In honor of the new green comet that will soon be visible from the earth, here is the story of the Emerald Cloud and the White Sands of New Mexico, the home of those famous green meteors called “The Green Fireballs of New Mexico.”
Driving through the tall white sand dunes of the Mojave Desert in California on the way to Phoenix from Claremont during spring break 1967, we were four witnesses to an unusual daylight sighting. One of the passengers in the backseat of Malcolm`s white Volvo drew our attention to the sky out of the back window. What we saw was a set of towering white cumulus cloud flashing from within as when lightning lights up a cloud like a lantern from the inside - except that it was flashing bright green!
We craned our necks and observed it for as long as we could as we drove along trying to imagine what could cause such a sight. Malcolm was headed for home in Albuquerque where his mother worked as a nuclear scientist at Sandia Lab, Kirtland Air Force Base. He said that he would ask her about what we had seen. Back on campus, I inquired about her response as soon as I saw him again. “She said it was a test,” he replied and we accepted that explanation at the time, but now I am not so sure.
In the late 1940s around the classified nuclear installations of Los Alamos, White Sands, and Sandia in New Mexico, there were many sightings of unusual green meteors flying horizontally near sensitive sites. These raised much concern, were they a natural phenomenon or were they man-made spy drones from the Soviet Union? Project Twinkle set up cameras to find out.
Recovered dust near one event showed traces of copper which would account for the green color but ruled out an outer-space origin because copper has never been found in meteors from space. These objects were a Top Secret subject and Malcolm`s mother would have been aware of them, though she would not have been able to share that information with us. Could a green fireball have lit up our Mojave Desert cloud lime green? The fireballs were known to switch on and off and to change trajectories, unlike a natural meteor. Some have suggested that a green laser caused the green meteor phenomenon, but lasers were not invented until the 1960s. Even today, green lasers have a small application as pointers for office presentations.
As soon as Project Twinkle`s cameras were set up, the green fireballs ceased to perform, but scientists were still having encounters with them. The best known illustration of one was painted by Mrs. Lincoln LaPaz, wife of a member of the Alamosa team. Her painting illustrated the 1952 LIFE magazine article about strange happenings in New Mexico. The fireballs were spotted both before and after the UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico and in other places as well. After the first wave of sightings, the strange green meteors were recorded again, but this time they were seen to be descending vertically rather than flying horizontally. They were not the only unidentified objects around the nuclear facilities. All of this activity worried the military. The Army handled the situation differently then the Air Force when the strange lights showed up in their territory.
Next time: Project Twinkle and LaPaz in Roswell and Socorro.