Thurkettle from Norfolk.

Anna - Yes that's right Chris. I'm here right now in Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, and I have to say, it's pretty eerie. As we heard earlier, there was a UFO landing here twenty five years ago, but today I've come to speak to some of the people who were actually here at the time. One of those people was one of the primary investigators on this case straight after it happened. Now her name's Brenda Butler, she's from Leiston in Suffolk, and she's been coming to these woods every single week since 1979. What makes Rendlesham Forest such a fascinating place for you?

Brenda - Because it's the only forest around this area that has all the paranormal stuff that we see.

Anna - What kind of paranormal stuff have you seen in Rendlesham?

Brenda - We've seen craft, and we've seen the greys, which are ETs. We've seen streakers, which are lights going across all over the place and we've seen orbs of light.

Anna - now you've actually shown me some pictures of these, and I can actually testify that there are orbs and there are streakers in these pictures. Do other people come down here with you?

Brenda - Well once a month, on the fourth Saturday of every month, we have a big sky watch. We have about 20 or 30 people coming down. They're all interested it he same thing. They've seen UFOs down here, they've seen the streakers, and they've seen beings. They come from all over the country to come down here.

Anna - Are there any other ways for people to come down and experience Rendlesham?

Brenda - Well on the 25th anniversary on the 27th December, we're all meeting down here because there's quite a lot of people coming from all over the country. But we don't only walk on the UFO walk, which a lot of people now come down here and do, we walk all over the forest.

Anna - And you're hoping to see something else maybe on the 27th December?

Brenda - We see something nearly every night we come down here, so it won't only be on the 27th December.

Anna - Well that was Brenda Butler from Leiston. And from what she said it seems that Rendlesham Forest really is still active even to this day, and that that event 25 years ago was not a one off. But was it really aliens? Could there be any other explanation? Well also here with me is Vince Thurkettle. What were you actually doing here?

Vince - Back at the time of this alleged incident I was the harvesting forester for Rendlesham Forest, so I lived in the forest, which was brilliant, and I was here when it all happened.

Anna - Did you ever come to the UFO site?

Vince - Yeah. There were odd rumours going about the forestry workers about a burnt area and stuff. Then about six weeks later, I was brought and shown the site. And I looked and to me as a woodman, a forester all my life, it was just a simple clearing in the woods with three marks where rabbits had scraped for roots or something. There were some chips on the trees, but it wasn't the impact of anything. It was a guy called Bill Briggs who'd marked the trees to be felled. I went from extreme excitement that I was going to experience close encounters to extreme disappointment that everything I was seeing could be explained by normal forestry and wood craft.

Anna - But what about the lights, Vince? I mean, people saw lights that night.

Vince - Yeah, the lights are particularly interesting because we are in a part of the forest with the amazing coincidence that Orford Ness lighthouse's beam shines into these woods, or at least it did 25 years ago. It shone into these woods, and it was a brilliant pulsing light, which looked as if it was in the trees. That's a fact. Whether the airman were fooled by the beam, or whether they knew it was there and ignored it, that's been a point of debate ever since. If they weren't looking at the lighthouse beam and they were looking at some other vehicle, then we're asked to believe the huge coincidence that the vehicle they were looking at went off at the same bearing as the lighthouse and it was pulsing at the same rate as the lighthouse. I find that a difficult coincidence.

Anna - So why do you think Rendlesham is so important, and in fact will it be in the future?

Vince - Yeah, Rendlesham will live and live. It's reckoned to be the second biggest UFO incident in the world and people love mysteries. Whatever happened here 25 years ago, something happened enough to make strong and intelligent men scared and write letters. So I think this is going to run and run. The mystery is embedded in our mythology now.

Anna - Well thanks for coming down here Vince, and also thanks to Brenda. I think that's everything here from Rendlesham Forest. See what we think back in the studio Chris.

Chris - Thanks very much to Anna Lacey, our Naked Scientist who's currently clothed in Rendlesham Forest because it's a bit on the parky side. So Nick, what do you think about what you've just heard from Anna's experiences and speaking to Vince Thurkettle in Rendlesham?

Nick - Well it was interesting listening to Vince talk about the lighthouse. Certainly I'm aware that the lighthouse was visible through the trees in the forest during the night back then. But the point is that all the US Airforce personnel based at those two military establishments were well familiar with the lighthouse. They saw it every night. I've spoken to a lot of the military witnesses about this and they've given compass bearings. They saw the lighthouse and then they saw the UFO. They had them both in vision at once. The other interesting point is that personnel at these military bases phoned a nearby RAF establishment, a radar base, and said that they'd seen a UFO. The duty operator at the time tracked an uncorrelated target for a few sweeps of the radar at precisely that time. So this thing, whatever it was, was tracked on radar too.

Chris - Over the years and through your research, have you found anything that might dissuade people that it might be a UFO?

Nick - No, I think almost on the contrary. If you go to the National Archives or the Ministry of Defence website, you can find all sorts of information on UFOs, which is now progressively being released under the Freedom of Information Act. The requests for information about UFOs is right near the top f things requested, especially as far as the MOD is concerned. This is what people want to ask the department about. We've certainly released the Rendlesham files, and people can read about them on the internet.

- The Tunguska Fireball

The Naked Scientists spoke to Surendra Verma, science writer and author of 'The Tunguska Fireball'

The Tunguska Fireball
with Surendra Verma, science writer and author of 'The Tunguska Fireball'

Surendra - On 30th June 1908, an enormous explosion took place in the remote Tunguska region of Siberia. In 1927, a Russian scientist was assigned the task of investigating meteorite falls in Siberia. So he went to Siberia and he talked to people who were there. From their accounts, he pin-pointed the location of the explosion site. He saw a whole plateau, bigger than Greater London, where the forest had been flattened, all the trees stripped of their leaves and branches, and he also noticed that there were traces of intense fire, that had extended some tens of kilometres in diameter.

Chris - Well that sounds terrible. Was he actually sure that it was definitely a meteorite though?

Surendra - He went there four times and he started looking for the crater formed by the meteorite and fragments of the meteorite in the crater. In spite of all those searches, he could never find any craters or fragments.

Chris - Have we got any clues as to what it really was caused by, or do scientists think that it presently was a massive meteorite?

Surendra - We know a lot more about the Tunguska Fireball actually. Most of the scientists will bet that it was an asteroid impact. Scientists have done a lot of computer simulations, and they think that the size of the asteroid was about 30 metres across; so small that it didn't leave any hole in the ground. The explosion caused all the damage to the forest. So on the scientists side we have asteroid theories and we have comet theories. But on the other side we have that Tunguska was mistakenly zapped by a laser beam sent by extra terrestrials on a planet eleven light years away from Earth.

Chris - That's some greeting card isn't it, to decimate an area the size of Greater London! There must be friendlier ways to send an intergalactic message.

Surendra - Yes, but that's my interpretation of the theory. That's how I put it together.

A Breathalyser Test To Sniff Out Bombers
with Lisa Jardine-Wright, Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge

Anti-terror squads could soon have a new weapon at their disposal to help track down bombers - a breathalyser that can pick up signs of handling explosives. Dubbed Heartsbreath, the new device, which has been developed by Michael Phillips and his colleagues from Menssana Research in New Jersey, can detect minute traces of explosive compounds excreted on the breath of individuals who have recently handled ordnance, including dynamite, TNT and C-4. The machine was originally developed to assist in medical diagnostics, looking for volatile compounds produced by lung cancers, and in cases of heart-transplant rejection. But because explosive chemicals can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, the developers wondered whether the machine could also pick up these chemical signatures too. The researchers admit there is some way to go before this approach becomes a front-line tool in the fight against terrorism, but they are optimistic that it could provide a rapid and sensitive wy to flush out would-be bombers, including possibly picking up signs of radiation exposure.

MARS - Lisa Jardine-Wright, University of Cambridge...

Sarah - Mars is the closest it's been to earth since 2003, at a distance of 43.1 million miles. That's wafer thin in space terms. Can you give people some idea of how far that is.

Lisa - Well for example, light form the sun takes eight minutes to reach us here on Earth, and light from the sun to reach Mars takes approximately a further eight minutes. So on average, Mars is approximately twice as far away from the sun as the Earth is. It's very difficult in terms of millions of miles to imagine how far that actually is.

Sarah - Yes, it's very hard to comprehend. Now, it's going to look like a bright orangey-yellow star. What's the best way to see it?

Lisa - Well obviously you can use binoculars and telescopes to see it, but Mars is actually visible with the naked eye. If you look towards the north-east and east, you will be able to see Mars very clearly on a clear night. It will look very bright compared to the rest of the stars, and it will look slightly larger, although obviously not as big as the moon.

Chris - Will you be able to pick out anything spectacular if you look at it with a normal cheap telescope?

Lisa - You may be able to see dark regions on the surface compared with the light regions, but you would have to have a very powerful telescope if you were going to distinguish anything more detailed than that. But you would be able to make out different colourings, maybe.

Chris - Mars has the tallest volcano in the entire solar system, at three times the height of Mount Everest.

Lisa - That's right.

Sarah - Do we know when it last erupted?

Lisa - As far as I'm aware, volcanic activity on Mars is no longer active. We believe that Mars has cooled sufficiently to stop volcanic activity, as it's obviously a lot further away from the sun than the earth.

Chris - For strange impacts like the Tunguska Fireball, how common are big meteorite impacts, and can they cause that much damage?

Lisa - Absolutely. Asteroid or comet impacts could make a huge crater. There are craters all over the world that can be used as evidence for past meteoric or comet impacts. Of course, if we look on the surface of the moon or Mars, there are a number of craters. The moon actually protects us to a certain extent from further impacts from asteroids or comets.

Chris - So it acts like a giant comet hoover.

Lisa - Yes, absolutely.

Chris - But how regularly do these things smash into the earth? Is it often enough to change the climate so that we can't exist, like with the dinosaurs?

Lisa - It also depends on the size of the impact as well of course. Things are entering our atmosphere and will burn up in the atmosphere before they actually reach the earth. So if an asteroid or a comet is sufficiently small when it enters the atmosphere, it will just disintegrate on entry. I don't know the exact frequency, but to have a comet hit the earth the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs is not a frequent occurrence. Chris - As a space scientist, you have access to a lot of equipment and materials that will allow you to probe right back to the start of our own universe pretty much. How does all this talk of UFOs sit with you?

Lisa - The question that springs to mind with these sightings is where are these UFOs coming from. That's the interesting question for me. We're searching in our own solar system to try and find life on other planets, and we are yet to find amoeba life, let alone intelligent life like our own. So the big question for me is if these UFOs really are aliens or extra terrestrial life, where are they coming from?

Chris - So maybe we haven't looked hard enough yet and we haven't developed the tools to do that.

Lisa - Absolutely. There are lots of astronomers that think that somewhere in the universe we will find life. This is not only within our own solar system, but we have now found 170 planets around others tars in our own galaxy. So there's lots of potential for life out there, but we are yet to find anything.

UFO in space

- UFOs: The Rendlesham incident

The Naked Scientists spoke to Nick Pope, Ministry of Defence

UFOs: The Rendlesham incident
with Nick Pope, Ministry of Defence

Chris - So tell us a little bit about the Rendlesham incident, and what it was all about.

Nick - Well I used to run the Ministry of Defence's UFO project, and seeing as we're on the Naked Scientists I should say that the MOD's UFO project has some very impressive scientific credentials. It was set up by the Ministry of Defence's Chief Scientific Advisor in 1950, the great Sir Henry Tissard, the radar scientist.

For all the years the UFO project has run, Rendlesham Forest has been our greatest and most important case. This is sometimes called Britain's Roswell.

To give you the story in a nutshell, on the first night of activity, which was actually in the early hours of the 26th December 1980, some US Airforce personnel from the airbases of Woodbridge and Bentwaters in Suffolk, saw lights in the forest. They went out thinking that an aircraft from the base might have crashed in the forest.

They didn't find a crashed aircraft. They found a landed UFO. One of the people got close enough to touch the side of the craft. It was a metallic object that had landed in a small clearing, and he was close enough even to sketch small markings that he likened to hieroglyphs on the side of this thing. Word got around the base, and over the following couple of days, it came to the attention of the deputy base commander Lt Col Charles Halt.

He was at a social function, and suddenly the doors burst open and someone ran up to him. They said, 'Sir, it's back.' And Colonel Halt said, 'What? What's back?' and the person replied, 'The UFO. The UFO, Sir!'

Colonel Halt then went out to the forest to, in his words, 'debunk this'. He couldn't debunk it. He became part of the incident itself. He saw the UFO firing beams of light down at the clearing. They found indentations in the forest floor in the shape of a perfect equilateral triangle. This thing had apparently landed on legs.

And here's the crucial piece of scientific fact for you. They went around those indentations with a Geiger counter and those readings were passed to the research intelligence staff at the MOD. They said that they were not dangerous, but ten times normal.

Chris - Have you seen those figures Nick?

Nick - I have indeed. I don't have them, but Col. Halt put these into a memorandum, which he sent to the MOD, and we investigated.

- Why does my bedroom always smell stuffy in the morning?

How can I stay in one room and study and read and relax all day long and nothing seems funny. But my bedroom always smells in the morning...

Why does my bedroom always smell stuffy in the morning?

One thing that does happen when you're asleep is that your saliva dries up. Saliva's really important because it contains substances that switch off bacteria. Your mouth is a seething mass of bacteria, and some of them produce compounds that contain a lot of sulphur. Those sulphurous compounds are quite whiffy. I think therefore, that when you go to sleep, your breath gets quite smelly and you end up breathing out lots of dry mouth bacterial action, and it makes your room smelly and stale.

- What is the scientific basis of the saying Red Sky at Night, Shepherds Delight?

We'd like to thank James Smith, who got in touch via email and thinks he has the answer to the 'red sky at night, shepherd's delight' que...

What is the scientific basis of the saying Red Sky at Night, Shepherds Delight?

He says that in Matthew chapter 16 vs. 2-3, Jesus says to the Pharases 'when it's evening ye say, it will be fair weather for the sky is red. And in the morning it will be foul weather for the sky is red and lowering.' So that goes to show that for 2000 years or so, variants of this saying have been in use. But what's the theory behind it? Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the prevailing wind direction is usually going from the east towards the west. If you want there to be a red sky in the morning or the evening, there have to be clouds on the horizon where the sun is. If you think of red sky at night shepherd's delight, then the sun will be setting in the west, and the clouds must also be in the west for the sky to be red. Since the prevailing wind direction is going towards the west, that would suggest that the clouds are being blown away, leaving clear skies. If clouds are assumed to be associated with bad weather, then red sky at night would predict a good clear day the next day. That leaves us with red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning. Well the reason for that would be that the sun is coming up in the east, and so the clouds would also have to be in the east. Since they're likely to be blown towards you during the day, potentially bringing bad weather, that's why red sky in the morning might be a shepherd's warning. That seems like a reasonable explanation to me, so thanks very much to James for sending that in.

- What would happen to a person who jumped into a hole drilled through the Earth?

You talked in the past about dropping an object down a tunnel that's been drilled right through the earth. I've been in all night debates...

What would happen to a person who jumped into a hole drilled through the Earth?

The first thing we need to think about is gravity itself. When you're stood on the surface of the earth, the gravity that's affecting you is from the whole mass of the earth beneath your feet. As you move towards the centre of the earth, the amount of mass beneath your feet is decreasing. So when you get to the centre, the force of gravity exerting on you would be zero. But by this stage you would have reached a velocity, so you would pass through the centre and move through the other side. However, then gravity will start working on you again, and you will be pulled back down towards the centre. Therefore, you will oscillate. If you assume that there is air all around you, there would be air resistance, which would cause you to lose some energy along the way. This would cause you to eventually come to a stand still. As for the air pressure, if you look at a deep sea diver, for every ten metres they go down under the sea, they get the equivalent of the whole earth's atmosphere on top of them again. The reason that this isn't a problem for them is because it's pressing on them in all directions. It's both inside and outside, so it all equalises out. So I don't think that you would be squashed flat. You would probably get the bends though, because you'd be flying out of the hole so fast.

- Could the Filipino delicacy balot pose a bird flu threat?

Here in the Philippines we have a delicacy called a balot. This is a half incubated duck chick. The fully shelled chick is cooked in boil...

Could the Filipino delicacy balot pose a bird flu threat?

Although there's evidence that the bird flu virus can spread around the body of the birds that it infects, there's not any evidence to show that it can get inside eggs, but it does come out the intestines. So it's possible that the outside of the egg could get infected with some virus particles, and if you ate it raw, you could potentially contaminate things. But if you cook it properly, such as along the lines that you're suggesting, it will be fine because flu is just a bag of genes, or protein containing genetic material. If you heat that up properly, it should just fall apart and neutralise it. I don't actually think that there's any risk to your health and you can go on enjoying your balot with no problems at all.

- How do butterfly wings get all their colours?

How do butterfly wings get all their colours?

How do butterfly wings get all their colours?

If the colours were down to inks or pigments, they would fade, just as if you wrote on a piece of paper and left it for many many years. If you go to the museums around the world, hundreds of years ago people collected some wonderful specimens of butterflies and moths that had some beautiful colours. If you look at those today, they still look spectacular. This means that they don't have inks. What they have got is a very clever arrangement of substances that bend and reflect light in just the right way using the structure of the shapes of what's in the wings to make those colours. It's what's called structural colour. The reason they have those beautiful patterns is actually down to camouflage and defence. Butterflies are a very juicy snack for things like birds and bigger animals, so they need to try and blend in with their environment. One way they can do that is to look the same as their environment, by having the same colour wings as what they like to live on. Other butterflies have shapes on their wings that look like a face. This scares off any potential predators. That's why they have their interesting colours.

- What are UFOs portrayed in movies based upon?

Where do people get all the information for the movies, and how do you know that aliens are really real?

What are UFOs portrayed in movies based upon?

That's a very interesting question. Sometimes people say that people who claim to have had UFO experiences have actually been watching too much science fiction. But actually I find that the true position is the exact opposite of that. Science fiction writers and famous film directors actually go out and talk to UFO witnesses about the things that they have seen. A classic example of this is the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Steven Spielberg, went out researching and he used a chap called Dr J. Allen Hynek as one of the consultants on the film. Hynek used to run the US Government's UFO project. Interestingly, right at the end of the film when the mother ship comes over the base, Spielberg rated Hynek's contribution so highly that he gave him a cameo role in the film. He's the old guy with a pipe. So film-makers get all their information from UFO research, not the other way round.

- What was this silver, cigar-shaped UFO?

In 1993 or 1994 during the darkest part of winter, I went outside and looked up. The sky was quite clear and there was a silver cigar sha...

What was this silver, cigar-shaped UFO?

Cigar-shaped objects are some of the most commonly sighted UFOs that are seen. Another common shape is a large triangular UFO. I think to a certain extent, the shape you will perceive will depend on the angle from which you are observing it. Also, I don't know whether you were observing this thing through glass, but sometimes this can have a distorting effect. It's interesting that you mention the police saw something too, because when I was working on the UFO project, sightings by trained observers such as military personnel were very important.

- Why are UFOs rarely seen in cities?

I've seen a UFO. It was 1959 from a block of flats in Hoburn. It was solid and looked like chrome and was 100 foot long. There were two w...

Why are UFOs rarely seen in cities?

It's a fascinating encounter. Far from the typical view that people think that alien encounters only happen down a lonely lane in the country, that UFOs are seen in multiple witness events over our major cities, such as London.

- What were the lights I saw at Rendlesham when the UFO landed?

On the day of the Rendlesham incident, I was in Beeston and it was a terrible snowy day. I took my dogs for a walk and saw a strange ligh...

What were the lights I saw at Rendlesham when the UFO landed?

Well there were a large number of sightings around that time, so it may have been the same as that seen in Rendlesham.

- What was this orange UFO I saw?

I've had two sightings. The first one was big like an orange, and it was moving very sharply. It kept moving around for about 8 minutes. ...

What was this orange UFO I saw?

I can't really say much about the individual sighting. I investigate about 300 or 400 sightings a year. Most of them have conventional explanations, but about 5% don't. Those are the ones that I'm particularly interested in. There's such tremendous interest in this at the moment, and it's no coincidence that the Science Museum at the moment has a new exhibition called The Science of Aliens. This subject really is in the public eye at the moment.

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