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What Are the Flying Triangles?
By James Oberg
Letter writer Nick Spall described what he saw from Cornwall at
about 10 PM on August 10, 1999. The triangular-shaped formation
moved from north to south passed the star Altair.
"With the naked eye the formation appeared as one object," Spall
wrote. However, "through binoculars (7x50) the group was
resolved into three steady pinpoints travelling together in
A second letter from A.R. Thompson in Surrey echoed the first
"On 4 September 1999 I was sitting in my garden enjoying the
cool of late evening," he wrote, "when I noticed three
satellites apparently moving in a triangular 'formation' ... I
have never witnessed satellites moving in the same direction and
maintaining the same position relative to one another."
He described the lights as about stellar magnitude 4, dim but
easily seen in a dark, clear sky. Thompson reported he first
noticed them at about 21:59 as they moved downwards into the
constellation of Pegasus.
"The 'triangle' was about 2 degrees by 3 degrees isosceles. They
took between one and two minutes to pass through Pegasus, before
Triangles or triplets?
The two Englishmen hadn't been alone in being perplexed by
"flying triangles" in the sky, but when the unearthly answer was
eventually found, it promised to also account for many other
The November/December 1999 issue of Skyviews, edited by Canadian
amateur astronomy guru Terence Dickinson, contained this amazing
account: "On three consecutive nights during the Starfest star
party in August 1996, a formation of 3 unblinking starlike
objects in a flattened triangular configuration was seen
cruising across the star fields by dozens of observers. Veteran
stargazers at the meeting had never seen anything like it."
Consultations with amateur satellite-watchers soon identified
the sighting as another "NOSS triplet" formation. Computer
predictions based on known orbits showed the man-made space
objects had indeed been passing overhead at the time of the
But what kind of explanation was that, really? First of all,
what on earth -- or off earth -- is "NOSS"?
Three watching eyes
This space project is so secret that even its official name
remains a topic of debate, so observers dubbed it the "Naval
Ocean Surveillance System," or NOSS.
The US currently operates three sets of spy satellites, launched
consecutively in 1990, 1991 and 1996. These satellites orbit
pole-to-pole in groups of three at an altitude of 1,100
kilometers, monitoring the position, speed and direction of all
military ships at sea by detecting radio and radar signals and
then triangulating the point of origin..
The components of the trio orbit separately under Newton's Laws,
and are not technically "in formation." However, their orbits
are planned to crisscross during every circuit, being widest
apart over ocean areas of greatest interest.
The project's Top Secret name is reportedly "Parcae," the Roman
name for the three somber, all-seeing goddesses who observe
human activity and determine justice for individuals. If so,
perhaps they call the satellites "Clotho," "Lachesis" and
"Atropos" at the top secret Parcae "mission control center."
The visible secret
In the case of the two English observers, Ed Cameron, an amateur
astronomer in central Texas, found the precise answer -- NOSS
satellites flying overhead at the time and same direction as in
Spall had seen what Cameron calls "the NOSS 2-3 trio," and
Thompson had been observing "the NOSS 2-2 trio."
Amateur spacewatchers have known about these objects for a long
timer. But there was some debate whether the satellites would be
visible to the naked eye.
Professor Brian Hunter of Queen's University in Kingston,
Ontario has photographed NOSS 2-2 passing through the
constellation Lyra in late 1997.
"This pass was seen [with the] naked eye by many in the
Northeastern US," he noted when posting the image to the
Other eyewitness accounts
Also online, a Kansas amateur astronomer calling himself "Stosh"
reported the trios "can be seen pretty easily, as I can attest."
"Stosh" provided details. "While looking for meteors on the
morning of the '99 Leonids, my 7 year old daughter picked them
out, pointed them to me, and even my old eyes caught them right
away," he reported. "I'd say they were at least a 4 magnitude. "
He added that there were several reports of others seeing them
And Daniel Deak of Drummondville, Québec, chimed in, calling
naked-eye NOSS sightings "not speculation but ... fact."
"I saw the NOSS 2-2 trio with 3 other people last April when the
Moon was in the sky," he noted. "They were at magnitude
3.5, so very easy to see -- in relatively dark skies."
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