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  • Dirk Schulze-Makuch

The Science of Aliens, Part 8: The Search for Artifacts

New instrumentation can aid scientists in determining whether recovered material from UAP is of extraterrestrial origin or not.


Sample from the material recovered from the Council Bluffs incident in 1977 (scale is in inches).

The problem with Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) observations is that the scientific method cannot be utilized to its full extent to determine whether an observed phenomenon is of extraterrestrial origin or not. After all, we cannot re-do the observation – which is mostly based on eyewitness reports – and analyze it in the lab. However, there are a few cases where material has been recovered from these observations. One of these cases was analyzed by a research group led by Garry Nolan from the Dept. of Pathology at Stanford University using a modern instrumentation tool kit.


In the first part of their paper, Garry Nolan and his team reported what technology could be used to analyze various materials nowadays. They focused on methodologies that can probe down to a resolution of about 5 to 25 nanometers (which is on the scale of a group of atoms), to reveal the microstructure of a material analyzed. Nolan emphasized instrumentation used to determine isotope ratios because it can obtain information on whether an object originates from Earth, within our Solar System, or beyond (isotopes are variations of the same elements but have a different number of neutrons). This methodology is frequently used on meteorites and even gemstones to determine their origin.


Later in the paper, the authors describe how they apply their methodologies to a well-documented and still-unexplained incident called the Council Bluffs case, which occurred in that same town in Iowa on December 17th, 1977. Two town residents observed a red, luminous object in the evening, first hovering, then falling to the earth. Upon the object making contact with the ground, the residents saw a bright flash and flames shooting approximately 3 meters high. The witnesses were able to track the object's trajectory, and upon reaching the scene, they saw a molten metal glowing red-orange igniting the grass. Police and firemen arrived within 15 minutes and stated that a molten mass was “boiling down to the edges of the levee.” Based on the witness reports, the molten mass was about 35 to 55 pounds within an area of about 10 square meters, and its center remained warm to the touch for about 2 hours.


Various hypotheses of what this sighting could be, have been entertained, ranging from a meteorite or satellite impact to a hoax. However, given that this was a well-documented event with several witnesses, a hoax is extremely unlikely, and a meteorite or satellite impact could be excluded, mostly due to the lack of a crater. An initial idea that the observation had something to do with the nearby airport could be dismissed as well. Tests conducted after the Council Bluffs event revealed that the recovered material was mostly iron, with less than 1% chromium and nickel, and some magnesium, calcium, silicon, and titanium. The recovered material was first described to resemble mostly cast iron, but later analysis indicated that it was more similar to carbon steel.


Nolan's group then analyzed subsamples of the recovered material for elemental composition and isotopic ratios of titanium, iron, and chromium. Based on the isotope analyses, the authors concluded that there were no significant isotopic deviations in the subsamples from those that you would expect in a sample of terrestrial origin. Their elemental analyses revealed that the parent sample must have been quite heterogeneous. Aluminum varied up to 2-fold across subsamples, iron up to 10-fold, and magnesium up to 20-fold. Interestingly though, the elemental composition of the subsamples was homogeneous to a depth of 50 nanometers.


Although state-of-the-art instrumentation was applied to the Council Bluffs case, the nature and origin of the recovered material remain a mystery. Because of the heterogeneity of the material and the homogeneous surface, I do not expect that the recovered material formed naturally. Still, there is no conclusive evidence that it had been engineered or designed either. One insight was obtained, though. Analyses showed that the crash of a Cosmos 954 Soviet reconnaissance satellite, which took place five weeks later in Canada, had nothing to do with the Council Bluffs event.


Council Bluffs is not the only UAP case with recovered material, but it is one of the most reliable and best-documented ones. I think Nolan's study is important as it shows that these phenomena can be studied using the scientific method, and I believe they should be whenever possible. Better and better instrumentation will become available, including atom probe tomography and cryogenic electron microscopy; methodologies that will be able to probe down to the atomic scale and determine the local molecular or atomic structure of materials. The resolution of isotopic ratios will also further increase and soon allow us to decide with high certainty whether a material is of terrestrial or extraterrestrial origin.

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