Decades-Old Mystery Put To Rest: Why Are There X’s In The Desert?

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Decades-Old Mystery Put To Rest: Why Are There X’s In The Desert?

Pez Owen was joyriding in her Cessna airplane when she first spotted a giant X etched in the desert. “It’s not on the [flight] chart. There just wasn’t any indication of this huge cross,” she says.

Chuck Penson/Pez Owen

Pez Owen was flying over the desert in her single-engine Cessna airplane when she spotted a huge “X” etched in the desert below. She says it was the strangest thing.

“It’s not on the [flight] chart,” Owen says. “There just wasn’t any indication of this huge cross.”

Then she spotted another one.

“There had to be some reason,” she says. “So, of course, I immediately thought I had to get Chuck in on this.”

Chuck Penson is her former colleague from the University of Arizona. Penson worked in facilities, and Owen worked in the planetarium. Now, they’re adventure-seeking friends. That’s how Scott Craven from The Arizona Republic described them in a recent article.

Their version of hanging out is exploring abandoned mineral mines and military radar bases. Mysterious X’s plotted in the desert was too good to pass up.

“I was not going to rest until I knew what was going on with these,” Penson says.

“It’s conspiracy theory stuff, you know?” Owen says. “It’s right out of the movies.”

Each X is 60 feet across and consists of four 25-foot slabs of concrete, with a brass plate at the center. Chuck Penson captured these images while flying with Pez Owen in her plane.

Chuck Penson/Pez Owen

A giant grid of X’s

Owen rolls out a map she received from the Defense Mapping Agency. It shows Casa Grande, Ariz. — the same area she flew over. Owen points to rows of little boxes that are drawn in.

“You can see each of these [boxes] is one of the crosses,” she says.

“There’s a grid of these things,” Penson says. “There’s not just a few, there’s a bunch of these.”

He counts 273 X’s on this map. Each marker is spaced about a mile apart. Pez Owen had flown her little plane over the edge of a massive 289-square-mile grid.

These two are about to see one up close.

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Owen (left) and Penson stand on marker “Y57,” located at the southwestern edge of a massive 289-square-mile grid of concrete X’s.

Danny Hajek/NPR

They plot out a point and set off to search for an X. We’re way south of Phoenix when Penson’s GPS navigates the car right off the highway. We’re not driving on any road. We’re heading somewhere deep in the desert.

We step out in the searing heat and into a desolate landscape — just cactus and tumbleweed.

“Middle of nowhere,” Penson says.

We walk toward the base of a small mountain range, and that’s when we see it: four 25-foot slabs of concrete inlaid in the desert floor that form a giant “X.”

Penson kneels down to brush off the sand covering a tarnished brass plate at the very center. The engraving reads: “$250 fine or imprisonment for disturbing this marker — Corps of Engineers – U.S. Army.”

That’s who Penson and Owen contacted to get their answer.

These X’s were once part of a top-secret government program called CORONA — the nation’s first reconnaissance satellite program.


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Some of the first images taken by CORONA captured Mys Shmidta airfield in Chukotka, Russia — an Arctic staging base for Soviet bomber flights.

National Reconnaissance Office

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This CORONA spy photo from Aug. 20, 1966, shows Dolon airfield in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan — a major Soviet bomber base.

National Reconnaissance Office

The CORONA project is outlined in a declassified 1972 CIA film strip titled A Point in Time: The Corona Story.It’s filled with footage of men in lab coats in secret laboratories doing top-secret things. This is Cold War-era stuff.

“All phases of the operation were performed under strict security,” says the narrator in the film.

The CORONA satellites orbited 100 miles above Earth with the objective of taking spy photographs of the Soviet Union and China.

Spy photos were flooding in — but the pictures were blurry. That’s what the concrete X’s were for. That grid out in the Arizona desert was used to calibrate the cameras on board the satellites.

Suddenly, the images were coming back crystal clear.

“[We saw] all their SAM sites, all their airfields, all their nuclear weapons testing and storage sites,” says Arthur Lundahl in the film. He was the director at the National Photographic Interpretation Center.

Over a span of 12 years, the CORONA satellites captured more than 800,000 images. That’s 2.1 million feet of film.

“I just thought, ‘How cool is this?’ ” Penson says. “You know, one little tiny piece of a tremendous Cold War effort to keep safe the United States.”

“This [X] we’re standing on right now helped protect us from nuclear war,” Owen says.

Family ties to a Cold War program

The CORONA project carried a strange kind of deja vu for Pez Owen. It stirred a childhood memory.

“The name sounded familiar,” Owen says. “And I think I had to check with my brother to make sure.”

That’s when she made the connection. Her dad, Sid Owen, was part of the same top-secret program.

Pez Owen and Chuck Penson inspect a concrete X in Casa Grande, Ariz. This marker is located just outside a rural neighborhood.

Danny Hajek/Chuck Penson/NPR

“So he was actually working on the payloads for these satellites, and what the payloads were — were cameras,” Owen says.

They were the same cameras that focused on the X’s.

“He died a few years ago,” she says. “And he was so good at not talking about it.”

He never told her much of anything — other than the name.

“I’m getting to know him better,” she says.

Hang around Pez Owen and Chuck Penson for any amount of time, and they’re bound to tell you that you never know what you’ll come across in the desert.

“It’s all around,” Owen says. “Just keep your eyes open and ask questions and you’ll find amazing things.”

10 Eye-Opening Facts About Space Junk

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10 Eye-Opening Facts About Space Junk


Imagine you’re in a car, speeding along with no brakes or any ability to turn. Now imagine tons of other drivers in the same circumstances. It’s only a matter of time before a collision happens. That’s essentially what awaits us if we do not combat the ever-growing amount of junk floating in orbit of our planet. Here are ten rather sobering facts about space junk.

10The US Air Force Catalogues And Tracks Space Junk


Photo credit: NASA

Since the early 1980s, the US Air Force has maintained a dedicated team that logs and tracks as much space debris as possible. Over 20,000 individual items at least the size of a small ball are being tracked as well as about 500,000 marble-sized pieces of debris—and that number looks likely to increase.

Each of these items is traveling around the Earth at around 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 mph). Should any of them strike another item—be it more space debris, a “live” satellite, or even the International Space Station—the consequences would be tragic. Even a single speck of paint (which is too small to track) hurtling around the planet can cause considerable damage to spacecraft or kill an astronaut during a space walk.


9‘Agreement’ For Returning Space Junk To Earth

One way to deal with the space junk is to send it back to Earth, burning it up in the atmosphere during reentry. How exactly this will be put into practice is not yet fully agreed upon, but it’s accepted as a very viable option for cleaning up some of the debris field currently in orbit.

It was noted that when WT1190F (the log number of a particular piece of debris) was predicted to land in the Indian Ocean—after once being in an orbit as far out as the Moon—that it was possible to monitor and then predict an object’s movements. The landing of WT1190F also allowed researchers to observe the effects of space debris reentering the atmosphere as well as to test their emergency plans for any gigantic piece of space junk suddenly heading our way.

8Space Junk Forced The ISS To Move Three Times In 2014


Photo credit: NASA

Bearing in mind that even a modest change of position takes days to complete, the International Space Station (ISS) had to be moved three times in 2014 in order to avoid a potentially catastrophic and deadly collision. What’s more, 2014 was not a particularly unusual year in terms of avoiding such collisions. Debris is constantly monitored from Earth and aboard the ISS, with changes in orbit occurring relatively regularly.

There are times, however, when debris is noticed too late for the ISS to be moved in time. In these tense situations, all astronauts have to make their way to emergency shelter areas and sit out the impact.


7Danger To Critically Important Satellites (And More)

Should a satellite be hit by a piece of space debris, it would either be severely damaged or completely destroyed. Should that happen to even just a few major satellites, then life here on Earth would be drastically affected. Live television broadcasts, the Internet, GPS, and your mobile phone could be affected.

As cosmetic as those changes may be, there is also the very real and grim possibility that such destruction of satellites could lead to conflicts between nations. In an already suspicious world, an innocent accident like a satellite being struck by space debris could be mistaken for an attack on a country’s defense capabilities, which in turn may cause retaliatory action. Such predictions bear grim similarities to the days of the Cold War.

6Remote-Controlled Astronaut


The European Space Agency is hoping to deploy a piece of technology that would make life for astronauts a little less dangerous in terms of having to operate in space debris. A remote-controlled robot called “Justin” would perform space walks in place of live astronauts, removing the possibility of humans being struck by debris.

The robot astronaut would be controlled from the ESA’s Columbus laboratory aboard the International Space Station by an operator wearing an exoskeleton glove. Electronic sensors then reproduce the sensation of touch, so the operator would feel as though he is touching what Justin is.

5Cube Satellites Create Extra Problems


Photo credit: NASA

It is said that “cube” or “box” satellites (aka “cubesats”) can almost be thrown into orbit and are almost as easy to take on routine supply missions to the International Space Station as a piece of luggage. They are also, however, uncontrollable. As soon as one is put into orbit, thrown or otherwise, it essentially becomes a piece of space debris that is just as likely to crash into something as a piece of a spent rocket booster.

The uncontrollable nature of cubesats isn’t just an unfortunate by-product; it’s estimated that one fifth of all of cubesats actually violate international orbit disposal guidelines and therefore shouldn’t have been launched in the first place. While there have been no known collisions involving cubesats, the rate at which they are being put into orbit in their current form rapidly increases the likelihood of it happening in the near future.


4Every Collision Increases The Problem 100-Fold


Photo credit: Science Photo Library via the BBC

Although there have been very few collisions with active satellites or spacecraft, even space debris hitting other space debris can have a severe impact. It is said that each collision of space junk increases the problem100-fold, as the impact turns two previously tracked pieces of debris into hundreds of new pieces that have to be reidentified and tracked. And the smaller those pieces are, the more difficult (or impossible) they are to locate.

This is essentially the main problem for those looking to combat the problem of space junk—that dead, orbiting debris is not under any form of control. While you can move a shuttle or a satellite out of the way, you can’t do the same for a piece of debris about to be impacted by another.

3The Space Fence Project


Although the Space Fence program wont be able to reduce the amount of space debris in orbit, it will be able to assist the US Air Force in better tracking what is already out there. The Space Fence is a digital radar system that extends a virtual fence around the planet and will have the ability to log debris as small as 10 centimeters (4 in), using optical sensors and a much higher wavelength frequency than is currently used

The ability to track much smaller objects in addition to the larger ones will leave scientists much better able to predict the movements of such objects in the future as well as to direct astronauts and satellites out of harm’s way with more notice. It’s a small step in the right direction no doubt, but it’s very much a stepping stone to where we need to be before the problem is under control.

2Whatever Action Is Taken, The Financial Cost Will Be Huge

There are countless ideas and theories on how best to combat space debris, ranging from the very plausible to the more adventurous. The one thing that connects them, however, is that whatever action is decided upon, thefinancial cost will be huge. This only places more pressure on the situation, given that a mistake could not only not eradicate the effort, but would also be a massive waste of public money.

Speaking of that vast array of ideas to solve the problem, one particular proposed method is to “harpoon” larger pieces of space junk and then drag them to a desired location. Another was to deploy a huge “space net” that would gather space debris and then place it on a course that would send it into outer space or back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. There have also been various suggestions of using lasers to “nudge” objects off course and out of orbit.

Many private companies have also stepped up to the cosmic plate with suggestions on how to combat the problem, which is a welcome relief, as private companies would bring private money. They’d have the whole world as a stage upon which to show off (and then rightly or wrongly profit from) their groundbreaking technology.

1In A Matter Of Centuries, We Will Be Trapped On Earth By Space Junk


Photo credit: via Industry Tap

If no way is found to stem the ever-growing amount of dead, man-made items floating around our planet, then it is predicted that in only a few hundred years, we will essentially be trapped on Earth, with space missions being impossible to launch due to almost certain collision and loss of life. There is also the unknown effect that an increased amount of space debris might have on Earth and future life on the planet. Might there be the real possibility of a large piece of space junk reentering the atmosphere and not burning up, becoming a meteor hurtling toward the ground?

The amount of gadgets and even life-saving devices utilized by many people on Earth today as a by-product of space exploration is vast. Should we ever stop pushing to explore space simply because it is no longer a possibility, how many future developments might humanity miss out on?

10 Ancient Finds That Reveal Fascinating Mystical Beliefs

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10 Ancient Finds That Reveal Fascinating Mystical Beliefs


Throughout the majority of anthropological history, a council of gods and divine forces dictated the affairs of humankind. The following items capture life as it was when the world was mystical and magic still real.

10Scrolls For Tortured Souls


Surveyors in the Serbian city of Kostolac have discovered a forgotten burial ground that harkens the former glory of Viminacium, a Roman outpost from the fourth century BC that at its peak boasted 40,000 inhabitants.

The site belched up a few 2,000-year-old skeletons and also two mystifying leaden amulets. Inside the amulets, they found adorably tiny scrolls of gold and silver. Commonly referred to as “curse tablets,” such spells generally invoke otherworldly powers to affect or afflict the caster’s friends, family, or foes.

The mere presence of magical scrolls suggests the amulet bearers died grisly deaths. Such arcana are buried with the violently murdered, as it’s believed that tortured souls are most likely to encounter the demon middle-men that pass messages on to higher after-worldly offices.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely these particular scrolls will be deciphered anytime soon. Thanks to an inconvenient confluence of culture, the alphabet is Greek but the language is Aramaic, offering a seemingly uncrackable linguistic nut.


9Galilean Tomb Magic


Photo credit: W. O’Leary

Tomb robbing has plagued humanity throughout its history of entombing. Hollywood-style booby traps are infeasible, so the denizens of Southern Galilee inscribed curses onto the surfaces at the Beit She’arim necropolis.

Dating to the early centuries AD, the catacombs bear markings in a variety of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Palmyrene, and Aramaic, the universal lingo of the Near East. Roman and pagan influences are present as well, like the sarcophagi that populate a burial trove known as the Cave of Coffins, a practice borrowed from Romans.

The messages throughout wish the dead an agreeable resurrection, yet another tradition not inherent to Jewish beliefs. Magical spells in Greek adorn the walls and tombs, preferring protection and peace to the reposed and invoking poxes on any who disturb the sacred bones.

8The Catalhoyuk Statuette


Turkey’s most fruitful Neolithic excavation site is Catalhoyuk, the remains of a settlement established circa 7,500 BC and lasting nearly two millennia before its dissolution. It has relinquished a range of archaeological goodies, from the household to the mystical, including a recently discovered 7-inch, marble statuette of a woman.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the Neolithic woman boasts a moresubstantial figure compared to the female representations of other cultures and times. Similar figurines, though not as large, well-preserved, or delicately crafted, have been found throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Researchers previously ascribed them as fertility goddesses, but a new point of view argues a more terrestrial influence. Instead of goddesses of any kind, the sculptures may immortalize the community’s respected, elderly women.

The egalitarian community here respected its elders as well as the concept of corpulence, because obesity designated a more distinguished and sedentary clerical or bureaucratic career.


7Re-Used Roman Coffin


Photo credit: Hills Quarry

In spite of a belief in hexes and pervading fear of sacrilege, coffin recycling was apparently A-OK for Roman Britons, according to a grave site at Dorset Quarry in England. Here, archaeologists discovered an open-faced stone sarcophagus, presenting the skeleton of a man who died mysteriously sometime around 1,500–2,000 years ago.

Only 100 or so such burials have popped up across the former Roman Brittania, including 11 others at the quarry, suggesting the individual in question, who died aged 20–30 years old, likely achieved some form of high status to deserve such an unusually dignified send-off.

However, this belief is somewhat at odds with the burial itself. The coffin is too small for its 177-centimeter (5’10″) inhabitant, whose feet have beenbent back to accommodate the one-size-too-small coffin. Researchers believe the sarcophagus reused like some grisly pass-me-down.

6Moche Ritual Cat Claws


Renowned temple builders and metalworkers, the agriculturally adept Moche populated northern Peru from AD 100–800. Recently, archaeologists discovered a stupefying pair of metal cat claws in a tomb at the former Moche capital.

The grave, at the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) dig site in Trujillo, also surrendered a man’s body and assorted finery, including a mask, bronze earrings, copper scepter, and mixed ceramics. It’s doubtful that the claws served as weaponry and more likely that they carried mystical value, possibly advertising their owner’s nobility or societal influence.

Like their Pan-American neighbors, the Moche enjoyed their own brutal traditions. It’s believed that two warriors squared off in costumed ritual combat, with the winner receiving the costume and claws while the loser earned the privilege of being sacrificed.

5Shamanic Animal Bone Burial


Photo credit: Naftali Hilger

A 12,000-year-old Natufian grave site in Galilee reveals a laborious, six-stage internment process fit for an evil witch.

Of the nearly 30 bodies found inside the burial cave near the Hilazon River, one presumably belonged to a female shaman. It was surrounded by an embarrassment of animal parts, including a bovine tailbone, an eagle wing, a pig leg, a leopard pelvis, 86 tortoise shells, deer bones, and a human foot to boot. The burial process began with oval grave and lined with plaster and stone slabs, upon which several different layers of animal parts and flint tools were layered, followed by the woman’s body, then a final garnish of more bones and a triangular stone slab to seal the grave.

The process is unexpectedly intricate for the period. Though maybe we should be less surprised, because these same Levant-dwelling Natufians were among history’s first civilizations to ditch the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.


4The Vestal Virgin Hairdo


Photo credit: Janet Stephens

Even more so than today, hairstyles in ancient Rome expressed identity. Personal factors such as age, gender, and station in life dictated one’s hairdo, which doubled as a societal nametag to visually designate one’s role and rank.

Most styles are lost forever to history, but at least one has been revived courtesy of self-proclaimed hair-chaeologist Janet Stephens. Inspired by Roman busts in museums, Stephens spent seven years studying a style known as the seni crines, a Roman staple that consisted of six braids.

The seni crines was the notorious ‘do that adorned the crowns of Rome’s famed vestal virgins, the celibate devotees of the hearth goddess Vesta, and spiritual tenders of the eternal Roman flame.

3Medusa Good-Luck Charm


The image of Medusa, the serpent-haired Gorgon with a petrifying gaze, is synonymous with evildoing and general villainy. But it wasn’t always so, and some even regarded Medusa as a harbinger of good luck.

Like the inhabitants of Antiochia ad Cragum, a first-century Roman city in southern Turkey that hosted the spectrum of Roman conveniences, including an organized, colonnaded street grid, bathhouses, shops, and a rich artistic culture. Within the remnants of the ruined outpost, archaeologists discovered a marble Medusa head.

The decoration served as a Pagan apotropaic charm, intended to ward off evil and imbue the settlement with divine protectorship. Myriad similar sculptures adorned the city, though were destroyed by the Christians who smashed a majority of the Pagan iconography to bits.

2Monument To The River God


Photo credit:

Ancient life was ruled by a compulsion to appease the gods, who communicated with the mortal world through various mediums. So when the river god Harpasos appeared to Flavius Ouliades in a dream almost 2,000 years ago, it was like a direct message from the heavens.

To commemorate the apparition Ouliades erected a marble shrine next to the AkCay River in southeastern Turkey, hoping to invoke Harpasos’s blessing for a fruitful harvest and flood-free season.

According to researchers, the scene depicted might portray a particular traditional myth: Hercules’s son, Bargasos, defeating a maleficent river monster in hopes of summoning the riparian deity. Alternatively, the image may pay tribute to divine hero Hercules himself, commemorating his slaying of the many-headed hydra.

1Egyptian Spells Of Manipulation


The ancient Egyptian arsenal of magic contained invocations for every terrestrial desire, especially in the arena of love. Spells ranged from the hopeful to the overtly evil, as in the case of two recently deciphered papyri from Oxyrhynchus.

Written in Greek some 1,800 years ago by an unknown mage, both spells promise varying levels of mind control. One spell claims to subjugate its male victim to the whims of the wielder, while the other spell is female-specific, capable of “burning a woman’s heart” until she falls in love with the caster.

The one-size-fits-all spells are open-ended, written to be wielded when and where the occasion strikes. The love-sick caster only needs to insert a name and Bam! Their beloved is now cursed with debilitating fits of passions.