This bit of news really floored me. I do not know whether to call it a bloomer or a case of ignorant vigilance. Perhaps it is like the proverbial glass that is half empty to the host and half full to the guest. Skeptics may think it to be a case of utter foolishness, but let us first see what happened and then give judgment.
Lance Naik Sheminderpal Singh of Indian army was posted at point 4715 near Thakung in Eastern Ladakh as a sentry/observer, overlooking the Line of Control between India and China at a height of about 4,715 metres above sea level (more than 13000 feet), near Pangong Tso, a high-altitude lake shared by India and Tibet.
In August 2012, lance Naik Singh sighted a strange and bright object crossing over the Line of control from the east around 6PM and remained visible throughout the night up to 5AM. He saw another object crossing the LAC around 4AM and remained visible till 11AM. There are simmering concerns within India army about cross-border transgressions and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by the Chinese to look into Indian territory and all the soldiers have been asked to watch carefully for any cross border transgression by the Chinese. The soldier promptly reported the sighting to his senior holding a rank of Subedar major, a junior commissioned officer, who must have asked him to continue his observation.
In all, army personnel documented 329 sightings of the unidentified objects, until February 2013, seen over Thakung. Eventually, Lance Naik Singh’s prompt observation reports, slowly reached the upper echelons of Indian army winding its way through a series of officers of various ranks. The army headquarters, already gripped with issues concerning Chinese incursions in sensitive Eastern Ladakh, took note of the reports and decided to call the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, who promptly deputed two astronomers to Ladakh earlier this year to resolve the mystery of the two objects that the army had been observing in the sensitive border zone since August 2012.
One of the two astronomers, Tushar Prabhu says: “Our task was to determine whether these unidentified objects were celestial or terrestrial.” The two astronomers interviewed army Lance Naik Singh. Who told them that he had noticed a delay of four minutes in the appearance of one of the objects each consecutive day. He also told them that the object seemed to be the brightest light in the sky and always appeared to move with respect to the stars. Astronomers then asked the army to use a theodolite to record the horizontal angle and vertical elevation of the two objects. Army personnel performed these observations between February 17 and 22, 2013 and submitted the data to the astronomers.
After analysis, the astronomers came to the conclusion that the first object observed from Point 4715 has to be planet Jupiter as observations exactly matched with the planet’s diurnal motion and the apparent motion of the object due to the rotation of the Earth. The second unidentified object that appeared early in the morning is planet Venus, which is currently moving behind the Sun and will in the coming months appear as an evening object. The army observers were erroneously considering these two celestial objects as unmanned aerial vehicles.
As I read this story, I instantly remembered that one night in July, which I had spent in a tent just on the shores of the lake “Pangong Tso” near Line of Actual control in eastern Ladakh. After dinner, as I was returning to my tent, in almost freezing conditions, I just happened to look above at the sky. The sky was clear and was just sparkling and dazzling with brilliance of starlight coming from billions of stars above in the heavens. Much more significant from this was the fact that the stars appeared to be hanging so low that I imagined that they could be reached easily by an aircraft. In fact I clearly remember the Big Dipper constellation stars hanging very low and of big size.
After returning from Ladakh, I found out that this deception of seeing the stars big, bright and very low is due to increased atmospheric transparency observed at the high altitudes. So, there was nothing foolish, when Lance Naik Singh, mistook the two planets for UAV’s moving in from east, across line of actual control. Both Indian and Chinese armies have been increasingly using pilotless aircraft with sensors and high-resolution cameras to watch each other across the border. In the last three years, the number of such transgressions are reported to be spiraling. Transgressions are not only over land but also in airspace. Against this background, sensitivities of the two sides and their armies/border police are extremely high.
I would therefore consider Lance Naik Singh’s watchful observations as something for which he should be commended and not laughed at. I have many a times mistaken a distant aircraft at night to be a planet first, only to realize later that it is moving much faster and must be an aircraft. Therefor there is nothing silly in Lance Naik Singh’s sharp observations. It is far better to be being over cautious and over react and be on guard on the line of control in Ladakh, than showing carelessness and casual approach. Lance Naik Singh and his superiors deserve a pat on their backs.
(First published in Akshardhool on 29 July 2013)