“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.

Image of Orion CEV heatshield

A captured UFO is examined (Image Credit: Boeing, actually it is a heat shield for an Orion spacecraft under test))


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.

Image of Venus

Queen of the UFOs! A large, colour-enhanced Venus mosaic created from multiple orange and UV filter images taken by the spacecraft Mariner 10 in 1974. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Mosaic by Mattias Malmer)


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.

Image of ISS in March 2011

Spaceships cruise silently over the Earth. But they’re ours. (Image credit: NASA)


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!

Image of ATV-Reentry

ESA’s ATV Jules Verne re-enters in spectacular fashion. The Zond IV re-entry no doubt strongly resembled this. (Image credit: EADS-Astrium)


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.

Image of chinese lantern launch

A UFO alert is launched (Image credit: Armagh Planetarium)


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)


L Chamberlain · November 25, 2019 at 20:32

I have used chinese lanterns and know exactly what they look like but do any of the rest fly over just above roof top height and are about 20 foot in diameter ?

ufo sightings · July 6, 2015 at 16:05

Many thanks for your essay I really appreciate the informations with in, it helped me a lot.

Bill Roach · March 14, 2014 at 17:51

Note in my last post I am not referring to YOU as an academic coward – only to those who refuse to acknowledge that SOMETHING is going on – because they are terrified of potentially having a cherished paradigm shattered.

Bill Roach · March 14, 2014 at 17:22

Colin – Quoting you:
“I disagree that there are a large number of these ‘unexplained’ cases, if there was, professional astronomers would be seeing them and study of UFOs would be an exciting new part of science. There are thousands of scientists world-wide who would love to have something like this to work on. The fact that in more than sixty years (since the Kenneth Arnold sighting) there is not any UFO evidence accepted by science must say something about the reality of UFOs.”

Your position is patently WRONG – Professional astronomers HAVE seen them. The study of UFOs is indeed an exciting new part of science – the problem is – your ignoring it, and you are doing so for the same reasons that some “scientists” in the early twentieth century thought that X-rays were a myth, and breaking the sound barrier was impossible! The evidence is there – but it’s being ignored because following blind dogma and doing only “approved” research and investigation is a safe haven for academic cowards.

Bill Roach · March 14, 2014 at 17:03

Colin – I say this in response not to you personally, but to so many other folks who instead of doing their homework, automatically assume that there is nothing to this phenomenon.

For example – concerning the Hill case – I don’t think that you have reviewed any of the scientific data (yes – it does exist) concerning the results of multiple chemical analysis of Betty Hill’s dress – nor have you carefully researched the Hill’s backgrounds forensically – nor have you checked National Weather Service and Naval records concerning the fact that temperature inversions were unlikely on the date of their encounter – which can have a lensing effects on stars that can make them appear larger – or to move. Nor any other evidence that may sway against the notion that the Hill’s experience was only confabulation, misinterpretation, or a combination of both.

I also find that the explanation that they saw stars and planets to be an assumption that is ludicrous, as stars and planets do not typically hover less than 100 feet above automobiles – nor block roadways. If you had truly researched this case you would know that the Hill’s recalled the object as being a craft BEFORE submitting to “hypnotic regression”. The argumentative position that the spacecraft explanation was a result of hypnotic suggestion, or media influence is simply not accurate.

In so many other cases we have physical trace evidence (soil analysis of affected “landing” sites – or test results of areas and objects of direct or indirect object interaction), observational testimony by scientists, engineers, pilots, police officers, military personnel, etc., (i.e. “TRAINED OBSERVERS”), vehicular and power grid interference data, Medical records pertaining to gross physiological effects (citing the Cash Landrum UFO case as only one example), etc. – All pointing to a phenomena that Chinese Lanterns don’t quite cover.

I realize that job security – and being cuddled by your peers is important, but I would challenge you to do your homework and check out both sides of an argument before cleaving to the warm, safe, soft security blanket of the “official” milk toast position of dismissing all of this without benefit of real, comprehensive investigation.

Paul · July 25, 2012 at 10:36

Thanks for clearing up them few errors, what are your views on the other quotes, and what is your opinion on UFO sightings/information by other astronauts such as, Major Gordon Cooper, Ed White & James McDivitt, Dr Edgar Mitchell, James Lovell and Frank Borman? Surely these people are educated and trained well enough to tell the difference between a Chinese lantern and a UFO?

I’m glad your enjoying the astronomer UFO reports, it is quite interesting because I often hear the skeptic say that astronomers don’t have UFO sightings, which is false, you could say that it’s pseudoskepticism. Are you aware of the surveys carried out by astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek? In 1952, he conducted a small survey of 45 colleagues, and among them 5 (11%) admitted that they had a UFO sighting. A more exhaustive study was done by Hynek with the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in 1980 which included 1800 members of various amateur astronomer associations. 24% responded that they had “observed an object which resisted [their] most exhaustive efforts at identification.”

However, it is not just amateur astronomers who have said they have seen UFOs, inspired by a report done by the prestigious American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAIA) in 1970 on UFOs, astronomer Dr. Peter Sturrock conducted his own surveys. The report that inspired him was the AAIA’s investigation into UFO reports. In 1969 a study done by the University of Colorado in Boulder in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force had concluded that there was no scientific value in the investigation of UFOs. This report has been dubbed the “Condon Report” in reference to the lead scientist of the investigation, Dr. Edward Condon. In 1970 the AAIA released their report which had been the result of a multi-year study by one of their subcommittees. They disagreed with Condon stating, “[we] did not find a basis in the report for his prediction that nothing of scientific value will come of further studies.” In fact they suggested further study.

Also, astronomer Dr. Peter Sturrock conducted a small survey amongst the members of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AAIA) and the results were published in their monthly journal in 1974. Of the 1175 member responding 5% said they had UFO sightings. He sought to do a larger survey and was given permission by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to poll their membership. While again around 5% admitted having unexplainable sightings.

Here is the source for the above information: http://www.openminds.tv/astronomers-see-ufos-081310/

We also have the Mexican, Russian, & Bulgarian governments coming forward to say that these objects are real and of an advanced technology, both countries have released footage from military jets chasing UFOs but these objects were far too fast for the military jets. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xkHt6br1Q4 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwGgj_A4cJY and here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1_mcTtWqAk

The thing is, the skeptic has to be correct 100% of the time whereas the believer only has to be correct once. Out of all the thousands and thousands of UFO sightings and reports of alien interaction over the years it only takes just 1 of these encounters to be trueful, just one.

C’est la vie

    admin · July 30, 2012 at 13:32

    Hi Paul, please see this post for your answers.

Gilberto Saugen · November 6, 2011 at 01:18

This article did not explain other sightings of UFOs, for instance, the chasing of a commercial airplane occurred in Brazil on a sunny, summer day. Was it a mass hallucination? This sighting has been witnessed by the crew and all passsengers of that Boeing plane. It didn’t also explain the UFOs reported by the Bible’s writers. Another daydreaming?

    admin · November 7, 2011 at 10:27

    Hi Gilberto, thanks for your comments. My article relates mainly to my own experience of questions from the public. I know nothing about the sighting from an airliner you mention.

David B · May 17, 2011 at 16:32

You can explain away 99% of all “UFO” sightings but you’re still left with that 1% that defies expalination. Then even if 99% of those do have some earthly explaination, we’re still left with an awful lot of something unexplained.

    admin · May 17, 2011 at 21:12

    Hi, thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely correct: not all UFO sightings can be easy explained as natural or man-made phenomena. However of that small residue some will have very complex ‘natural’ explanations, some will have psychological explanations and some will be hoaxes.

    I disagree that there are a large number of these ‘unexplained’ cases, if there was, professional astronomers would be seeing them and study of UFOs would be an exciting new part of science. There are thousands of scientists world-wide who would love to have something like this to work on. The fact that in more than sixty years (since the Kenneth Arnold sighting) there is not any UFO evidence accepted by science must say something about the reality of UFOs.

      Paul · July 22, 2012 at 02:05

      You believe that all UFO sightings can be explained Colin, fair enough your entitled to your opinion but please don’t forget all of the credible witnesses ranging from, police, pilots, military, AND astronauts. Here are just a few of the many quotes from astronauts and other NASA employes:

      “All Apollo and Gemini flights were followed, both at a distance and sometimes also quite closely, by space vehicles of extraterrestrial origin – flying saucers, or UFOs, if you want to call them by that name.

      Every time it occurred, the astronauts informed Mission Control, who then ordered absolute silence.”

      -Maurice Chatelain
      Former Chief of NASA Communications Systems

      “It followed us during half of our orbit. We observed it on the light side, and when we entered the shadow side, it disappeared completely. It was an engineered structure, made from some type of metal, approximately 40 meters long with inner hulls. The object was narrow here and wider here, and inside there were openings. Some places had projections like small wings. The object stayed very close to us. We photographed it, and our photos showed it to be 23 to 28 meters away.”

      -Cosmonaut Victor Afanasyev commenting on a UFO sighting that occurred while en route to the Solyut 6 space station in April of 1979.

      “At no time, when the astronauts were in space were they alone: there was a constant surveillance by UFOs”

      .-Astronaut Scott Carpenter-Carpenter photographed a UFO while in orbit on May 24, 1962. NASA still has not released the photograph.

      At one stage we even thought it might be necessary to take evasive action to avoid a collision.

      ;-Astronaut James McDivitt commenting on an orbital encounter he and Ed White had with a ;weird object with arm-like extensions which approached their capsule. Later in the flight they saw two similar objects over the Caribbean.

      I was testing a P-51 fighter in Minneapolis when I spotted this object. I was at about 10,000 feet on a nice, bright, sunny afternoon. I thought the object was a kite, then I realized that no kite is gonna fly that high. As I got closer it looked like a weather balloon, gray and about three feet in diameter. But as soon as I got behind the darn thing it didn’t look like a balloon anymore. It looked like a saucer, a disk. About the same time, I realized that it was suddenly going way from me-and there I was, running at about 300 miles per hour. I tracked it for a little way, and then all of a sudden the damn thing just took off. It pulled about a 45 degree climbing turn and accelerated and just flat disappeared.

      -Donald Slayton, Mercury astronaut, in a 1951 interview.

      We have contact with alien cultures.
      -Astronaut Dr. Brian O’leary

      “Mission control, we have a UFO pacing our position, request instructions.”

      -Astronaut Cady Coleman
      NASA Transmission – Shuttle Mission STS-73

      “In my official status, I cannot comment on ET contact. However, personally, I can assure you, we are not alone!

      –Charles J. Camarda (Ph.D.) NASA Astronaut

      I could go on but I don’t want to fill up your page with all the reported sightings from astronauts and NASA employs. As for astronomers having sightings, I suggest you google the following with quotations: “A LIST OF SIGHTINGS BY ASTRONOMERS”. The publishers have 3 books that detail 859 sightings by astronomers, they can be found for free on scribd.

      All the Best,

        admin · July 23, 2012 at 10:54

        Hi Paul, thanks for your comments. Here’s a quick response to some of your points.

        Maurice Chatelain was never “Chief of NASA Communications Systems”. UFOlogists like to say this but it is not true. Chatelin was employed by North American Aviation (builder of the Apollo CSM) until 1966, but I cannot find anything which says he actually worked on the Apollo spacecraft. He was never employed by NASA at any level. I believe this makes any quote attributed to him dubious.

        Scott Carpenter’s post fllght report for Mercury7 and complete transcript of his voice to ground communications can be read at http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/mission_trans/MA07_TEC.PDF , there are no references to alien spacecraft to be found there.

        The quote “Mission control, we have a UFO pacing our position, request instructions.” attributed to Coleman was not said by her. She did say “We have a UFO floating by here” but she was making a joke about a colleague who had just floated in to join her in the windowless Spacelab.

        The UFO reports by astronomers document is interesting and I plan to dissect it in a future blog post.

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