“I was looking into the sky and I’ve seen something strange …what was it?” Around the world observatories, planetariums and science museums, regularly encounter questions like this. Most often these UFOs turn out to be not as mysterious or alien as they first appear. Here some of the most common inspirations for UFO reports.
One of the things I enjoy about my job is answering queries from the public about things they have seen in the sky. A steady stream of questions arrive by telephone, e-mail and letter from people who have noticed something in the sky that is unfamiliar to them, that they could not identify. You could call these UFO reports, and indeed some of them are presented as such. What is surprising was just how mundane the vast majority of them are.
1. Bright planets: “…a kind of green light appeared in the western sky. This was right after sundown. It got brighter and brighter. And then it eventually disappeared. It didn’t have any solid substance to it; it was just a very peculiar-looking light. None of us could understand what it was.” This is a UFO observed in 1969 by one James Earl Carter Jr. Almost certainly Mr Carter saw, was not an alien space craft, but the planet Venus ( by the way Mr Carter is best-known for serving as 39th President of the USA). One of Earth’s near neighbours in the solar system, Venus is blanketed in reflective clouds; sunlight gleaming off these clouds can make the planet appear unnaturally bright in the evening or early morning sky. The planet can resemble a blazing beacon just hanging in the air. Other planets too, especially the gigantic Jupiter, can be much brighter and bigger than you would expect. If you are puzzled by a bright light seemingly standing stationary in the sky, before considering it a possible alien vehicle, check one of the many desktop planetarium programs (for example the completely free Stellarium) for home computers to see if you are really seeing a planet.
Those who support the idea of alien visitations, are often dismissive of invoking Venus as an explanation of UFO sightings, but in my personal experience many people are unfamiliar with the night sky and the idea that planets can be seen with the naked eye comes as a surprise. (For that matter, if the inquirer really had observed a UFO in the same direction as a bright planet, surely they would report seeing two bright lights.)
2. Sirius: Many people will tell you that the brightest star in the sky is Polaris, the Pole Star. So if you see an object in the sky which is clearly brighter than all the surrounding stars you could conclude that you are seeing something strange. Looking closer, you may be startled to see it flash colours, reds, blues, greens! What could this phenomenon be?
If you check your planetarium software, you will probably discover that you are seeing the star Sirius. This star, famed in folklore since ancient times, is genuinely the brightest star in our skies (Polaris comes nowhere near it, being 43rd on lists of bright stars). It is so bright because is relatively close to the sun, less than nine light years away from us, and it is pretty luminous, given out about 25 times as much energy every second as the sun. This brightness means the light from Sirius after travelling all those light years suffers a lot of atmospheric scintillation – or ‘twinkling’ in ordinary English – in the final few miles. Basically, passing through the Earth’s wobbly atmosphere splits some of the white light into its component colours giving the illusion of a solid object emitting white light and coloured flashes. Strange and beautiful to be sure, but not an alien craft.
3. Satellites: Some UFOs really are spaceships– but spaceships made on Earth. There are literally thousands of satellites, disused rocket stages, gear lost by spacewalking astronauts and other paraphernalia whirling a few hundred miles over our heads. Many of these items are larger than you would think (many satellites are car-sized or larger) and are painted white or covered in metallic foil making them very reflective indeed. They are also moving at thousands of miles per hour with respect to the Earth’s surface. Combined together these properties mean that some satellites look like bright dots creeping across the sky. They appear not unlike aircraft at very high altitude but the lack of engine sound can make them take on another-worldly aspect. Especially majestic in appearance is the gigantic International Space Station which is a sight not to be unmissed as it soars overhead. The ISS amazed one gentleman who called the Planetarium as it majestically and soundlessly crossed the sky (so he had in fact witnessed a spaceship — but it was one of ours).
Should you spot a speck of light passing overhead in front of the stars, check out the excellent website www.heavens-above.com to see if it matches any known satellite. Using the data on heavens-above.com you can predict satellites passing over your area, when you are familiar with finding satellites why not take your friends out and show them a few? They are going to be impressed!
4. Meteors and space junk: Every year hundreds of bits of man-made space junk (dead satellites, spent rocket boosters fall into the atmosphere and burn up appearing as bright streaks of light zipping through the night. Nature vastly outdoes mankind: every year about 400,000 tons of natural space debris, meteorites and vaporised meteors, is scattered across our planet. Some falling meteors called bolides become spectacular fireballs, burning in bright colours. Such wonderful, rare events amaze onlookers. Some are so amazed that they see so much more, for example, read these reports from witnesses from the US in March 1968:
“…the objects – two, three or more in number – were flying in formation, while… witnesses saw them as rocket, cigar or disk shaped… saw windows on the ‘craft’… One witness described one object pursuing another, ‘as if it was making an attempt to shoot the other one down’. Another described ‘a long jet airplane-looking vehicle without any wings… many windows… If there had been anybody in the UFO near the windows I would have seen them.” (quoted from UFO: The Government Files by Peter Brooksmith, 1996)
We know absolutely that what these people saw was a Russian lunar probe called Zond IV which embarrassingly failed to reach the Moon, instead burning up over North America. All the witnesses were sincere, honestly reporting what they had seen, but the sudden appearance of this baffling spectacle lead many to draw the conclusions that a sequence of fireballs was the lights of a mystery craft.
5. Chinese lanterns: It seems that over the UK and US the most currently popular style of alien space vehicle is a glowing orange ball which floats, sometimes in groups or even squadrons through the darkness of the night sky. Most of these will be Chinese lanterns. Unknown in the west until recently, launching these paper hot air balloons to celebrate holidays, weddings or just life in general is now a common occurrence. In summer months we can receive daily reports of orange balls of light cruising overhead. They may be visitors from Zeta 2 Reticulum but really I was expecting something more impressive; it’s not exactly Independence Day. (Update: I have just discovered that some UFOlogists say that alien spaceships are fitted with advanced holographic devices which project images to disguise themselves as chinese lanterns…but let’s not go there. It is a silly idea.)
So there you are, I have revealed five secret identities of the UFO s, no little grey men yet, perhaps one day…
(Useful resources about UFOs are listed at this page at Belfast Skeptics)