Down to Earth
Readers were shocked to find news items blaring across papers and new websites that mysterious hi-tech debris had fallen in sparsely populated areas of Johi Taluka in Dadu District. Fear and speculation ran rife about the origins of the Unidentified Flying Objects that reportedly fell to the ground after a loud bang. The couple of leaked photographs that were available suggested that they were part of some kind of manned or unmanned aerial vehicle of terrestrial origin rather than extra-terrestrial.
Having visited Johi on my way to and from Sindh’s famed “hill station” Gorakh, I found the place to be comparatively desolate as it lies towards the west of the Indus highway en route to the higher portions of the cragged Khirthar range that serves as the geographical boundary between Sindh and Balochistan. I can only imagine the astonishment and reactions of my hosts from Johi, if they witnessed the “fall” first-hand. A long way from Johi, at water dispensers gossips across the corporate world and in cyber space, the incidence instantly created a buzz. Balding insurance agents and pot-bellied taxation advisors attempted to explain the phenomenon as a UFO, a Top Secret weather altering device from “hostile” countries, and a harbinger of the apocalypse itself. Thankfully, the Inter Services Public Relations timely stepped in and clarified that the debris “was part of Pakistan’s Hatf V Ghauri missile” and formed “part of the motor body, which separated from the missile as planned, well within the safety corridor”. At a friend’s office, the less frantic minority that had suggested that the “UFO” could have been part of the Hatf V Ghauri missile tested earlier, was awarded the water dispenser itself as their gift amid shouts of “water cooler aapka hua!” by the impressed staff that operates the cafeteria!
On a serious note, the phenomenon of mysterious objects falling to Earth from the heavens is not new. However, most of the UFO’s that fall from the sky come from much higher altitudes and even from beyond Earth itself. Earth’s atmosphere serves as a natural shield against all objects entering it from outside. “Aerodynamic heating” that results from such entry usually burns up smaller objects into tiny fragments but larger objects can make it to the surface sometimes with dangerous consequences. It is widely believed that it was an asteroid impact that announced the extinction of the dinosaurs. With the technological advances since World War II, man is now able to put objects into space that might eventually fall down to Earth as their orbits around the Earth “decay”.
One such “object” was Nasa’s Skylab space station that eventually crashed to Earth in July 1979. When the news of its imminent fall had been broken, it was initially suggested by some that it might fall somewhere over the Indian Subcontinent. Fuelled by the stated- controlled media of the time, public sentiment in Pakistan bordered on mass hysteria. So much so, that Psychology research papers have been penned based upon the reaction of Pakistanis vis-à-vis the Skylab fall! Although, fear surrounding the fall was not restricted to Pakistan, but was an international phenomenon. For the few hours before the ISPR clarification about the Dadu event arrived, reminiscence of the 1979 episode could be observed in the behavior of those who had lived through it back then.
In more recent times, another missile test that created quite a stir internationally was carried out by Russia in December 2009. Citizens of Norway witnessed a strange beam of light appearing to originate from the ground and reaching for the skies. At the end of the beam was a spiral of light that kept getting bigger and bigger in the sky until it diffused into a halo! The scene was nothing short of a sequence from a Steven Spielberg science fiction movie. The Russian Navy had launched a Bulava Ballistic Missile based on advance technology from a nuclear submarine stationed at an undisclosed location. The test failed and the missile spiraled out of control resulting in spectacular displays of lights that could be seen in the sky from all over Norway! Thankfully, the Hatf V Ghauri test did not result in such undesired fireworks. Conspiracy theorists still believe that the Russian Missile test story is a cover-up for a nation-wide UFO sighting in Norway!
Viewing an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) in the sky, especially at night from a secluded location can be an interesting experience. Earlier during the year, I had the pleasure of camping out by the Cape Monze Lighthouse near Karachi. In the pre-dawn dark of the night, I started my morning round of photography of the lighthouse with the backdrop of a starry sky, away from city lights. Back at my workstation at home, a couple of days later, I went through the arduous task of sifting through the hundreds of shots to determine which ones to keep and which to delete. I liked one particular picture of the lighthouse, but there was a technical issue with it. A light blotch seemed to run across from the lighthouse outwards. I wondered if my hand had not been stable while taking the shot or if it was some other fault. Grudgingly, I let that one go and moved on to the next but the “smear” persisted; only its position was a little shifted. Same was the case with the next few pictures. I realised that my camera had caught something that was probably not visible to the naked eye at the time. I wondered if it could be a comet, perhaps an undiscovered one! The prospects gave me an instant adrenaline rush.
I consulted Zain Ahmed, my usual go-to from Karachi Astronomers’ Society (KaAS), for any queries concerning the extra-terrestrial. After listening to my description, and without looking at the pictures, he announced that what I had shot was probably something called a “Rocket Fuel Dump” (RFD) – another example of a man-made hi-altitude display that can be confused with UFOs and comets! An RFD is when a rocket dumps excess fuel to reduce weight in order to achieve desired orbits. Another KaAS member, Fahd Ullah also shared pictures of an RFD that he had caught on camera from Badro Jabal, in the Khirthar range, incidentally not very far from Johi, back in 2011. This RFD display appeared to be intricately embedded towards the center of the Milky Way, near the constellation of Sagittarius, a region where comets are more likely to be found – heavenly! The mysterious object travelled quickly across a portion of the sky and ultimately dissipated and faded off, too fast to be a comet and too slow to be an asteroid. I discovered that I was not the first astronomy enthusiast to have hoped of discovering something extra-terrestrial after viewing an RFD, something tells me that I may not be the last either.
Although I do not subscribe to the view that the world might be coming to an end, courtesy of an astronomical event later this month, one can conclude that as space becomes a busy thoroughfare, sightings of Rocket Fuel Dumps, re-entry of satellites, related rocketry and other debris will increase. These are sure to create some sensations amongst the crazy lot who prefer a secluded place away from the city’s light-polluted skies to keep awake through the night, staring at the sky, listening to Madam Noor Jehan singing:
Sub jug soyey,
taaron sey karein baatein,
As the entire world sleeps
We (the crazy ones) are awake
Having a tete-a-tete with the stars
throughout the moonlit nights
The writer works for a bank and is interested in the outdoors, wildlife and science. Currently he is seeking transfer to a branch either in the Australian outback or the Himalayas! He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.