Epsilon Boötis, Clyde Tombaugh, Black Knight and STS-88

By Duncan Lunan


Space Probe from Epsilon Boötis


At the first meeting of the Interstellar Project which led to my book “Man and the Stars”, the late John Macvey brought up the idea of Prof. Ron Bracewell, of Stanford University, that a probe from another civilisation might have tried to contact us by radio in the 1920s and been responsible for the effect called ‘long-delayed radio echoes’ (LDE). James Strong of the British Interplanetary Society had suggested that such a probe might be located at the L4 or L5 point in the orbit of the Moon (not ‘in orbit round the Moon’, as the press was later to insist, and still appears at the head of my Wikipedia page). Research begun by the late George Sassoon later confirmed that the major source of LDE was indeed the L5 point, with a possible repeater at L4.


I followed up the lead John Macvey had given me and looked up the original papers on LDE, published in Nature in the late 1920s. At first sight the variations in echo time looked random. However, Bracewell had suggested that the first message from a probe might be a TV image of a constellation, and it occurred to me that a set of star map coordinates would be a random series of numbers. When I tried graphing the signals to see if that would work, to my astonishment I found what appeared to be a readable message, giving Epsilon Boötis (Izar) as the origin star of the spacecraft, and its arrival date as 11,000 BC. I thought that I would have to translate all the LDE patterns before anyone would take that seriously, and I worked out translations for a much longer series of LDE received in 1929, before I submitted my paper to the British Interplanetary Society. It was refereed by the late A.T. Lawton, who mentioned it in a lecture in December 1972 and provided the Sunday Telegraph with a front-page scoop. It made national news overnight and then was eclipsed on Christmas Eve by the terrible earthquake in Nicaragua. The subsequent evolution of the story in the media would be worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan: for example, a completely accurate account of it appeared in the US National Enquirer, whereas Time magazine got it wrong and never printed a promised correction, but is the one most often cited to this day.


The actual paper was published by the BIS as 'Space Probe from Epsilon Boötis', in Spaceflight, April 1973. The following year it became apparent that some of the 1920s records I had worked on weren’t accurate, and that facts I had deduced about the Epsilon Boötis system were incorrect, so I withdrew the translation. ('Long-Delayed Echoes and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis', Journal of the Society of Electronic and Radio Technicians, September 1976.) By that time Lawton had published his own natural explanation for LDE, which I have never accepted but was widely accepted as a refutation.


“Man and the Stars” came out in 1974 and I was then contacted by two very talented people, Alan Evans and Jamie Bentley, both of whom liked my approach to the possibility of past contact with extraterrestrials, and proposed a search for evidence to prove it, if it had happened. In the course of our enquiry Epsilon Boötis came up again, apparently as a time marker rather than indicating the origin of the visitors. We think that we have strong circumstantial evidence for at least one visit to Earth, in the period 3000-2500 BC: this was published as ‘Epsilon Boötis Revisited’, Analog, March 1998.


Two years earlier Analog had published my separate research into the mediaeval mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit, which if true, appears to be ‘the X-files in the 12th century’. After I returned the proofs of ‘Epsilon Boötis Revisited’ to Analog it occurred to me that there could be similar circumstantial evidence for that in positional astronomy: Alan Evans confirmed that there was. At that point all three enquiries, into long-delayed radio echoes in the 1920s, ancient positional astronomy at Stonehenge and the Pyramids, and a very human mystery in 12th century England, become different aspects of a single enquiry into Past Contact. I’ve published my own speculative interpretation in “Children from the Sky”, but it really does appear that we’re on to something big, apparently two Contacts with other civilisations during recorded history, if not three.


Black Knight – nothing to do with me.


Unfortunately much media interest and numerous websites print only spurious stories about me, building on the misreporting of the Epsilon Boötis story in the 1970s. For the record, I am not a professional astronomer, I am not a radio amateur, I am not a professor and have never been a staff member of Glasgow University. I was not alive in the 1920s, was not born until 1945, and I have never heard of any ‘voices’ supposedly heard by astronaut Gordon Cooper in orbit in 1963. There’s nothing about those in the official NASA Mercury history of Project Mercury, “This New Ocean” (NASA SP-4201, US Goverment Printing Office, 1967), nor in detailed accounts such as John Catchpole’s “Project Mercury” (Springer-Praxis, 2001), not even in first-hand accounts of the tracking programme such as Hamish Lindsay’s “Tracking Apollo to the Moon” (Springer-Verlag, 2001).


As for ‘Black Knight’, the only real one I know of is the British sounding rocket used in the late 1950s for upper altitude research and missile warhead development in the late 1950s, afterwards developed into the Black Arrow which put Britain’s one and only independent satellite into orbit in October 1971. For its story see “A Vertical Empire” by C.N. Hill (Imperial College Press, 2001), and “Black Knight, Britain’s First Ballistic Rocket” by C.N. Hill (British Rocketry Oral History Programme, 2007).


In the 1950s there was a new story from South America that Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, had supposedly discovered a previously unknown satellite of the Earth. Tombaugh did conduct a search for natural satellites of the Earth in the early 1950s using Baker-Nunn tracking cameras, which were the most advanced of their day. The conclusion was that apart from the Moon, there was nothing orbiting the Earth which was baseball-sized or bigger. Tombaugh confirmed that to Patrick Moore in person, on Moore’s long-running TV programme ‘The Sky at Night’, and Moore quoted him in several of his books (e.g. Patrick Moore, “On the Moon”, Cassell, London, 2001). If such an object had existed, it would have been much closer to us than the L1 point between Earth and Moon, very much closer than the possible Bracewell probe at L5. The L4 and L5 points, also called the Equilateral or Trojan points, are equidistant from the Earth and Moon, and as far away as the Moon itself. And with the huge improvements in amateur instruments and techniques which have been made since, if the Earth did have any small natural satellites, by now many thousands of people would have seen them.


In UFO literature the issue is compounded by stories about a mystery satellite found in polar orbit in 1961 and supposedly designated 'Black Knight', though I never heard the name at the time. A second satellite was discovered in a similar orbit, but both were soon identified.


The Discoverer satellites, later renamed ‘Corona’, were spy satellites orbited by the USA between 1959 and 1972, returning their film to Earth by parachute. The search for one such payload is the ‘MacGuffin’ behind Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, which was inspired by an actual search for one which came down off Spitsbergen. In December 2012, a release of previously classified documents revealed that another was lost in the Pacific near Hawaii in 1971, and recovered in 1972 using the submersible Trieste 2. The capsule had separated from the parachute during descent and broken up, so the recovered film was unusable. (The Times, ‘How US Searched for Film that Fell to Earth’, reprinted The Australian, 27 December 2012.) In 1959 and 1961, the Discoverer 5 and Discoverer 23 capsules ended up in near-polar orbit between 600 and 1000 miles up higher orbit, instead of returning to Earth, because the retrorockets fired in the wrong position. (J.W.R. Taylor & Maurice Allward, “Satellites and Space Travel”, Ian Allan ABC, 1960; Kenneth Gatland, “Spacecraft and Boosters”, Iliffe, 1964). It took time to find them but there was no doubt about what they were; their orbital inclinations and perigee heights precisely matched those of the missing Discoverer payloads.


Nevertheless it’s now claimed on numerous websites, without asking me, that I translated signals from ‘Black Knight’ and that it was the Bracewell probe, although the decade is wrong, if Bracewell’s probe existed that was 240,000 miles away in the orbit of the Moon, and the ‘lost’ Discoverer capsules and ‘Black Knight’ were at 1000 miles up or less, and in near-polar orbit. None of it has anything to do with Clyde Tombaugh, or with me. Nor, just for the record, could either ‘Black Knight’, the supposed Tombaugh moon or the Bracewell probe have been photographed from the Space Shuttle, whose standard orbit was only 180 nautical miles above the Earth, and which never went into polar orbit. The ‘mystery’ objects photographed on the STS-88 mission in 1998 are actually pieces of tape, protective covers etc discarded as the first two sections of the International Space Station were joined together: the blurriness in many of them shows that they are small, nearby objects photographed at high magnification, not spaceship-sized and at a distance. The astronauts are very thoroughly trained in photography, particularly to master the different lighting conditions found in space, and if ever they do see a giant spaceship nearby, you can be sure that the photos will be so sharp that you can count the rivets on them.