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The "Springs Lights" Discovery

I discovered these lights in November, 2003, after moving outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Each morning, on the way to work at Peterson AFB while it was still dark, I began to notice the bright lights way off in the distance which tended to increase and decrease in brightness. There was no doubt these were vehicle headlights, but the peculiar thing about them was that I knew I was observing them from a great distance - about 20 miles! The observation site is to the East of Colorado Springs, and the geographical situation is somewhat similar to Marfa, TX, where the lights are observed from a great distance but, in this case, the observation location is at a slightly higher elevation than the lights and the entire space between is lower - leading to far less atmospheric distortion.  The location is on U.S.  Highway 24 which cuts through Colorado Springs, then turns Northeast from the East side of Colorado Springs.  Highway 24 then runs on NE to Limon, CO where it joins Interstate 70.   From East of Colorado Springs on Highway 24, automobile headlights are easily visible on a section of Colorado Highway 115, all the way across Colorado Springs - 20 miles or more away.  This puts to rest is the claim that headlights can't be seen beyond 4 or 5 miles.

Figure 1, below, is a map of the Colorado Springs area to help visualize the situation. On the map are two red X's, marking "Observation Points" on Highway 24, on the East side of the Springs.  From these two locations, one can see the headlights all the way on the other side of the Springs - as far as 21 miles. 

Observation Point 1 is at 38.9236o North latitude, 104.6197o West longitude, 6780 feet elevation.
Observation Point 2 is at 38.8943o North latitude, 104.6406o West longitude, 6737 feet elevation.

These two observation points were chosen simply for their easy access, no other reason.  The lights on the opposite side of town are visible along most of this section of Highway 24, from Falcon, Colorado to Powers Blvd (though there is a short stretch between observation points 1 & 2 where the highway dips slightly and blocks the line-of-site to the lights.)  There is nothing special about the two observation points.  I repeat, they were selected simply to be points of reference.

Fig 1.

On the opposite side of town, Highway 115 meanders NE through the foothills between Canon City, CO, and Fort Carson Army Post.  The section of Highway 115 where the lights are seen is marked on the map (Fig 1) between "A" and "B".  Location "A" is 16.3 miles distant from Observation Point 1 and "B" is 21 miles distant to Observation Point 1.   Headlights of cars traveling Northeast on this section of Highway 115 are astonishingly visible from Highway 24 on any day of the year, as long as it is dark enough to see the lights over the dawn or dusk.  The best time to see the headlights is in the morning, just before sunrise, in the fall and winter, since sky is still dark during the time of the morning when many commuters are on the road, traveling toward Fort Carson Army Post, or Colorado Springs.  (Click on Fig. 1 for a larger version of the map.) The headlights can be seen any time of the year, however, you are likely to see fewer cars on the highway at 4 AM during the summer, when the sky is already very bright, and most commuters are not yet on the road.  You are also less likely to see headlights in the evening, any time of the year when most commuters are South-bound, and you are looking at their tail lights.  Still, if you are observing in the evening, you will readily see the headlights, as there is typically always traffic flowing into Colorado Springs, it's just far easier so see them when there is lots of traffic making the lights appear practically as a string of beads! 

Highway 115, point A is at 38.7371o North latitude,104.8077o West longitude, 6000 feet elevation.
Highway 115, point B is at 38.6691o North latitude,104.8617o West longitude, 6400 feet elevation.

The entire span of land between the Observation Points (Fig 1) and Highway 115 is below the elevation of both the observer and the headlights.  This is similar to the case of Marfa, Texas, except that here, the headlights start out lower in altitude than the observer and remain below the observer and at Marfa, the headlights start out slightly above the observer at the distant end of Highway 67, and end up slightly below the observer at the close end.  (I'm being nit-picky here - in both cases, Colorado Springs and Marfa, the line-of-sight is nearly perfectly horizontal.)

The distances to the two extremes of the visible section of Highway 115 from Observation Point 2 is shown in Figure 2.  Put your mouse over (mouseover) Figure 2 to see the distances from Observation Point 1.

Fig 2.

So...  what do the "Springs Lights" look like?  Fig 3 is a frame extracted from a video of the lights taken December 20, 2004 at 6:10am.  In this frame, the video camera has been zoomed in about 8X to more clearly show the lights, their separation, their difference in brightness and their change in elevation from the "far" end of Highway 115, to the "near" end. Though the zoomed view greatly enhances the appearance of the lights - the photo has not been enhanced in any way.  Mouseover the figure for a legend of what you are seeing.

Fig 3.

How bright are these lights?  Typically, in terms of visual magnitudes for stars, they are about 0 (zero), which is pretty bright, but when the cars turn more toward your line-of-sight they can grow in brightness or "flare" to -2, or -3 (that is minus 2, and minus 3).  If you are unfamiliar with visual magnitudes, +6 is considered the faintest the unaided eye can see, in good conditions, under a dark sky, far away from city lights.  For magnitudes, "brighter" is a smaller number , i.e., toward zero, so +5 is brighter than +6+4 brighter than +5, etc.  Finally, stars brighter than 0 (zero), become negative numbers.  -1 is brighter than 0, -2 is brighter than -1, etc.  I won't go into the equation for magnitudes, but suffice it to say that it is a logarithmic scale, and a change of 5 magnitudes is 100 times difference in brightness.  For comparison, the planet Venus, at its brightest is about -4.  Jupiter is about -2.  The star, Vega, is 0 (zero) and Sirius is -1.4.  The full moon is about -12, and the sun is an incredible -26.7.  Note that in a town the size of Colorado Springs, the backscatter of city lights in the atmosphere makes the night sky so bright that the faintest stars visible to the unaided eye, in town, is about +3.  So the "Springs Lights" are as bright as the brightest stars, as bright as Jupiter and almost as bright as Venus (keeping in mind the magnitude of Venus varies significantly due to the geometry between the Earth and Venus.)  I would welcome an independent assessment of the magnitude of the "Springs Lights" by a skilled observer.

The next photo, Figure 4 is the same scene in the daylight, zoomed a little less than in Figure 3.  The photo clearly reveals, what I attempted to describe in the text, how the elevation of the land, all the way across the valley is below the observer until your line-of-sight reaches the foothills of the mountains.  Mouseover Fig 5 to see an overlay highlighting the section of Highway 115 where the headlights are observed.  Compare to Figure 1.  Point "A" of Fig 1 is the close end in Fig 4 .  Point "B" is the far end.

Fig 4.

And finally, for another comparison, in Figure 5 I have combined a day shot and a night shot (a different video frame than Fig 3) from frames of the same magnification (zoom).  Here, I've taken the night shot, made it a negative, so the lights appear dark, then changed the color of the lights to red so they are more visible on the daytime photo, then overlaid the night shot on the a day shot.   Mouseover Fig 5 to see the scene without the overlay.

Fig 5.

For those of you who would like to see how these lights look on video I have prepared a 34 second clip of the lights in an MP4 format playable on a PC and portable devices:

video
Springs Lights (MP4 Video)
 

(The video will stream, but you must click on it first. You can also 'right-click' on the link and chose 'save link as' to download the video. You may also have a browser extension which permits downloading this video before you play it.)


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