By Mike Smith
The next time you find yourself atop Sandia Peak, wandering dreamily from tramway to chairlift, from gift shop to overlook, or from restaurant to trail, take a moment to look for something just a little bit stranger – something like, oh, an observatory for airborne fireballs. You may not find any evidence of such a thing, but nevertheless, Sandia Peak was once a place where America tried to take action against what some believed was a coming invasion of interstellar craft.
Here, astride the 10,678-foot-high Sandia Peak, outside of buildings long since swallowed up by others, students and scientists from the University of New Mexico (UNM) once managed a humble, makeshift research station, studying such phenomena as atmospheric electricity. In early 1949, however, that station became a place to investigate the mysterious skybound apparitions known as green fireballs. These fireballs, burning lime green and bright, were sighted throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, darting silently across the sky, and seemed unusual enough for even Life Magazine, on April 7, 1952, to speculate that they were not meteors or airplanes, but alien craft, from another world.
A pilot out of Kirtland Air Force Base filed a report on December 6, 1948, about seeing “an unidentified object similar to a green flare . . . on the east slope of the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque . . .” The February 29, 1949 Los Alamos Skyliner reported green fireballs appearing multiple times over Los Alamos, “generally about 2am.” The December 18, 1950 Albuquerque Journal told of an airline pilot (and his co-pilot) who allegedly watched for ten minutes as a green fireball circled Los Alamos before it sped away, turned white, and vanished. The February 12 and March 12 issues of the Alamogordo Daily News reported sightings of fireballs over Alamogordo. Other accounts told of mass sightings in Roswell and Santa Fe and additional sightings over Las Vegas and Taos. If there was to be an alien invasion, it seemed, New Mexico was where it would happen.
At the time, America was already experiencing a mania for all things UFO – thanks in small part to a field of debris found north of Roswell in 1947 – so it made sense that reactions to the fireballs leaned toward the otherworldly. The U.S. government launched Project Twinkle to investigate. As one part of that effort, UNM meteoritics expert Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, who initially believed the fireballs to be unmanned probes, set up a powerful camera on Sandia Peak to peer northward from the then-much-darker mountain, over the curve of the Earth, at the sky above Los Alamos.
“I worked with Dr. Lincoln LaPaz of the University of New Mexico on an extended project at the university’s research station on top of Sandia Peak,” wrote Earl L. Zimmerman in a 1993 affidavit. “We were told the Air Force was concerned about ‘something’ being in the night sky over Los Alamos, and we took 15-minute exposures of the sky with a four-by-five Speed Graphic camera. We worked in three-man, one-week shifts, and Dr. LaPaz was in charge.”
Lasting several months in 1949, this work helped Project Twinkle conclude that most of the green fireballs could be explained by copper-containing meteors – but you can decide for yourself. The next time you visit Sandia Peak, go at night. Look down at the city lights, but also, look up. There, perhaps, might appear remnants of 1949, remnants of a mystery, remnants that will streak past, burn green, and disappear.
Author Mike Smith's website
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