Car Lights?

Chinati Peak to the right. Cienega Peak to the left. What I don't understand about this picture is that the topographical map (MapQuest) shows Highway 67 cutting between the two peaks nearly at the mid-way point. The 2-3 lights near Cienega are in the wrong place to be on Highway 67...I think. The two lights under Chinati are cars on the Highway? The ones to the left of Chinega are in the position of the roadway as it crosses between the mountains? The dot near the ground just to the west of Cienega Peak is claimed to be the Radio Tower? I don't think I really understand the geography of this area well enough to make out the geographic features in this photo...

More importantly, these cars on Highway 67 are over 10 miles away!!! I have never seen car headlights farther than 4 miles.

 My big problem is understanding how anyone can see ordinary car headlights from 10 - 20 miles away!!! I, along with airline pilots, have tried to see car headlights from 25,000 feet (4.7 miles) and find in very hard if not impossible.


C...Brightness and Shape Changes: This is the most varied quality of the lights, and taken as a whole, it is hard to imagine from the reports that we are looking at a single phenomenon, or that observer error under low light conditions is not a major factor. It is physically impossible for the eye to resolve a distant light source if it is less than 15 feet across at 10 miles. This assumes daytime 20/20 vision acuity of 1 arcminute. In fact, at night your acuity is much worse than this...

E...Location. There is general consistency here, perhaps because the Viewing Area is situated where it is and the perspective effect projects the movement into a fixed quadrant of the horizon. They occur near 'Twin Peaks' and towards the Chinati Mountain. They are SW of Chinati Mountain, on Mitchell Flat near Twin Peaks, and over the flat prairie north of Cuesto Del Burro Mountains. They are on the west side of Goat Mountain on the Mitchell Flats..


F. Car Lights. Some viewers have compared them to car lights, and through telescopes this association is firm for at least some sub-set of the reports, though it is hard to confirm all of them this way because telescopic observations are not routinely available every time a report is noted. The main problem is that there are accounts of these lights going back to the 1880's when cars did not travel these roads. At that time, they were mistaken for indian campfires. The origin of these reports has been called into question by a number of skeptics because there are no apparent written traces of these tales that predate the 1900's. They all seem to be 'word of mouth' legends that are hard to evaluate or substantiate. If these lights were so spectacular, they should have made it into the literature of the 19th century in some way.

One thing that puzzles me is whether you can in fact see car lights 10 miles or 40 miles away under any reasonable physical situation. This should be an easy thing to investigate and calculate. Here is where the story gets interesting.


 3)Standing at the Viewing Area, a person with 20/20 vision and an acuity of 1 arc minute will be able to see at 10 miles, the shift in the position of a light by 15 feet. Alternatively, at 10 miles, if two lights are separated by 10 feet you should just be able to see them as distinct lights, though perhaps just a bit blurred together. At 15 miles, you could just see two lights 7 feet apart. If the eye behaved the same under dark viewing and light viewing conditions, you could see the two headlights on a car, separated by 6 feet, at a distance of 16 miles. Each light is substantially smaller than their separation so they would just look like unresolved points of light with no structure. However, as we all know, when we look at points of light, they often look like tiny snowballs streaked or spiked with lines. This is caused by defects in the lens of our eye which refract the light in a very unsmooth way as it passes through the lens to the retina. Also, material in the aqueous fluid of the eye also can cause 'floaters' and other visual anomalies. Recall what you saw at your opthamologists office! So, when you can't resolve what you see, your eye still sees something going on as the light is refracted and diffused. You never see a pure point of light. Just look at the stars at night...or preferably look at them at Marfa and compare what they look like in shape, with what you are seeing.

How far away can you see car headlights? On February 3, 2001 I flew from Chicago to Baltimore. I asked the pilot to estimate how high up he could actually just start to see the lights from individual cars, and he said 'about 25,000 feet'. This is 4.7 miles. From my own estimates looking out the window, a car light at this altitude had a visual magnitude of around +3.0. Although humans can see stars to +6.0, this limit did not apply to viewing cars or street lights from out the plastic window, with cabin lights and the usual distortions looking through such a window. At an altitude of 41,000 feet you cannot see cars at all. You can barely see the average street light! Only the high-pressure sodium lights are relatively easy to spot. At 41,000 feet you are 8.5 miles from the ground.

It is unlikely that the Lights are as faint as +6 because they would not be noticed. The photographs I have seen seem to suggest brightnesses nearly equal to, or greater than Venus near opposition (-3.0). Driving on the highway from Baltimore to Washington, I can still just see car tail lights at 1 mile, and begin to discern that they are double. You can also clearly see that they are red. From the air, car headlights can just be discerned to be double at something like an altitude of 10,000 feet. Also, it is quite apparent that unless you are within +/- 45 to +/- 90 degrees of head-on, the lights are not seen as points at all. Here is what the Area around the Viewing Area looks like within an 8-mile radius, obtained from MapQuest with a little cropping.




It is quite clear than under normal conditions, you cannot possibly see cars on Highway 67 with a typical 4-mile visibility limit for cars, or even an 8-mile limit. There are several roads that run north-south through the 4-mile limit circle. Could there be cars on these roads? Why wouldn't anyone notice them, and keep insisting that they are cars traveling north on Highway 67? I am really puzzeled by this. How is it possible for car headlights to be clearly, and brightly, seen over 10 miles away as the above photo suggests?


Here is a paper on atmospheric and gravitational lensing with interesting comments about image amplification ( DIDACTICAL EXPERIMENTS ON GRAVITATIONAL LENSING Jean Surdej{1}{*}, Sjur Refsdal{2} and Anna Pospieszalska-Surdej{1} {1}Institut d'Astrophysique, Université de Liège, Avenue de Cointe 5, B-4000 Liège, Belgium {2}Hamburg Observatory, Gojenbergsweg 112, D-21029, Hamburg-Bergedorf, Germany {*}also Research Director, Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS)

Figure 1 (left), gives a schematic representation of the light ray paths from a distant car (the air close to the ground is hotter than at upper levels). Because air refraction always leads to a bending of light rays towards regions of colder (i.e. more dense) air, several lower and somewhat deformed images of a distant source may result (cf. the car lights in this first example). Figure 1 (right) represents the multiple images of the lights from a distant car, as photographed with a 200 mm focal length camera, along the US 60 road between the towns of Magdalena and Datil near the Very Large Array (New Mexico, USA) on the night of 11 January 1989. The distance between the car and the observers is estimated to be about 10 miles.

Figure 1: Propagation of light rays above a heated ground between a distant car and an observer (left) and formation of multiple images due to atmospheric lensing (right) Such terrestrial mirages, usually made of two single images (cf. Figure 2), can actually be seen almost everyday. In addition to significantly affect our view (image deformation, multiplication, etc.) of distant resolved Earth-sources (cf. the resolved images in Figures 1 (right) and 2 (right)), atmospheric lensing is also often responsible for the light amplification of distant unresolved objects located along straight and long roads or across flat countrysides. This was the case, for instance, when looking directly with our naked eyes at the atmospheric mirage illustrated in Figure 1. The car lights then just appeared to consist of a very bright spot ... abnormally bright for a car located at a distance of approximately 10 miles from the observers.

Figure 2 (right) illustrates the formation of one lower, inverted and somewhat deformed image of a distant car photographed along the North Panamericana highway between the towns of Pichidanguiand La Serena in Chile (2 December 1987).

Figure 2: Propagation of light rays above a heated ground (left) and formation of two (direct and inverted) images of the distant car due to atmospheric lensing (right) Figures 3 and 4 illustrate two other examples of atmospheric lensing. They correspond to two different views of the north-south arm of the Very Large Array (VLA) at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory (Socorro, New Mexico, USA). On that early morning of 17 January 1989, the air warmed up by the rising sun was hotter than the ground, leading to the formation of upper-type mirages (cf. the very distinct upper image for the antenna at right in Figure 4).

Figure 3: Distorted images of antenna along the north-south arm of the Very Large Array (NRAO, New Mexico) in the early morning of 17 January 1989 Given a distribution n(z) for the air refractive index as a function of the vertical height z, it is easy to construct numerically the resulting mirage of a distant source as seen by an observer. This exercise could be the subject of a laboratory in physics for high school students having some basic knowledge in programming (cf. BASIC or FORTRAN). For those students interested in the numerical simulation of such atmospheric mirages, we give hereafter a more thorough physical description of the bending of light rays due to atmospheric lensing (Exercise 1).

Figure 4: Distorted and multiple images of some of the antenna of the Very Large Array (NRAO, New Mexico) on 17 January 1989. Note the upper, nicely detached image for the antenna at right


 I will continue to look into the visual properties of car headlights, but for now it seems quite clear that from the Viewing Area, you probably cannot see headlights farther than 5 miles, and for them to be bright enough to be impressive but still not resolved into two spots, you need to be between 2-3 miles from them. This is different than calculated above, because the 1 arcminute limit assumes that your acuity is the same day and night, In fact, the sources say that your acuity is about 7 times worse at night so 15 miles becomes about 2 miles for resolving the double headlights. There must be some kind of atmospheric amplification going on as the above articles proposes can happen. Physically, I dont know how this amplification works, but will have to look into the technical literature to find out.


Chronicals of Car Light Descriptions--Pros and Cons:

Here is a note from Rebecca Long of the Georgia Skeptics ( )


"The lights traveled as if along a predetermined path -- as if guided by some sort of intelligence, " commented Georgia Skeptic investigator James Long, describing with tongue in cheek the legendary lights observed by countless tourists from the official viewing area near Marfa, Texas. "This is not inconsistent with car headlights." As previously reported in the May/June 1991 issue of The Georgia Skeptic, folk accounts of mysterious lights bobbing and dancing on the plains near Marfa Texas go back hundreds of years. The Marfa Lights were the subject of a recent episode of the TV show Sightings, as well as an article in the Summer 1992 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

The general consensus of most reasonable investigators of the Marfa Lights is that the lights seen by tourists from the official viewing area are car headlights cresting the distant hill. As pointed out by Herbert Lindee in the Skeptical Inquirer, tourists are frequently led to believe that there is no highway in the area where the lights appear. This fact, combined with the abundance of colorful lore, sets the stage and quickly leads to a suspension of disbelief among the viewers.

In his Georgia Skeptic article, James Long described his own observations of the Marfa Lights in early 1990. He subsequently returned to Marfa in 1991, but no lights were visible. During early 1992, James and I went there together and confirmed that the lights regularly observed from the official viewing area on Highway 90 were in fact car headlights on Highway 67. After determining the route of Highway 67, observations just after dusk confirmed that the lights consistently followed this path. Once total darkness had fallen, however, and there was no longer a frame of reference visible, the lights seemed to appear and disappear at random, capriciously winking on and off. It was a most delightful illusion.

Later into the night, as James and I drove along Highway 67, we could see "reverse" Marfa Lights from the plain below in the direction of the viewing area. We enjoyed the knowledge that to observers below, our car was probably appearing as a Marfa Light. James remarked, "I am one with the Marfa Lights!" After personally observing the car headlight phenomenon in Marfa, it is my opinion that the clearly non-simulated footage of the Marfa Lights on the Sightings show was consistent with car headlights.

The car headlight hypothesis is definitely NOT consistent with eye-witness accounts of the Marfa Lights. In a typical account, described in Dennis Stacy's The Marfa Lights: A Viewer's Guide, "A night computer operator was reportedly driving home from work when he saw what he thought was another car approaching. The next thing he knew, according to the Wall Street Journal, a cantaloupe-sized ball of light was hovering outside his rolled-down pickup window. He floored the gas pedal, but the light-ball stayed with him for almost two miles before finally disappearing."

Judith Brueske, in the quaintly titled book The Marfa Lights: Being a Collection of First-Hand Accounts By People Who Have Seen the Lights Close-Up Or In Unusual Circumstances, and Related Materials, specifically points out that the lights are distinguishable from car headlights by their aberrant movements. Among the many sightings recounted by Brueske is the experience of Robin Campbell, who claims to have seem lights "materialize out of the field in the middle distance, `coming through the field like little fireballs.' They approached the highway and kept rolling and rolling out onto the road and then onto the other side of the road,' generally northeast." According to another of Brueske's witnesses, "They came straight at us like a train, all bunched together." And in still another account, "suddenly a huge red and green light appeared right behind the car . . . It seemed like it was right on top of the back window."

However, as with any anecdotal accounts, descriptions of the lights are necessarily plagued with inaccurate initial perceptions of the event, alterations in memory over time, and even the growing of the tale with the telling. Skeptics seeking to solve the mystery of the Marfa Lights are also faced with the problem that the descriptions of the lights are as varied as they are numerous. Accounts vary from colorful spheres which approach witnesses at close range, to soft glows, to tiny sparks like dancing candle flames. I venture that, should skeptical investigators ever encounter and rigorously demonstrate a mundane explanation for some particular manifestation of Marfa Lights, there will always other some other claimed phenomenon requiring explanation. "But those aren't the real Marfa Lights. The REAL Marfa lights are . . . "

1... "I think it is quite obvious the lights in these photos come from highway traffic between Marfa and Presidio. Still this does not explain reports of lights traveling beside vehicles at highway speeds and several tens of feet away from the roadway. And it does not explain sightings that occurred as far back as the mid 1800s before automobiles came along." ( Bill Baker marfa_lights2.html)

12...Scott Laroche offers: " Soon after dusk, the lights will appear, just to the right (west) of a radio tower. If you go, you'll easily see them if the weather is fairly clear. The Lights will indeed appear to move around, disappear, then suddenly reappear. If you wish to believe the "Mystery" Lights are mysterious, don't go with a pair of high-powered binoculars. Because if you do, you'll soon realize that the Lights are nothing more than the headlights and taillights of cars driving U.S. 67 between Marfa and Presidio, on the crest of the Chinati Mountains. " ( marfaL7.htm )


3..."I grew up in far West Texas and observed the "Marfa lights" on many occasions. I never saw anything that didn't appear to be consistent with car lights on the Presidio to Marfa highway. They appear to be above ground level because the far side of the enormous valley swells up toward Chinati peak. They either stand still or move left to right consistent with stretches where cars come straight toward you or turn a little northward to Marfa. They disappear in a manner consistent with obstructions and turns of the road." ( Posted by Paul K, October 3, 2000 'Response from a Skeptic' 395.htm )

9..." From the viewing area looking across toward the Chinati Mountains there is a red beacon light and beyond that a stretch of highway running from Presidio. Some of what people see in that portion of the horizon could be car lights. But again the carlight theory runs into problems because the highway is over 40 miles away and the mystery lights were reported here long before cars existed." (marfaL4.html)

13...Scott Laroche offers: "... a bright white (not red like the tower) point of light appeared at the base of the mountains near the tower, and could obviously be seen to move clockwise along the mountains. After about 10 seconds, (and already about one third of the way along the mountains) the light disappeared. In less than a minute, another light appeared and repeated the motions of the first...This turned out to be just the beginning. From then until midnight there was a nearly constant stream of Lights." Of course the lights trickle down after Midnight - traffic on the road between Presidio and Marfa is almost nil during those hours. These white lights appear to repeat their motions because there are numerous cars driving in the same direction, and the lights disappear when the car crests the mountain or the road dips into a gully. ( ...marfaL7.html)

15... "I do not know how anyone could mistake them for car lights," reported one eyewitness in 1984." ( marfaL8.htm)

17..."The eyewitnesses also ruled out the scientists' artificial "ranch lights" theory. With only one ranch in the area with only one spotlight---a spotlight easily recognizable to the naked eye and, therefore, discounted as a legitimate sighting---there was no way ranches played any role in the matter.( marfaL8.html)

18..."Then, a sighting occurred in 1985 which appeared to succeed in wiping out the car headlight least, that's the claim. Robert Black, a graduate student in geology at Sul Ross University, decided to climb Goat Mountain south of Alpine for rock samples "This is going to be a beautiful sunset, isn't it. Look, the sun's going down." Breaking into a run, they spied the truck way off on the Flats, but distances are deceiving in the desert, and before they could reach the truck, the sun was down. They were on the west side of Goat Mountain, in the middle of the Mitchell Flats. Black says it best, "Anyone who knows the Marfa flats, knows that it is flat, featureless, and boring---no geological marker out in the sea of desert and really no way to find your way around, especially in the dark." The men wisely decided to spend the night where they were. A little before midnight, as they huddled around the fires looking toward the north and northwest in the direction of Highway 90, their talk turned to the Marfa Lights. The men were right in the Flats, where the lights were normally seen, and they began to hope the lights would make an appearance. They didn't have long to wait. Shortly after midnight, they saw a "horizontal length of light that had a sort of dancing vibration movement." As the men watched in fascination, the "little beams of light danced up and down in a kind of wave formation, moved across, jumped straight up vertically, came back down, danced horizontally, then disappeared." Black's account was unusual because it was the first reported sighting of the lights from a location several miles south of Highway 90 and looking north toward Highway 90. The Chinati Mountains were to their backs. It ruled out any supposition of car headlights in the mountains as being the cause of the mystery lights. Since Black and his companion were between the Chinati Mountains and Highway 90, and the lights appeared between the men and the highway, skeptics were forced to rethink their previous positions. ( marfaL8.html)

22..." I can certainly say that many people who think they have seen the Marfa lights, simply saw the lights of distant cars, but I can't say there isn't something else going on here. ( .... ...skeptics3.htm ca 1987 Alan French. Also, C14.htm Chapter 14:)

25... They appeared quite similar to distant car headlights, but were always single to the naked eye. Car headlights eventually were ruled out as a cause, since reports have occured for over a century. In addition, the map provided to us showed no indication of a road on the near side of the mountain.( James Long. Georgia Skeptics.)

36... Skeptics believe that the lights are simply car headlights skimming across the mountains, but that would not explain sightings in the last century, or the fact that the lights often move in circles or zig zag formations. (Texas Monthly...





Copyright (C) 2001 Dr. Sten Odenwald