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Particle Beams and Saucer Dreams

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Note: If you’ve linked directly into this page you should be aware this is all very old stuff! Like ancient! For a description of what this is and how old it it is, see this intro. Now if you want to read updated stuff, and you really should, have a look at this. And if you want to run the numbers yourself, then stop by here.

Is there “Substance” to lights in the sky over Area 51?

It’s unrealistic to dispute that people have seen weird things in the skies around our favorite secret facility, Area 51. Now granted, a good percentage of the sightings were probably misinterpretations of terrestrial (although possibly neat) things. Various exotic flares or IR jammers come to mind. Then there’s the (likely!) possibility of secret, highly maneuverable UAV’s being tested there. And there has to be other sorts of aerial weirdness under test we can only guess at. Of course there are also the “legendary” sightings based upon the JANET landing lights, but I hate to even dignify them with the label “sighting”. But when you discount all these, there still remain some pretty remarkable sightings, gasping for some sort of explanation. The bulk of these are glowing, saucer-shaped objects…you know, your generic flying saucers.

Probably the best known of these sightings was captured on video, and is shown in “The Lazar Tape”. On March 29, 1989 the great Bob and his intrepid band of saucer chasers snuck out to the Tikaboo Valley to view the second of what Lazar claimed were Wednesday night saucer tests. They brought along a camcorder and shot some fairly crappy, but discernable, video. The tape shows a small bright light rapidly darting about, to the oohs and ahhs of the suitably impressed onlookers. Analysis of the video is difficult, as there’s no frame of reference to compare the motion against. It was, after all, dark out. Now some may claim the motion of the light was simply caused by the camera operator jerking the camera about. While a possibility, I tend to discount it as the others present verified that’s what they did in fact see: A bright orb-like object darting rapidly about the sky.

Another rather interesting sighting was made by Mark Farmer (who has been known to go by the moniker “Agent X” when he fails to stay current with his medications). It’s on page 237 of that fine book, “Area 51 – The Dreamland Chronicles” by David Darlington. The pertinent excerpt is as follows:

“I’ve seen two of them out here,” Farmer divulged. “One was a light that kept bouncing around and then just went away. The other was a colored, floating, glowing orb that popped up behind the jumbled mountains south of Groom Lake, It went straight up, then started jerking around and wobbling up and down–at times making right-angled, or greater than right-angled, turns, then sitting still in a rock-hard hover. It became distorted when it moved–part of it lagged behind the main object, then the trailing edge would catch up. I had a Celestron twelve-hundred-millimeter telescope, and I watched it for an hour and forty-five minutes. It wasn’t quite round; it was sort of squashed, and shimmering the whole time as if it were surrounded by some kind of field. It was crimson on top, blue-green on the bottom, and gold in the middle. I have no idea what it was.”

I met Mark for the first time a few days after this sighting, and it was obvious to me it had made quite an impression on him. Later, as I got to know him better, I realized how far reaching his knowledge of aviation (of both black and white flavors) really is. I consider him an expert of sorts when it comes to identifying flying do-dads, and if he has no idea what something is, then it gets my attention.

There have also been other sightings, but as I’ve not seen any video (perhaps a couple of poor still photos), nor do I personally know the people involved, it’s hard to know how to weigh them. But there’s a good chance they actually did occur. Note that I used the phrase “did occur”, as in recent times these nifty glowing orbs haven’t been spotted. One idea is that they moved the “saucers” somewhere else, say New Mexico for example. While this may be an explanation, if you insist they are saucers, is it the best explanation?

It might seem so, if you buy into the idea of saucers flitting about Groom, Papoose, or whatever secret facility you choose out there. And what else, after all, could have possibly caused such sights? Objects that can “stairstep” up apparently instantly….move across considerable distances of the sky, also apparently instantly….grow dim, then grow so bright that distant onlookers were fearful it might explode? Yep, sounds like saucers all right…. or does it? Is there another explanation for such obviously fantastic sights?

There most certainly is, and it can be summed up by badly paraphrasing a line from “The Graduate”: “I have two words for you Benjamin….‘Particle Beams’!” “Whaaaat???”, you ask. “What ever ARE you talking about?”. Ahem, …..I shall explain.

First, a bit about particle beams. When I say “particle”, I’m referring to the sub-atomic bits that make up an atom. Protons and electrons (which have an electrical charge) and neutrons (which don’t have a charge), tiny stuff like that. When you fire charged particles into a target, they don’t behave exactly as you might intuitively think. When you shoot a nice, big bullet at a wall it starts to lose energy and slow down just as soon as it begins to impact the wall. But things on the subatomic scale are a little trickier and not nearly so simple.

Atoms are mostly empty space with various areas of electric charge (AKA, the previously mentioned protons and electrons) just sort of hanging about. When a particle with a charge is sent careening toward an atom, it doesn’t just smack into it. Instead, as it approaches, the electric field of the particle (remember, it’s charged) starts interacting with the electric field of the atom’s electrons and protons and begins to repel or attract, (depending on the charge of the particles) like a tiny spring. This gradual interaction tends to gently nudge or deflect the particle away from the atom, avoiding a messy head-on collision.

The thing about it is that this interaction is very velocity dependent (actually it depends on the square of the relative velocity). If the charged particle is moving very fast, it just sort of whizzes right by (or even through) the atom, without much interaction, other than the atom going “What the Hell wazzat??”. Of course the particle loses a little energy in the exchange, but continues merrily along its way. Finally, when the velocity (i.e., the energy) of the particle drops below a certain critical value, it just dumps its remaining energy load into the atoms that happen to be in its neighborhood at the time, knocking off electrons and just generally causing a ruckus. The surprising thing about it is that if you give the particle enough energy, it will pass through the initial part of the target with relatively little effect, and release most of its energy at the very end of its travel, going out with a bang, so to speak. This concept is very counterintuitive to those of us used to dealing with normal sized “stuff”, but is commonplace with subatomic particles.

This principle is used in some medical treatments involving treatment of cancers or tumors located where conventional surgical operations are risky, like the brain. Beams of protons of precise energy are directed into patients to zap tumors. The protons pass through intervening bone and tissue until their energy drops to a specific level where they dump their considerable remaining energy. If things are set up right, the spot where this happens is in the middle of the tumor to be zapped. Sort of like a mini dial-a-bomb. The accuracy is so good, the beams can be set up to dump their energy in only a few cubic millimeters of volume. Loma Linda Medical Center in Southern California has been a pioneer in this technology.

This only works with charged particles. Neutrons, lacking a charge, won’t do it. But which charged particles? It turns out the most likely suspects for aerial pyrotechnics we’re interested in are protons. Electrons can be ruled out because they’re so light (about a two thousandth of the weight of a proton) they wouldn’t penetrate very far in the air. The nuclei of Deuterium, Tritium and Helium can also likely be ruled out, as they are so heavy, prohibitively high amounts of energy would be necessary to scoot them across the sky. That leaves protons or antiprotons. And lacking one of those nifty Element 115 antiproton generators, antiprotons can likely be excluded due to the need for creating considerable volumes. So that pretty much leaves a proton beam.

Technically, the stopping power of a particle beam, given as a loss of energy per distance, is quantified by something called the “Bethe formula”. If one takes the results of this formula, and plots the value of the energy lost versus the distance traveled, (This is called a “Bragg curve”) it becomes plain that most of the energy let loose by the charged particle is at the very end of its journey. Just how much energy is released and how far the particle gets varies tremendously with the choice of particle and just what you happen to be blasting away at.

For the insanely curious, I’ve reproduced the Bethe formula below. It was taken from the “CRC Handbook of Radiation Measurement and Protection”, although it may be found in other sources also. There are slight variations to it, as at lower energies some of the terms become irrelevant. Note that it gives -dE/dx, that is, the loss of energy per increment of distance.

It turns out that a beam of protons with an average energy of 500-600 million electron volts (MeV), will travel through about 1 mile of air at the density altitude of Groom before dying. This may sound like a lot of energy, but in the accelerator world it’s modest to moderate. There are plenty of synchrotrons out there that can do at least 500 million electron volts on a continuous duty basis, and there’s no need for continuous duty. It can be pulsed many times per second. . The big research monster accelerators can put out in the hundreds of billion electron volt range. Also the Bragg curve for air shows a very pronounced peak at its end, which means little energy is lost by the beam until it ends.

The way it works is like this. When directed toward the sky, a properly tuned proton beam, focused by magnetic lenses, would pass through the first few thousand meters of air with no apparent effect. If the energy levels are adjusted right, the beam itself wouldn’t be visible. Then, when the energy of the beam dropped to a critical value, it would dump its remaining energy in a very short distance, ionizing the oxygen and nitrogen atoms of the atmosphere, causing one damn fine glowing ball of plasma.

Here’s a plot I did of a hypothetical 500 MeV proton beam operating at the elevation of Groom. I iteratively computed the Bethe formula to show the amount of energy lost per centimeter along the beam path. Note the huge peak at the end of the beam at 1,200 meters (it actually goes well off the graph). For the initial part of the beam, the loss is around 3 KeV per centimeter, and it reaches a peak at the end of the beam of around 100 KeV per centimeter. 100,000 volts is a hell of a lot of energy in a small space. You’d glow too!

Assuming a circular beam aperture, the plasma would also take on a circular shape. Viewed from the side, the plasma would have a lenticular cross-section, and possibly even a different color from the bottom to the top due to the energy gradient of the dying beam (Remember Mark Farmer’s description? Very much like a spectral distribution). In short, it would look just like a glowing saucer. The beam could quickly be moved laterally, giving the plasma the appearance of instantly moving across the sky, much as a searchlight can jump “instantly” across the bottom of a cloud.

But what about up and down? By changing the average energy of the individual protons, their range is also changed. This would make the plasma appear to instantly jump or “stairstep” vertically. By changing the number of protons per unit area in the beam (the particle flux, in nerd-speak), the plasma would appear to brighten or dim, but still staying in the same relative spot. It could be made to look so bright, onlookers might think it was about to explode.

But the big question is why? While it might make for a very cool display, the energy dumped in the area of the plasma is probably not of the level to do rapid damage to anything. It’s not really any sort of “death ray”. Granted, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it as it’s not too healthy for humans (pretty strong X-ray emissions), but if a missile or aircraft were bathed in it, they would likely survive, as much greater energies would be needed to get through their aluminum skins.

This is also not the sort of thing I’d expect to be operating out of Groom. Their business is generally weird flying things (winged or otherwise), not pseudo-death rays. This is the type of research more in line with what’s going on at White Sands (As an aside, I did speak with someone who, while camping adjacent to White Sands, saw a number of glowing orb shapes flitting in the sky over White Sands. He was so disturbed by what he was seeing, he immediately packed up his camp and beat it).

Finally, there have been suggestively similar sightings at Northrop’s Tejon Ranch radar cross section facility out in western Antelope Valley in Southern California. There have been several fairly credible reports of glowing orbs seen around that place. These orbs don’t seem to flit around as fast or as far as those reported at Groom, but a glowing orb is a glowing orb. But what the hell would they be doing at Tejon Ranch?

The most probable explanation: Radar.

A device based upon this principle would make a really exquisite radar spoofing tool. The ionized plasma would give a good radar return, giving targeting radars something else to lock on to, instead of incoming aircraft. The ability to project an object of apparent solidity to enemy radar, instantly manipulatable, would be a most valuable little toy to have in your bag of tricks. As an added bonus, the plasma might even have significant emissions in the IR bands, as a decoy for heat seeking missiles. With enough engineering, it might be possible to reduce the size of the particle accelerator/generator to something small enough to fit on an aircraft (although that’s hard to imagine). The energy requirements would still be quite large, but great advances have been made in the short-term generation of power through chemical means (i.e., airborne lasers).

As you may be aware, one of the very important programs at Groom is their radar mission. One of their somewhat poorly kept secrets is that the base is surrounded by various radar installations we “procured” from obnoxious governments around the world. What better place to test such a gadget then in the midst of the equipment it’s designed to spoof. And as a prototype, it’s likely big and clunky. It’s not going anywhere. Also consider that the 80s was the era of Star Wars and particle beam weapons. The timing is about right.

The time of day of the observations (always after dark) becomes explainable also. In daytime operations the plasma would be barely visible against the sunlit sky. In order to observe the shape and quality of the projected beam, darkness would be desirable. Also personnel on the base are minimal, and so is aircraft traffic.

The sightings at Tejon Ranch? What better place to test your ACME Plasma Balls, than at an RCS range. Given the relatively modest reported movements of the plasmas, a reasonable speculation could be they were versions further along in a development stage towards lower powered, fieldable devices. It would also suggest that Northrop was involved in the program.

Security for such a program could be problematic. When testing such a highly visible effect (at least after dark), how do you avoid adversarial parties taking notice? It’s possible there is some sort of characteristic of the plasma that could make detection of the spoof rather simple, if the spoofee has any suspicion he may be being spoofed (i.e., X-ray or spectral emissions). If that’s the case, it would be vital that “them what’s on the other side” doesn’t have a clue this is what’s going on.

A possibility: A cover story of flying saucers at Groom. This whole saucer mythology might in fact be nothing more than a ruse. It could be that the AF boys simply let the story take on a life of its own and let the public run with it, or to give them credit for being even more sneaky, perhaps planted stories and people to reinforce the cover story. This may be a bit of a stretch, as the massive influx of saucer-seeking tourists must surely have wreaked havoc with their operations.

As a final little consideration, there’s Lazar. What did he work on at Los Alamos (as a tech!), but a particle accelerator! Roll this scenario around in your mind, Mulder…..He gets hired on at Groom on a VERY limited basis to do minor servicing to the accelerator. He becomes aware of its purpose, and eventually asks his buddies if they want to go out and watch “flying saucers”. They do, and eventually get busted. At this point Lazar would be in seriously deep shit and could go to jail for divulging classified info. BUT, as long and he stays with the stupid saucer story, he’s safe. It could even have been done at the AF’s direction as damage control. If Lazar opens his mouth, he not only risks jail, but he loses his celebrity and his friends realize they’ve been played for fools all this time.

I don’t KNOW for a fact if proton beams were running rampant in the skies over Groom, but I personally find it highly likely. I had a discussion with an individual, to whom I attach some credibility, regarding this subject. He told me that “…there were no saucers at Area 51”, but there was a particle beam. He said he had seen it, and it was in a covered, trench-like facility whose roof slid away when the beam was to be fired. He also said “they” didn’t want anything in the air for miles around when it was run. Sounds like “they” knew what they were doing.

So, where have all the saucers gone, long time passing? Perhaps it was an idea that just didn’t pan out. Maybe they couldn’t make it a fully fieldable unit. Or maybe it has worked out and is reserved for “special situations”, and is no longer being tested at Groom. But in any case, it no longer seems active at Groom

Aa nifty as this theory is, I for one would prefer it not be true. I really like the idea of saucers at Groom. It’s so much more interesting and fun than a high-tech version of chaff. Still to be explained (at least in my mind) are the scattered reports of weird metallic objects seen flying around Groom. A particle beam can’t account for those. But a proton beam does appear to be a very plausible alternative explanation for most sightings, especially if you insist there are no saucers at Area 51. And the moral to this tale, boys and girls (There’s a moral??!)….You can hide the program, but you can’t hide the Physics.

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