There are around 3000 human-made satellites in working order around the Earth, however if the debris of old and damaged satellites are taken into account the number increases dramatically. Ever since the Soviet Union launched the very first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, various countries around the world have sought to compete and satellites today are used for communication, navigation and exploration. Satellites are often visible passing overhead as the sunlight reflects back towards the Earth. One of them is impossible to miss, the largest satellite currently in orbit, the International Space Station, at a huge 100m across. However, these satellites are relatively unexciting in comparison to the mystery surrounding one very old dark satellite…
Legend has it that in orbit around the Earth is a mysterious, dark object which dates back perhaps 13 000 years. Its origin and purpose are inscrutable, dubbed the “Black Knight” this elusive satellite has allegedly been beaming signals towards the Earth and inspected by NASA astronauts yet only a few on Earth officially know of its existence. The origin of the ominous name is part of the enigma; it is impossible to discover who first called it this or indeed why. Humans have only in the last 60 years had the technology to launch a man-made object into space so what is the logical explanation of tales of an alien intruder on our doorstep?
The Tesla Transmissions
The first apparent part of this story begins with signals heard by Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) a brilliant Serbian inventor (and described by many thanks to his often eccentric behaviour and opinions as a genuine mad scientist) who spent most of his career in the USA. He was an electrical engineer and produced works which explored the idea of radio and wireless transmissions. In 1899, he reportedly intercepted a signal unlike any of the natural sources from Earth such as electrical storms that he had already investigated in his experiments. Instead he announced that regular signals must be coming from an intelligent outside source, potentially inhabitants of Mars. Tesla never claimed to have heard signals from a satellite orbiting Earth. Today there are those who say he was listening to a transmission from an orbiting satellite of unknown origin later called by some the Black Knight.
It is slightly more likely, though still very far from probable, that what was Tesla detected was not an orbiting satellite but instead signals emitted from natural objects. Today we know of some natural extraterrestrial repeating sources such as pulsars. These are fast-spinning neutron stars which emit a rhythmic signal. They were first discovered in 1967 by Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (1943-). Until certain of their origin, they were jokingly nicknamed the Little Green Men signals. Tesla was not hearing the signals from pulsars though and was completely unaware of the nature of what he had really detected (if indeed he picked up anything at all). Telsa apparently never tried to repeat his observations, claiming that other matters took priority, an astonishingly casual response to so significant a claim.
The Black Knight Decoded?
In the 1920s anomalous signals were again detected by amateur radio operators. These were originally of Earthly origin, but their timing was bizarre! A signal would be received then a second repeated signal received a few seconds later. These Long Delayed Echoes (LDEs) were difficult to explain in terms or radio waves bouncing off atmospheric layers. In 1973, Scotsman Duncan Lunan (1945-) went back to these signals to see if could make sense of them. Miraculously by plotting the delay times against the order in which the echoes were received he could create what appeared to be star charts and diagrams. By deciphering them Lunan decided that the signals were actually messages transmitted by a probe originally from the star Epsilon Böotes (Izar) which had been lurking near the Moon for the past 13 000 years. Lunan is not a professional astronomer but instead a science communicator and science fiction author with a flair for outré ideas but nevertheless the name Black Knight is never mentioned by him; nor has he personally linked his Epsilon Böotes hypothesis with the Black Knight, others seem to be responsible for this. (UPDATE: Mr Lunan has stated his position on the Black Knight story in the Comments section below.)
Another story dating back to the early 1950s claimed to refer to an apparition of the Black Knight reports the detection of a signal of by an object in orbit. This was a time of deep suspicions held by the two superpowers on either side of the Pacific. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets had the ability to place an object into any kind of an orbit at that time. Yet the discovery of an Earth-orbiting satellite was reported in a couple of newspapers from the time, and the respectedastronomer Clyde Tombaugh (discoverer of Pluto) is said to have been involved. However, the articles actually a couple of synopses of a book by the UFOlogical author Donald Keyhoe (1897-1988). I’m sure these promotional newspaper articles had been great for sales of the book!
A few years later, the Black Knight seemed have made another appearance when American newspapers reported in 1960 that there was an unusual object in polar orbit, by then both superpowers had satellites in equatorial orbit but polar orbit meant that the satellite could see every part of the Earth, yet neither country admitted owning it. This may seem strange but remember that this was a time of deep-rooted suspicion and espionage not just with each other but now seemingly with extra-terrestrials too. Declassified information now released from that time suggested that object was connected to a Corona spy satellite under disguise. At the time the US Discoverer research satellite programme was actually a cover for the Corona project intended to photograph sites in the USSR. The world was bracing itself for nuclear destruction, coming close to a nuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis just two years later, had this information been released at the time perhaps the Cold War would have indeed heated up. The mystery object reported was almost certainly a unexpectedly large piece of debris from Discoverer 8 released when it jettisoned its film recovery capsule (known as a “bucket”). Discoverer 8’s bucket was lost as the satellite’s eccentric orbit made it impossible to recover, the satellite itself burned up on reentry in March 1960, presumably the debris fell into the atmosphere too around this time.
For any story or conspiracy to have credibility it always helps to get someone high profile on board. In the case of the Black Knight, Project Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper (1927-2004) is a prime example. Cooper announced seeing many UFOs throughout his career. So when it was claimed that he saw green lights belonging to the Black Knight on his pioneering Mercury mission into Earth orbit with ground control radar also allegedly picking up something inexplicable, it is often believed to be true. However Cooper produced transcripts saying that on the Mercury flight he never saw anything. When you have admitted seeing UFOs once perhaps other details of when and where often become less significant.
The STS-88 Encounter
The most recent and most cited “evidence” for a mystery satellite from beyond dates from 1998. The crew of Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour photographed an unusual object in low Earth orbit (but not a polar orbit). These images are often labelled as the most definite proof of this satellite. However, on more careful analysis this strange structure seems more like a piece of space debris. In actual fact this black object is probably a thermal blanket (to be precise, a Trunnion Pin Thermal Cover) that had become dislodged during an EVA. Mission STS-88 was the first American mission to begin construction of the International Space Station. The Russians had already placed the Zarya module in orbit so this mission was to connect Zarya to the American Unity module. The crew achieved all objectives of their mission including installing hand-rails and testing a safety device to prevent astronauts drifting into space should they become detached. However, there were a few hitches along the way. Initial alignment of the modules did not quite work so as the Shuttle’s robotic arm loosened its grip to try again, several items floated away including the thermal blanket covering, which is the mysterious-looking image captured in the photo. According to the respected space historian James Oberg in his superb history of the incident STS-88 and the Black Knight, the lost blanket burned up when it fell out of orbit about a week after it was lost.
None of this information supports claims of the Black Knight, the dark satellite, however, there really was a Black Knight rocket. It was a British rocket used to test the design of a re-entry vehicle for the Blue Streak missile between 1958 and 1965. This one is not quite as mysterious.
So although claims of an ancient 13 000 year old satellite originally from a star in the constellation of Böotes, has reportedly been spotted and photographed by NASA astronauts as it travels in polar orbit; in reality this is not the case. Black Knight is a jumble of completely unrelated stories; reports of unusual science observations, authors promoting fringe ideas, classified spy satellites and people over-interpreting photos. These ingredients have been chopped up, stirred together and stewed on the internet to one rambling and inconsistent dollop of myth. The Universe is big place, and astronomers are trying to find signs of other life, some have even searched for alien probes near Earth; however the Black Knight satellite is not the answer and it never has been.