1997-98 University Research Council

Competitive Grants Program

A Scientific Investigation of the Brown Mountain Lights

Final Summary Report

October 1, 1998

Daniel B. Caton


The Brown Mountain Lights have been reported for at over a century. The individual reports vary in nature, but all share a description of colored, moving lights sighted over the Linville Gorge, seen from various overlooks. The only serious investigation of this phenomenon was made 70 years ago by members of the U.S. Geological Survey, who investigated it from a geologist's perspective, only. Results were inconclusive, with the report only listing a number of natural and manmade light sources that could be the origin. It has never been carefully checked out using modern instrumentation, or by an astronomer-a person experienced in the study of stellar images.

In this project we are using modern detectors to investigate the phenomenon, to determine the source of the lights and lay rest rumors of UFO's, etc. In this first phase of the study the lights are being imaged and recorded using several different camera setups. We intend to eventually obtain spectra to allow discrimination among a variety of different sources of light. However, since we were not fully funded we have delayed the attempts to do simple spectroscopy using an objective prism placed in front of the lens of various cameras. Instead, we are concentrating on characterization of the light sources first. Spectroscopy also requires a knowledge of the motions and appearances of the lights, in order to provide tracking.

The System Developed

In this project a system has been assembled for providing image acquisition using VCRs and cameras powered by a DC battery and AC power inverter. Mounted on a hand truck, the equipment is easily transported to the observation site. The setup assembled is shown below:

The equipment includes a modern, scientific quality (color) digital camera (not shown here since it was used to take the photo!) and a high-quality VCR (black, in the aluminum slide-in rack). A 12-volt battery is shown at the bottom-left, in a custom-built swivel bracket to keep it upright when the cart is tilted down for transport. The blue device is a DC-to-AC power inverter, and below it is the battery charger. All fabrication and assembly operations were done in the College of Arts & Sciences machine shop, by instrument maker Robert Miller.

Equipment already on hand included a low-light level (but monochrome) CCD video camera and an image intensifier ("night vision" device). A wide-angle lens was obtained to use with an existing 35-mm camera. An existing camcorder is also used, as well as computers and software for image analysis.

The proposed audio equipment was not acquired due to partial funding of the project, and was considered the least likely needed equipment proposed, at least in the initial stages.

Project Status

Because the project was only partly funded, it was decided to wait a few months before purchasing the digital camera, allowing prices to fall to where most of the needed equipment could be purchased. During this period the components for the cart were assembled, with some additional delays due to preparations under way to move the shop to the new science building. The system is now ready for use, and we intend to use it regularly over this fall, winter, and spring-the periods when the Brown Mountain Lights are reported seen most frequently (cool, clear, moonless nights).


All allocated funds were expended, with only slight changes from the Proposal. We indeed acquired the digital camera specified, the wide angle lens, S-VHS VCR, and components for the power system and cart. We have delayed spectral and acoustic investigation and thus did not acquire the parabolic microphone system or wedge prism.


We anticipate publishing results in the journal Skeptical Inquirer, as well as in the popular press. Indeed, in order to show that science does investigate so-called paranormal phenomena, the PI has mentioned this project in a column to run in the Charlotte Observer on October 6, 1998. Images and results will be posted on a Web site that was set up for this project, located at

http://www.acs.appstate.edu/dept/physics/caton/BML/BML.htm which now contains a copy of this report. In addition, the PI has met an amateur astronomer from the Atlanta area who has done some work on the Lights, and we will continue to collaborate during the study.