Hot Tub Astronomy: Mystery of the Red and Green Flashing Lights Jun10


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Hot Tub Astronomy: Mystery of the Red and Green Flashing Lights

The “Mystery of the Red and Green Flashing Lights” was published in Astronomy Magazine in about 1989. I have misplaced my copy and am not certain of the issue.

The night was very clear, so we climbed into the hot tub fully equipt with binoculars, star charts and both hot and cold drinks. We cruised the skies confortably aboard our tub of bubbling hot water, looking at the sky above the cold water of the Pacific ocean. I looked from the sky above the waves and back at the chart puzzeled. “I have never noticed a star so low in the sky before.” I told Bob. He turned his binoculars on the star in question.

“Funny thing about your star.” My husband said. “It has red and green lights flashing on it.”

“Then what is it? An airplane, helicopter,what? It’s too high to be a ship mast. If it were a plane it would be moving faster. I took the binoculars and there they were, the red and green lights, twinkling on both sides of the white light. My new star was just two fingers above the horizon, an area often obscured by a peach colored finger of smog, floating down in the distance from Los Angeles.

“Maybe it’s a weather balloon.” Bob suggested.

“Probably it’s on a tether to keep it from drifting away.” I was losing interest and began casting about in search of a high traveling satellite. Bob spotted one once, I was still looking.

I glanced back at my low star and measured it with my two fingers. I looked up at the Gemini twins, Pollux and Castor always just four fingers apart. With that confirmation of my accurate measure, I turned back to the “star”. Now a tiny bit lower than two fingers and just a tad further from the apartment building on our right that I had measured it against with my hand. Maybe the balloon was tied to a boat and bobbing about on the waves. “Oh well!” I was getting water logged watching the star move so slowly. Bob rose to get out and commented,

“The Navy has a base on San Clemente Island. Perhaps it’s something of theirs.”

“Probably. But it sure looks like a star.”

The next night we noticed first thing as soon as we settled in was that our low star was still there. Two fingers up and three hands from the apartments.

“I called around and tried to find someone who knew what that light was.” Bob told me. “No luck though. No one knew what I was talking about.”

“Who did you call?” I wondered.

“The Weather Bureau, the Coast Guard, and the Harbor Patrol. I figured if it wasn’t theirs, one of them would have seen it and know what it is..”

“Did anyone?” He shook his head, no. “No one had ever heard of it or even remembered seeing it. It must not be very important, what ever it is.”

That night we began to notice that it moved exactly with Sirius, which was right above it. That became our way of finding it. We’d look up at Orion, then left, over to Sirius and down almost to the water. Some nights the low smog or clouds over the horizon obscured it. If it was clear, it was there: a white star that flashed red and green into the binocs, which none of our Star maps explained. We showed it to all guests, who began to refer to it as “Your flying saucer”.

I have now given enough clues for a serious astronomer to know what we had found. Indeed the first “Real Astronomer” we asked knew exactly what we were seeing.

We decided, one Sunday to take a drive to Mount Palomar. We knew that they had a huge 200 inch telescope that had been caravaned up the mountain road at night because the truck carrying it took up the whole road. I don’t remember the year, but I was a school girl at the time. I couldn’t think why it took us so long to get around to going there.

We signed up for the guided tour with 30 other visitors, led by a young man from Cal.Tech. He did a wonderful job discribing the three large telescopes and explaining their different uses. Afterwards, he stood patiently and answered questions from the group. Most wanted to know more about him and his interests.

“He explained that he was a student of astronomy and yes, he did get time at the big scopes. He would make those his life’s work…”not giving tours,” he added with a smile.

Bob finally asked him about the light we saw from our perch at sea level in Laguna Beach. “It seems to be a star, “he explained carefully, “but the flashing red and green lights we saw in the binoculars confused us.

“I understand.” he told us at once.

At last someone who doesn’t act as if we are seeing flying saucers! We moved in closer as he explained, “What you are seeing is Canopus in the southern hemisphere. It’s in the southern constellation, Carina, part of Argo. It’s the brightest star in the southern sky.” Some of the group left, others closed in to hear the explaination of this odd star, Canopus which they had not seen or even heard about. “Technically, it cannot be seen from here, which is why it is not shown on star maps of the Northern Hemisphere. However,” he added with a little smile, “if the conditions are just right, the bright light from Canopus is bent by our atmophere, and it appears to be just a couple of degrees above our horizon.The red and green flashing lights are the result of the starlight traveling at different speeds through the Earth’s atmosphere. To you it will seem to set into the Pacific Ocean just a little way from where it first appears as it follows it’s arc across the sky, right ahead of our Orion, as you may have noticed.”

“It must be easier for you to see, way up here on top of this mountain.” I suggested. This brought a big smile from our young host.
“Yes indeed!” He laughed, “Just as the flea has a much better look at the moon, when he jumps on the dog’s back.” Now we all laughed.

We thanked him for solving our mystery and left very contented.

Watch for the next Hot Tub story.