Losing the Signal

Proof That Time Stamps on the STS-48 Video Released by NASA Are Phony

Lan Fleming

This article was originally posted in June, 2003. Since that time, new information has been collected and is discussed in a new section at the end. -- 10/18/03

During the STS-48 mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery in September 1991, a sequence of video broadcast on television showed what some interpreted to be large vehicles at a great distance from the shuttle. The objects responded to a flash of light and a stream of "projectiles" that followed by performing seemingly radical maneuvers. However, 8 years later, the NASA FOIA office began releasing a version of the video with time stamps on every frame. The time stamps indicate that the flash of light coincides closely with the time listed in telemetry records of the firing of an attitude control rocket in the space shuttle's aft end. This would suggest that the thruster was the cause of the flash, and both the "projectiles" and the "UFOs" were merely small particles within a few feet of the space shuttle.

In the paper I wrote for Mark Carlotto's online journal, New Frontiers in Science, I argued that the time stamps on the frames of the STS-48 video are off by several seconds. The argument was based upon a comparison of the predicted time at which the North Star Polaris transited the "airglow" shell of the Earth's upper atmosphere to the time stamp on the frames at around the moment the transit can be seen to occur on the video. The predicted transit time was found to be 7.7 seconds later than the time displayed on the video, based on the officially released NORAD orbital elements for the Space Shuttle Discovery. If the time stamps were in error, then the light flash occurred far too long after the thrusters stopped firing for the two events to have been causally linked. There was nothing aboard the shuttle other than the rockets that could have caused the light flash and the objects' abrupt change of course in response to the flash. That in turn would be compelling evidence that the objects were in fact large objects a great distance from the shuttle rather than small debris particles close to it. But according to James Oberg, the most well known popularizer of the rocket exhaust theory, there can be no error in the time stamps because:

"A digital time, sourced from the shuttle's Master Timing Unit, along with camera parameters such as power, az/el angles, etc., is digitally encoded on the downlink video, and can be read and displayed in various formats which are not of significance. What is important is that the automated source of the time signal is a high-precision timer, not fumble-fingered home-VCRsetter."
Below are 6 frames taken from the STS-48 video around the time of a "loss of signal" (LOS) event mentioned several years ago by Oberg.Collectively, these frames prove that the time stamps shown in the video were not encoded on the video by the space shuttleís "master timing unit" as claimed by Oberg. In 1999 Oberg wrote to an AOL message forum on UFOs describing the LOS event:
"According to the 100-page post-flight report 'STS-48 Scene List' which catalogued ALL video transmissions from the Orbiter to the ground, ... At GMT 20:17:28, the Orbiter passed out of range of the eastern TDRS satellite and entered the brief ëZone of Exclusioní (ZOE) directly opposite in longitude from the TDRS ground station at White Sands, New Mexico. Communication was established with the western TDRS satellite a minute and a half later."

The video does in fact go to static at exactly the time Oberg said it did: 20:17:28 (according to the upper time stamp, but not the lower). The last frame prior to LOS is shown in Figure 1.  But what Oberg missed or chose to ignore is that all throughout a 6-second time period after the loss-of-signal, both of the video time displays continue to update the time on video frames containing nothing  but noise. The last of the noise frames is shown in Figure 2. If the signal was lost, then how could the time from the shuttle's master timing unit possibly have been "encoded" on static? The obvious answer is that it could not. This alone proves that the time stamps were added to the video at a later date. But there is more. The 6 seconds of noise is followed by the display of a test pattern, apparently indicating the point where the signal was reacquired but before resumption of the video transmission, which occurred 1/2 second later. The last frame showing this test pattern is displayed in Figure 3. As might be expected in a video sequence interrupted by a 1.5-minute long loss of signal, there is, in fact, a jump in time of 1.5 minutes between frames. But the jump occurs at a point between two frames that were taken a few hundredths of a second apart, and most definitely were not taken 1.5 minutes apart. They were probably consecutive as indicated by the fact that the two frames are nearly identical. (Figure 4 and Figure 5). With absolute certainty, this, too, proves that the time stamps were added to the video after it was downlinked.

Figure 1. Last frame prior to loss of signal (LOS); image is breaking up. City lights can be seen in the lower center.

Figure 2. Last frame in a 6-second long series after LOS and prior to reacquisition of signal. that show nothing but noise.The time stamp is updated on each frame of noise. (How could the time be downlinked to Earth by the master timing unit aboard the shuttle six seconds after loss of signal?)

Figure 3. Last frame in a 1/2-second long series of frames showing a test pattern that follows reacquisition of the shuttle's telemetry signal and precedes the resumption of video frames showing the Earth's surface..

Figure 4. Last frame in a 1/3-second long series after the test pattern series and prior to stabilization of the video that show unstable images with time stamps from the period during which there was no signal, 1.5 minutes before reacquisition.

Figure 5. Frame immediately following the frame shown in Figure 4. The two frames are nearly identical, including the noise line where image top and bottom were switched before the signal stabilized. The city lights visible above the noise line are in identical postions, which would be impossible if the two frames had been taken 1.5 minutes apart as indicated by their respective time stamps. The two frames were obviously taken a few hundredths of a second apart, not 1.5 minutes. The lower time display also jumps by a minute and a half between two obviously consecutive frames, about a second later.

Figure 6. First frame after signal has stabilized, prior to the "precise" coincidence of the thruster firing and the light flash.

Let's Do the Time Warp Again (Update 10/18/03)

The reason why there are two time displays showing different times has been identified by an "anonymous" source at NASA according to a person writing to the UFO Updates email list. The upper time display, or "time window," as it is called, is supposed to be generated by the recording device on Earth from the telemetry signal received by a ground station. The time increments by 30ths of a second because the recorder uses the Society of Motion Pictures Time (SMPT) format, making it essentially a frame counter, with frames displayed at a rate of 30 frames per second (actually 29.97 according to the video format used in the United Staes). The lower time window is supposed to be the time stamp generated aboard the shuttleby the Master Timing Unit and is encoded on the video frame prior to transmission of the telemetry signal to a TDRS communications satellite in geosychronous orbit that then retransmits the signal to a ground station.

The upper time window, then, represents a "time received" stamp and the lower window represents the "time sent" stamp. Due to a delay of from 2 to 3 seconds between the time a video frame is transmitted by the shuttle and the time the ground-based recorder receives it, the frame should show a time-received stamp that is 2 to 3 seconds later than the time-sent stamp. That much is consistent with the time displays -- the time-received stamp on the STS-48 video is about 2.3 seconds later than the time-sent stamp on every frame subsequent to re-acquisition of the signal. The time encoded in the telemetry should be only a small fraction of a second later (a few milliseconds, most likely) than the true time of events seen in the video frame on which the time display appears.

Obviously, it would be expected that updates to the "time-received" stamp would continue uninterrupted through the LOS event, since they are added to the video at the receiving end of the communications chain and the ground video recorder's clock is unaffected by the LOS. But it should not contain the 1.5-minute "time warp" shown in the two consecutive frames previously shown in Figures 4 and 5.  And the lower time window (the "time-sent" stamp) should  not continue to increment after LOS since there is no signal to transmit it -- nothing was reaching the ground station from the shuttle during the LOS period.

The anonymous NASA source had a very odd explanation for why the telemetry stamp continues to increment throughout the LOS sequence on the video: the video recorder on the ground has a "backup" capability to add telemetry stamps when the telemetry encoding on the shuttle fails to do it! It's one thing to spend money on redundant hardware to back up vital communications systems on the shuttle and on the ground, but it seems utterly absurd to do it for telemetry time stamps on a video recorder. If a scientist using the video needs to estimate the time a video frame was sent after a malfunction of the shuttle's Master Timing Unit, this can easily be done by simply subtracting the difference between the time received and time sent for the last frame transmitted before the malfunction. Seamlessly continuing to update the display of a telemetry time code that is no longer a real telemetry code could only serve to mislead the scientists using the data into thinking the displayed time is a true measurement rather than an estimate of uncertain accuracy.

Even if it is assumed that there is some arcane technical reason for the alleged "simulation" of telemetry time codes, there is still the problem of a second "time warp" in the telemetry time display (or simulation thereof). The second time warp is shown in Figure 7 below. Note that the "time-received" stamp (the upper one) has advanced by only 1/30 second, (from 19:01.23 to 19:01.24) while the purported telemetry stamp below it has advanced time by almost 1.5 minutes.

Figure 7. The 1.5-minute "time warp" in the telemetry (lower) time display allegedly encoded in the video data on the space shuttle before transmission to Earth. If the 1.5 minute time difference were real, the string of city lights seen near the bottom edge of both frames should be near the top in the right-hand frame due to the spacecraft's motion.

If one gives the benefit of the doubt to the validity of the alleged telemetry time data that follows the time warp and attributes the time warp itself to some bizarre communications glitch, then the light flash seen in the video occurred 1.4 seconds before the  documented time of the firing of the L5D thruster. This was previously noted in the NFS paper but at the time I wrote it, I did not know this was supposed to be the telemetry time code and ignored it, proceeding on the (incorrect) assumption that the upper time stamp was the telemetry stamp since it was the time display that showed the rocket firing coinciding with the light flash -- the purported the coincidence underlying the alleged "proof" that the video merely shows ice particles being propelled by the thruster firing. An effect cannot precede its cause in time, so the alleged telemetry time stamps could, ironically, be cited as proof that the light flash was not caused by the firing of the rocket -- assuming that the time stamps are accurate, of course.

But if the word "proof" is used outside the realm of pure mathematics, its usage always implicitly assumes that proof is based on valid and reliable data. The discrepancies described here provide compelling reasons to doubt the validity of both the time-sent and time-received data on the STS-48 video, regardless of what conclusion one would like to draw from it. For the time being, I think I am justified in standing by the conclusion I reached in the NFS paper: the light flash occurred about 6 seconds after the rocket had stopped firing, not 1.4 seconds before it began as indicated by the time supposedly encoded in the telemetry, and not during the rocket firing as the SMPT time would suggest to the unwary.

While the discrepancies surrounding the LOS event are glaring when the video is stepped through frame by frame using a computer movie player such as QuickTime, they are almost unnoticeable when the video is viewed on a VCR, even in slow motion. The human eye has difficulty registering events that occur so rapidly, and this may be the reason for the misalignments of the time tags. The human response latency -- the time it takes a human to react to a visual stimulus and perform some action -- ranges from about 0.1 seconds to  0.35 seconds.  This may explain in part why the discrepancies were left on the video and went without correction.

 The "time-received" stamps, which were certainly added on the ground, were apparently misinterpreted as telemetry time codes when the time-stamped tapes first surfaced.  Dr. Jack Kasher, who wrote a paper published in 1996 in the Journal of UFO Studies, refers to event times that are clearly taken from the time-received (SMPT) stamps. Apparently, the version of the tape to which Kasher had only the time-received stamps and so he would naturally have assumed that they showed the times at which events were occurring as seen from the space shuttle, not 2.5 seconds later when the SMPT codes would have been added by the recorder on the ground.

My initial suspicion was that the apparent adjustments to the video time displays might have been made to force the light flash event to coincide with the L5D thruster firing. However, I think now that the explanation may be less sinister. It is possible that the time stamps were estimates added for the benefit of the scientists who were using the videos for their the mesoscale lightning research. Apparently, there were no time stamps automatically added to shuttle video  recordings in the early1990s. But why the false telemetry time codes were added at all is still something of a puzzle. Shown with a precision of three decimal places, they only serve to give a highly misleading impression of accuracy.