Flying saucers -- or Soviet satellites?

Flying saucers have not yet been proved to be visiting spaceships. But speculation that they are alien helps the Soviet Union conceal secret military space shots.

That is one of the main conclusions of a study of some of the most striking unidentified flying objects (UFOs) of the past two years.

These sightings of what appear to be giant luminous objects passing over both South America and the USSR began in 1980. They have been accompanied by reports of UFOs chasing cars, interfering with television, sending psychic messages, and even launching small scout ships in which alien creatures can be seen.

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) now has announced what it considers to be conclusive evidence that these UFOs are actually part of a Soviet early warning (EW) satellite network that keeps tabs on US rocket launches.

The committee is an organization of scientists, engineers, and other specialists who, on their own time and with their own resources, investigate claims of the supernatural and of other unexplained phenomena. The UFO study was carried out on behalf of CSICOP's UFO subcommittee by Philip Klass, senior avionics editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine; Robert Sheaffer, a free-lance science writer; and James Oberg, who is with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and is a leading Western authority on the Soviet space program.

Mr. Oberg and his colleagues have been able to match the UFO sightings reported from the USSR and South America with specific Soviet launches that are known to Western observers. These include one of the most widely discussed of recent UFO events -- that of June 14, 1980. In that event, the UFO was first seen over central Russia and, about an hour later, over South America where it was photographed near the moon in the western sky.

Commenting on the study, Oberg notes that all of the Soviet rockets involved were launched from the secret spaceport at Plesetsk, 125 miles south of Archangel. The Soviets do not admit the existence of this facility. Indeed, most Russians -- including many top scientists and military officers -- do not know of it. Thus, Oberg explains, although the Soviet government officially disapproves of speculation about alien spaceships, it won't own up to the space shots that encourage speculation either.

In fact, Oberg suggests that such speculation provides a convenient cover, especially in helping to keep Soviet citizens in the dark. He points out that one of the biggest Soviet UFO flaps was set off in 1967 by secret tests of a so-called fractional orbit bombardment system, during which dummy H-bomb warheads reentered the atmosphere. Oberg says: ''Moscow was no doubt pleased with this case of mistaken space identity, since it had just signed a treaty outlawing such weapons and had no desire for its ongoing illegal tests to be recognized for what they really were -- first-strike space-to-ground weapons.''

Soviet authorities often aid in sustaining the UFO image of their secret launches, Oberg says. They conduct official investigations in which UFO witnesses are interviewed extensively. Sometimes Soviet air force planes are sent to investigate the ''unknowns.'' Even the USSR Academy of Sciences has issued scientific papers on UFOs that conclude there is something mysterious to be investigated. Whether this is cynical deception or a reflection of academicians' ignorance of the Plesetsk launches is difficult to judge.

The more recent UFO incidents have likewise aided Soviet space secrecy. Rockets launched from Plesetsk, which is at roughly 62.7 degrees north latitude, follow an orbit that brings them over Argentina, Brazil, and some other parts of South America an hour or so after launching. Ground observers see sunlight glinting on the hardware and rocket flashes as the vehicle maneuvers into its planned orbit. What could be more impressive, excess fuel dumped by the rocket may appear to be a huge glowing cloud under certain sunlighting conditions.

Sites over which the ''glowing cloud'' UFO passed lie along a ground track that is inclined about 62.8 degrees to the equator. The inclination of a rocket's initial orbit is the same as the latitude of the launch site when the satellite is launched to the east. The virtual coincidence of the UFO track inclination with the latitude of Plesetsk is strong evidence for identifying the UFO with a Soviet EW satellite, Oberg says.

He notes that the UFO cloud was seen over the USSR shortly after the launch of a known EW satellite -- Kosmos 1188. It appeared over South America about an hour later, as would be expected from the satellite's flight time. A UFO seen Oct. 31, 1981, was likewise identified with the EW satellite Kosmos 1317. Since EW satellite launches would not have been visible over South America before 1980 , the CSICOP team says it has solved these UFO events.

Oberg is careful to point out that the fuel dump theory has not been proved conclusively. The cloud effect may be due to other causes as well, such as an explosive separation of the satellite from the final booster stage. But, as far as the reports of UFOs chasing cars, disrupting television, and sending out scout ships are concerned, he dismisses these as the usual ''random noise, coincidence, and embellishments'' that confuse legitimate UFO sightings.

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