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WikiLeaked: The Soviet space junk that became a Moroccan UFO

There aren't many surprises in the new WikiLeaks document dump -- the organization is calling the collection of 1.7 million documents dated from 1973 to 1976 "The Kissinger Cables" -- but there are a few interesting finds. For example, there's the request from Morocco's King Hassan II for any information the United States had on an unidentified flying object spotted along the Moroccan coast in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1976.

Four days after the incident, the commander of Morocco's gendarmerie requested a meeting with the U.S. defense attaché in Rabat. In their meeting, the Moroccan officer noted that there had been reports across the country of an object sighted arcing across the night sky, and that the king had taken a personal interest in following up on the incident.

"Reports from these widely separate locations were remarkably similar, i.e., that the object was on a generally southwest to northeast course, it was a silvery luminous circular shape and gave off intermittent trails of bright sparks and fragments, and made no noise," the U.S. defense attaché wrote in his cable to Washington. The next day, the attaché met with another gendarmerie officer who had actually seen the UFO. The officer "described the UFO as flying parallel to the coast at a relatively low speed, as if it were an aircraft preparing to land. It first appeared to him as a disc-shaped object, but as it came closer he saw it as a luminous tubular-shaped object."

"I frankly do not know what to make of these sighting, although I find intriguing the similarity of the descriptions reported from widely dispersed locations," the attaché wrote to Washington on Sept. 25. "In any event, I wish to be able to respond promptly to King Hassan's request for information, and would appreciate anything you can do to assist me in this."

One week later, on Oct. 2, Washington cabled back with the terse message: "Hope to have answer for you next week. Regards." Three days later, the secretary's office followed up. "It is difficult to offer any definitive explanation as to the cause or origin of the UFOs sighted in the Moroccan area between 0100 and 0130 local time 19 September 1976," the cable began, before suggesting that, based on descriptions of its trajectory and appearance, it "could conceivably be compatible with a meteor, or a decaying satellite," though U.S. officials noted that "the [U.S. government] is unaware of any US aircraft or satellite activity, either military or civilian, in the Moroccan area which might have been mistaken for such sightings."

Despite their appearance in WikiLeaks' new cache of documents, the cables aren't exactly breaking news. They were quoted at length in a 1990 book titled The UFO Cover-Up: What the Government Won't Say, in which the authors speculated that the 10-day delay between the initial cable from Rabat and Washington's reply was to allow time for secret briefings, and refuted the official narrative:

Is it impossible for a bright meteor to have been responsible for the sightings? Not really, if one examines the information very generally. A silvery, luminous object giving off a bright trail and sparks is not unlike a description of a meteor. However, the sightings were reported over a span of about an hour. The UFO, according to some witnesses, traveled at a slow speed, like an aircraft about to land. And the southwest to northeast course of the UFO would have brought it in the general direction of Iran, where other activity was ongoing. Coincidence?

Well, yes. It was a coincidence. In October 2012, Canadian amateur satellite watcher Ted Molczan (who was profiled by the New York Times in 2008) posted on a satellite interest site that the trajectory and timing of the incident matches the re-entry of a piece of space junk -- specifically a Soviet booster engine from a rocket launched two months earlier -- in July 1976. While it's true that the UFO was not of U.S. origin, it appears the cable from the State Department was either misleading or not fully informed about the incident. The Soviet rocket debris was tracked by U.S. Strategic Command and cataloged in its Space Track database, where Molczan eventually found the record. So there you go, mystery solved -- 35 years later.

(Hat tip to @arabist.)

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