Tuesday, July 17, 2018

That classic 1957 Mt Stromlo observatory sighting - explained?

Astronomers and UAP

Those who haven't bothered to conduct any research, often state that astronomers never report seeing UAP. One of the sightings which is used to counter such arguments is from November 1957; by astronomers at the Mt Stromlo observatory, near Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia.

UAP periodicals as sources for the account

The APRO Bulletin, January 1958, page 3 carried the following:

'Canberra, Australia, 9 November. Four astronomers of the Commonwealth Observatory, Mount Stromlo, observed a bright pink object in the sky at about 3am. The object was observed for about 8 minutes as it moved across the western horizon, then disappeared. No aircraft in the sky at the time. Astronomers could not identity the object. Sputniks, meteors and the like were ruled out as possible explanations by the astronomers themselves.'

My comments:

1. The Bulletin cites no source for their information, and places the date of the sighting as 9 November, presumably 1957.
2. The time of observation is stated to have been about 3am. 

Flying Saucer Review, January/February 1958, page 3:

'Astronomers see pink UFO

The London Times , of November 7 reported that...hundreds of people at Bathurst, near Sydney, Australia...saw a metallic object over the town...on the previous day...However, on the same day, four astronomers at the Commonwealth Observatory, at Mt Stromlo, near Canberra, Australia on "sputnik watch" reported a strange object moving across the sky which was neither a meteorite nor one of the Soviet space satellites. The object was a vivid pink and unlike anything seen before, it was stated. It remained in view for about two minutes and disappeared under the Moon. "The strange thing is that it should disappear after passing under the Moon as it was a perfectly cloudless sky," said Dr Przybylski, who saw the object just after having completed observations of the passage of the two Russian satellites.'

My comments:

1. The date of the Mt Stromlo sighting as deduced from the above article is 6 November, presumably 1957.
2. The correct spelling of the main observer's name appears to be Przybylski. 

UFO researchers as sources

A number of books by UAP authors have mentioned this sighting; with one of the earliest being Jacques and Janine Vallee's 'Challenge to Science' (1966. Henry Regnery. Chicago. Page 19.

'The case of the Australian professors.

On November 8, 1957, the wire services (Reuters, AFP) - which are here the only available sources - carried information pertaining to an observation made by three astronomers in Mount Stromlo Observatory, of an object brighter than Venus, which crossed the western part of the sky at 5.02pm on November 7.

Dr Przybylsky (sic) saw the object, which was bright red in color, moving slowly, and remained in view for about two minutes. Its velocity was too small for it to be a meteorite, and the two Soviet satellites had already made their passage. The object in question was also seen by two colleagues of  Dr Przybylsky. No scientist at the observatory had previously observed such an object.

The press release added that Professor Przyblsky was impatiently awaiting word from other observatories that might have observed the same object. An exceptionally detailed series of observations were made the next day by French astronomers; these were never brought to the attention of scientists.'

My comments:

1. The date of the sighting, here is given as 7 November 1957.
2. The time is given as 5.02pm. However, note that 5.02pm 7 November French time is 3.02am on 8 November at Mt Stromlo (Canberra being UTC + 10 hours.)

Newspapers as sources for the account

I went searching for newspaper accounts of the sighting, and firstly, in the Dr Michael Swords' digital collection found the following; apparently from an unattributed New Zealand newspaper with a hand written note "NZ 1957."

"Australian scientists puzzled.

11.30   Canberra, Nov 8.

Scientists at the Commonwealth Observatory at Mt Stromlo are puzzled by a sighting there soon after 3am today of a strange object moving across the sky that was neither a meteorite nor one of the Soviet planets.

The object was seen by Dr Przyblski (sic) who had just completed observation of the passage of the two Russian satellites. It was sighted long after the observations on the eclipse of the moon had been completed.

Dr Przyblski who went to bed after sighting the strange object reported it this afternoon.

He described it as a vivid pink object which moved slowly across the sky, and which was visible to the naked eye for about two minutes. 

It appeared in the southern sky just above the horizon at 3.03am, moved in a westerly direction, passed the Moon and finally disappeared.

Its speed was far too slow for it to have been a meteorite, and it was not one of the satellites which had already passed.

Dr Przyblski said that the object, which was seen also by two colleagues, was completely unlike any object which the Stromlo scientists had so far observed.

There is speculation that the object might have been some new Russian space vessel, but there is still an element of complete uncertainty about its character."

My comments:

1. The item is datelined 11.30 Nov 8 and states that the sighting was "today." Thus placing the date of the sighting as 8 November (1957). 
2. Time is given as 3.03am.

Also in the Dr Michael Swords' electronic collection I found another newspaper account, from of all places Malaya. It was from the Penang 'Straits Echo and Times of Malaya' dated 12 November 1957 and datelined "Canberra Nov. 11."

'Mystery object still unexplained.

The object seen in the north western sky near Canberra on Friday morning by four astronomers from the Mt Stromlo Observatory is still unexplained.

The Director of the Observatory, Dr B J Bok, said today that following the sighting of the object, which was seen a few minutes after 3am and which was much brighter than either of the Soviet satellites, scores of reports from the eastern states had been received from people who claimed to have seen lights in the sky similar to that observed at Canberra. None of the reports however, could be linked with the Canberra observation and many who made them had undoubtedly seen the lights of high flying aircraft.

Dr Bok said that whatever the nature of the object seen at Mt Stromlo, it seemed certain that it was far too bright to have been the capsule containing the space dog of Sputnik II which some scientists think has been ejected from the satellite and has been orbiting with it instead of returning as planned to earth...Reuters.'

My comments:

1. Note that Dr Bok states that none of the scores of reports could be linked to the Canberra observation.
2. The sighting date as deduced from the above, is Friday 8 November, and the time as around 3am. As this article is based on a Reuters release it may, perhaps, be regarded as the most accurate so far.

The Canberra Times

I thought that the most logical place to look for a newspaper account would be from Canberra itself. Fortunately, while most digitised newspapers in the TROVE collection of the National Library of Australia end in 1954, The Canberra Times goes through to 1995. I therefore retrieved the following from TROVE.

The Canberra Times dated Saturday 9 November 1957 carried a front page story of the sighting.

'Scientists see strange object over Canberra.

Speculation as to whether the Russians have launched a new space weapon increased yesterday when scientists at the Commonwealth Observatory Mount Stromlo observed a strange object in the sky over Canberra early yesterday morning.

The object was seen by the scientists after they had watched the eclipse of the Moon and had tracked the course of the Rusian satellites, Sputnik and Sputnik II.

Checks with civil aviation and the RAAF have shown that no aircraft were in the vicinity at the time, and the observers are so puzzled they would like to contact anyone else who saw the object.

The object first came into sight just above the horizon shortly after 3am yesterday.

One of the astronomers Dr A Przybyleski (sic) said the object, which was vivid pink and completely unlike anything ever sighted by scientists passed across the sky in a westerly direction under the Moon and disappeared.

He said he saw the object for about two minutes with the naked eye and after it passed out of his sight other astronomers picked it up in their line of vision.

Dr Przybyleski said he and the other scientists, having tracked the path of the two Sputniks were amazed when the new object came into sight.

It bore no relation to either of the satellites, but a further watch would be made in case it was some sort of satellite circling the globe.

"What we saw certainly was not a meteor, as they can be seen for only a few seconds, but it could be a special rocket which will not reappear," he said.

One puzzling aspect of the object was that it travelled towards the Moon, passed under it and disappeared, although it was a perfectly cloudless sky at the time.

Dr Przybyleski said he was surprised there had been no reference to the object in reports from overseas.'

My comments:

1. The date of sighting is clearly Friday 8 November 1957 and time shortly after 3am.
2. Interestingly, no one overseas had reported a similar object. The reference to overseas reports is presumably if it were an Earth orbiting object then it should have been visible from parts other than  Canberra. 
3. Although there is reference to Mt Stromlo Observatory intending to keep a watch for it again, there is no mention I have seen that it was ever observed from Mt Stromlo again.

Searches for accounts in other places

I wondered if the sighting had been reported to the RAAF who were the official body of the Australian government tasked with looking at such sightings. An inspection of various UAP files in the National Archives of Australia, failed to locate any documents about this sighting.

An additional note from Dr Michael Swords' electronic collection, is that he has an uncited item which states that 'Astronomer A R Hogg saw a UFO with 3 colleagues at Mt Stromlo.' No other source cites the names of any of Dr P's colleagues who observed the object.

Can we explain the sighting in conventional terms?

What could be the stimulus for the sighting at 3.03am in the morning, cloudless sky, of a vivid pink object, seen for between two an eight minutes, tracking from one horizon (southern?) to the north west and then disappearing? 

It wasn't one of the two Soviet satellites; and seemed not to be a rocket, or debris from those satellites. It wasn't a meteor as the duration it too long. There is no tail or trail described. It is referred to as "an object" but actually appears to have simply been a bright light. Its astronomical magnitude is not stated; nor is any angular size given. The Vallee reference states it was brighter than Venus.

What was in the sky at that time? A check using the Stellarium software program shows that the Moon was at 22 degrees elevation at azimuth 310 degrees (north west as mentioned in some reports.) There were no bright planets above the horizon. Sunrise was at 4.55 am. There was a total Lunar eclipse on the evening of 7 November 1957. 

What was the weather like at the time? November is Springtime for Australia. A check of The Canberra Times dated Saturday 9 November 1957 provided the weather details for Friday 8 Novermber 1957. At 9am the wind was from the south west at 2 miles per hour.

So do I have any thoughts as to what was seen? Actually, I do. Given that:

(1) there were no other sightings of a vivid pink object traversing the sky from other observatories who were out watching the Sputniks;

(2) there were no other reports from around Canberra that matched the Mt Stromlo sighting;

(3) the wind (albeit six hours later) was from the south west at 2 miles per hour, ie almost still; 

(4) the observation time was between two and eight minutes;

(5) the observatory, despite stating they were to keep a watch for the object didn't report seeing it again;

(6) it simply disappeared from view in a dark, cloudless sky below 22 degrees elevation in the north western sky. 

I would propose that the sighting might have been of a fire balloon.

If this was a modern sighting these factors would certainly make me suggest this as a likely explanation. During my research into Australian sightings pre 24 June 1947 I came across examples of such fire balloons being launched, from as early as 1920. Perhaps some local decided to prank the scientists at the Observatory knowing they were watching for things in the sky? 

Of course, we will never know for sure just what the stimulus for this sighting was, but the above is my best guess.

Update: 19 July 2018

The Vallee reference in part stated:  'An exceptionally detailed series of observations were made the next day by French astronomers; these were never brought to the attention of scientists.'

Today, while browsing electronic copies of old Australian UAP publications I came across the following reference.

'A young astronomer at the National Observatory at Toulouse on Friday night, November 8th sighted in the sky a mysterious, elliptical, brilliant, canary-yellow coloured object.

The astronomer M Chapuis, followed it for five minutes with a small telescope when it appeared west-north-west of Toulouse. He said it sped west, made two sweeping turns, then sped in the opposite direction. It disappeared for 30 seconds, descended almost vertically in a clear sky, and vanished again in shadow.'

['Australian UFO Bulletin,' Vol 1 No 3, December 1957, page 5.] 


  1. Thank you for this excellent article Keith. I always appreciate cases from the Australian Capital Territory! As a visitor to Mount Stromlo and the observatory many times over the years - and my next door neighbor actually works there! - I have often wondered about this sighting. I wonder if the astronomer witnesses considered the fire balloon solution? Cheers, Shane.

  2. Hot on the heels of Keith's article about the Mount Stromlo Observatory sighting in the ACT in 1957, here is an article from the "Canberra City News" this week about Westall and the UFO stories the Canberra region has produced over the years.


  3. I came across a history of the observatory over the weekend. No mention whatsoever of the Nov 57 sighting or anything to do with it. There was mention of Przybylski and the observatory following the Sputniks from around Oct 57. Another instance, perhaps, of astronomy repressing the data (which is why Jacques Vallee first got interested in UFO's on his own account - he was working in a Paris observatory, there was an anomaly, and the superiors actively prevented it from being investigated).

    The fire balloon hypothesis is a reasonable one, but of course far from definitive. 3am would seem a strange time for a prankster - that is one determined prankster. It was also well after the start of the Sputnik observation, when presumably the media would have died down.

    I also find the quote attributed to Przybylski, who was the head astronomer, very interesting --- "The strange thing is that it should disappear after passing under the Moon as it was a perfectly cloudless sky".

    Also, if fire balloons were a known (human-caused) phenomenon that might produce visual anomalies, it seems strange that 3 astronomers apparently considered that they had never seen anything like it ("No scientist at the observatory had previously observed such an object.")

    Further, the description of pink and vivid pink is striking - I would think (but don't know that) red or orange might be more likely for a fire balloon.

    I have no hypothesis, but I'm not particularly persuaded by the fire balloon hypothesis.

    1. Hi anonymous, thank you for checking a history of the observatory. I agree that the non inclusion of what was obviously a striking observation would seem to indicate astronomy repressing the data.

      I agree with you that the fire balloon idea, is not a particularly strong one for a number of reasons. As you say, vivid pink is not the usual colour for a reported hot air balloon (red or orange colours are reported.)

      I guess, we have to log the observation and leave it at that.

      Thanks again for your comment.


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