It couldn’t have been a star either- because it was flashing VIVID white, green, red, and blue lights. Very bright! The figure also seemed to change shape. It was very high in the sky, but and looked as if it was hovering. We got out the binoculars to take a better look- and it at one point looked like a triangle, then like a circle. Then it started get smaller, like it was moving further away-still flashing (easily seen by the naked eye) bright vivid colors. - NUFORC report of the star Sirius (as identified by Peter Davenport) 

The above image shows the star Sirius changing shape and colors - images from video clip taken through a telescope by myself.

When stars become UFOs

Tim Printy 1998

Revised February 2005

I have had a long interest in Astronomy and UFOs since the early 1970s. Over the years as my knowledge of astronomy grew, I became more than skeptical about reports of "flying saucers". Although, as a young lad, I found myself eating up programs about "Ancient Astronauts", "UFOs", and "The Bermuda Triangle", I also managed to educate myself on various aspects of astronomy. As I learned more and more, I became less enchanted by the paranormal and more enthralled with the true beauty of the night sky. I also began to recognize how easily it was for the general public to misunderstand celestial events.

My first experience of a UFO report was on the evening of April 16, 1972, when a UFO was reportedly seen next to the moon. Apollo 16 was launched earlier that day, and being a big fan of the space program, had watched the launch that day. That night, I was treated to a wonderful conjunction of the brilliant planet Venus and a young crescent moon. The next day, there was an article in the local newspaper about how some people were mystified by the brilliant light near the moon. There were references to a UFO and the paper assured everyone that the light was really the planet Venus. Over the years, I was repeatedly exposed to people telling me their UFO stories. All of the ones seen as lights in the sky at night were usually celestial in nature. This mirrors the results of UFO researcher Allan Hendry.

Hendry's, "The UFO Investigator's Handbook", is based upon his investigations of 1,307 UFO sightings while working for the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Of all the sightings he investigated, 1,103 were of nocturnal lights, which Allan defined as, "Any anomalous lights seen in the distant night sky whose description rules out the possibilities of aircraft lights, stars, meteors, and the like" (Hendry 7). Hendry identified 1,024 IFOs from these 1,103 cases. Making up over a third of the IFOs in this category were planets and stars (the remainder being airplanes, meteors, satellites, the moon, a myriad of other minor sources). How can people confuse stars as IFOs? According to Hendry, amateur astronomer Gert Herb describes the problem as "sky shock", "...adults of a civilized society can take stars for granted for years until they finally take the time to see just what is possible in the heavens" (Hendry 30). Hendry provides many examples of how people reported these stars as UFOs:

Included among these shapes are: discs and discs with domes ("Like two plates put together"-case 332; "elongated, as big as a distant plane"-case 377; "dome on top and bottom" - for one and a half hours in case 332), domes, a "plate with a hole in the center," vertically oriented small triangles, ovals, a football ...even "teacups," "Mexican somberos," and "bananas as large as the moon, shrinking back down toa star." People have seen "spikes," beams," "appendages," and sparkles shooting out in all directions from bright stars. (Hendry 28)

Witnesses also reported some motions in the stars. Hendry elaborates that in many cases, individuals stated the stars "darted up and down"; "wiggle from side to side"; "execute loops and figure eights" (Hendry 26). Some stars were reported as "rotating" due to the changing colors produced by atmospheric effects. Additionally, Hendry discovered how poor people were at estimating distances of objects in the sky. Examining the information we find that there were quite a few people who could not get the distance at all correct. In 49 cases, witnesses reported the distances of stars ranging from 100 feet to 125 miles. Although Hendry never asked for a distance, they volunteered this information. Hendry does not give a total value of witnesses who reported a distance but it seems those that did were completely off base.

To understand how inexperienced observers have problems with stars and planets, we have to understand the basic concepts why stars can be misperceived in the manner Hendry describes. First off, one needs to understand how stars "twinkle". Writing for the McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Dr. Laird Thompson describes twinkling as,

A phenomenon by which light from stars, as it passes through fluctuations in the earth's atmosphere, is rapidly modulated and redirected to make the starlight appear to flicker.... At visible wavelengths, atmospheric fluctuations are caused predominantly by temperature irregularities along the line of sight.... High-altitude winds and local air currents carry atmospheric irregularities across the line of sight. Because the entrance pupil of the human eye is much smaller than the characteristic size of atmospheric irregularities, any twinkling that is visible to the unaided eye is caused primarily by the modulation of the light intensity and not by the deflection of the light waves. Modulation is best understood as an interference phenomenon acting on adjacent light waves. Like random waves in water, sometimes the waves add constructively, causing the star to brighten, and other times the waves add destructively, causing the star to dim.(Thompson 703)

Stars are point sources but planets are not. Their small discs make them less susceptible to "twinkling" because the eye tends to average the reflected light they exhibit. However, planets are not exempt from "twinkling" contrary to popular beliefs. With turbulent atmosphere conditions and a low altitude in the sky, a bright planet can "twinkle" easily. I have seen both Venus and Mercury do this quite readily. This is probably due to the atmospheric conditions that exist at sunset, the apparent size they present to the observer, and that both of these objects are usually low in the sky.

Sometimes, a star tends to twinkle more than normal, making stars appear to change colors and oscillate. This process is called "scintillation". William Viezee, a research meteorologist, wrote an article titled "Optical Mirage" for the Condon study.

Scintillation defines the rapid variation in apparent brightness, position, or color of a distant luminous source when viewed through the atmosphere.... In general, the effects of scintillation are minimum when the luminous source is viewed near the zenith, and maximum when the source is viewed near the horizon.... When observations are made with the unaided eye, the above-mentioned effects of scintillation are manifested only when the observation concern objects close to the horizon (at low elevation of "low in the sky"). Under these conditions, the most spectacular visual effects can be expected when the effects of scintillation (random refraction) are superposed on any visual image that arises from regular atmospheric refraction.... When the image is small and bright, as may be the case at night, large fluctuations in brightness and under unusual conditions in color can give an illusion of blinking, flashing, side to side oscillation, or motion toward and away from the observer. The effects associated with scintillation can dominate the visual appearance of any bright point-object in the area between the horizon and approximately 14 degrees above the horizon. (Condon 644 - 646, 653)

This explanation concerning color changes is further described by M. Minnaert in his book, "The nature of Light and Colour in the open air":

The colour changes are to be ascribed to slight dispersion of the normal terrestrial ray curvature, so that the rays from the star travel along slightly different paths in the atmosphere, according to their colour. For a star at a height of 10 above the horizon we compute distance between the violet and red rays to be as much as 11inches at a height of 1.25 miles, and 23 inches at 3 miles. The air striae are, on an average, fairly small, so that it may often happen that the violet ray passes through a striation and is deflected, whereas the red ray passes on without deviation. The moments when the light of a star becomes brighter or feebler as a result of scintillation are, therefore, different for the different colours... Colour changes never occur, apparently, at altitudes of more than 50 , but frequently below 35 . The most beautiful scintillation of all is that of the bright star Sirius, which is visible in the winter months rather low in the sky. (Minnaert 67)

These effects can make stars appear to flash colors, shoot beams, spin, oscillate around, and so forth. This video clip demonstrates these effects.

The more the observer stares at a star under these conditions, the more strange it can become. As I stated before, the general public is not very knowledgeable about astronomy and can not easily identify stars, planets, and constellations. With such lack of knowledge, it only takes unusual atmospheric conditions to turn these stars into UFOs.

Many UFOlogists will argue that people see stars every night and could never confuse a star with a true UFO. Unfortunately, seeing average stars under normal conditions is not the same as seeing very bright stars (usually +1 or brighter) under abnormal atmospheric conditions. The two situations are completely different and one has to go out and observe stars under these conditions before grasping how people can make this misinterpretation. While navigating the Internet, I discovered the following UFO report by an investigator named, Delbert Anderson and involves an event in late- July 1991.

Around 1 a.m. or so the witnesses indicated they were seeing a UFO to the North and there was a bright starlike object just above the horizon. We watched this object for awhile. Over the next 15 or 20 minutes the object got a little brighter. It seemed to flash colors from red to green to blue to white and so on especially when viewed through binoculars.... At approximately 1:30 a.m. the witnesses drew my attention to a bright starlike object over the western horizon. This object was also flashing colors and getting brighter, then dimmer, appearing to approach and recede... (Anderson)

Delbert determined that objects were the bright stars Capella and Antares. Delbert concluded, "I have been an investigator for several years and wondered how someone could mistake stars for UFOs and now I know!" (Anderson) Delbert was finally exposed to the conditions that could produce these effects. The great UFO investigator Dr. J. Hynek encountered this many times. During the great Michigan UFO "wave" in 1966, Hynek had an interesting encounter with a UFO.

One evening during his visit he was in a police cruiser when a UFO report came over the radio. Several police vehicles converged on an intersection, and officers leaped out pointing and shouting excitedly at the mystery object. Hynek, the professional astronomer, recognized it as the star Arcturus. The episode, he said, was a 'sobering demonstration' to him. (Brookesmith 55)

Sobering in the fact that a star could fool 'reliable' witnesses like police officers! Hynek found that Police Officers were not the only ones mistaking stars for UFOs. In April, 1953, he wrote the following an article for the Journal of the Optical Society of America,

And another sighting - in Northern Michigan - on July 29 of last year, a pilot chased a brilliant multicolored object close to the horizon, and due north. He flew at 21,000 feet, followed the object for over a half-hour but could not gain on it. Radar operator [in the aircraft] reported contact with the object for about thirty seconds. And ground control interceptor station reported blips too [on its radar]. In this case, it seems certain that our harried pilot was pursuing [the star] Capella! Capella was at lower culmination, that is, at the lowest point of its swing around the pole just skirting the horizon. I have seen it at that position myself in Canada, and can vouch for the fact that its blue, yellow, and red twinkling can be spectacular. (Klass 78)

So, not only are police officers susceptible for mistaking stars for UFOs but fighter pilots as well! If such highly trained observers can make these mistakes, what does it say for the everyday person who walks out into his backyard and claims to have seen a UFO?

The USAF investigated UFO reports for over 20 years and they had many reports of stars as UFOs. Numerous eyewitnesses were just plain wrong and often attempted to describe stars as unusual lights in the sky. During the Condon study we read the following from one case:

During the early evening, two calls were received which reported that an UFO was being observed at the time, still hanging in the sky. The UFO he now described was the bright star Sirius. After the suggestion that this might be the case, he phoned back to agree that he had been looking at Sirius. One caller was a high school teacher who had reported earlier a light-in-the-sky that might have been an airplane.

The sky observation party returned to location A later in the evening. The project investigator reported that when Sirius rose over the distant trees as he and others were watching on the hill, his companions also immediately called Sirius one of the UFOs. They watched it change color, particularly when it was low in the sky. Only after some time did they agree that this "UFO" was a star.

A few minutes later, a phone call reported another sighting. Mr. B spoke to the woman, and, after short conversation, excitedly handed the phone to a project investigator, declaring: "The woman is seeing an object which is spewing out green, white, and red beams ..." Additional comment indicated the object had emitted glowing red globs and was now hovering near the woman's home. The location described again was that of Sirius. The woman was told there that the star should appear relative to the constellation Orion, and was asked if it possibly could be this bright star she was observing. She did not accept this as a possibility, and relayed information to her daughter for checking, before going into a discussion of other UFO activity in the area. After this review, she was again asked about the hovering object she had originally reported. Her response was, "Yes, I guess we've been bamboozled again. I guess that it was just the star." (Condon 377)

UFO groups loudly dismiss the finding of the USAF and Condon but, like Delbert Anderson above, they are not that familiar with how people can misinterpret these events. It is harder for UFO groups to ignore the work of Allan Hendry. Unfortunately, not many have read his work. The book is out of print and it is unfortunate that follow-up "UFO investigator Handbooks" by other authors fail to mention the problems with stars and planets being considered UFOs.

The lack of understanding by investigators about atmospheric and astronomical phenomena leads many "UFOlogists" to automatically dismiss celestial explanations without even giving them serious consideration. They do not even consider the possibility that the observer(s) could be mistaken and allowed their imaginations to take hold. How many of these "investigators" have ever heard of the Zond IV incident of 3 March 1968?

Witnesses varied considerably in their descriptions of the event. Of 30 reports analyzed by William K. Hartmann, 17 said the objects - two, three or more in number - were flying in formation, while 12 witnesses saw them as rocket, cigar or disk shaped, six said they changed direction, three saw windows on the 'craft', and two perceived its sharp, well-defined outline. 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.' Another saw a fuselage 'constructed of many pieces or flat sheets' with a 'riveted-together look' with 'rather square shaped windows' that 'seemed to be lit up from the inside'. One thought the UFO was 'at about treetop level'. Another tried to communicate with the UFO by signaling in Morse with her flashlight. (Brookesmith 69)

Zond IV was space debris reentering into the earth's atmosphere. Hartmann then described two effects that accompanied the reports they received. The first was the "Airship effect", "...a subjective tendency to connect the string of sources and from popularization of this concept is the UFO literature" (Condon 574). The other is the "Excitedness effect", "...the excited observers who thought they had witnessed a very strange phenomenon produced the most detailed, longest, and most misconceived reports..." (Condon 574). Clearly, such effects take hold when witnesses report stars and planets as UFOs.

The great scientist and author, Carl Sagan summed up the problem as follows, "When we notice something strange in the sky, some of us become excitable and uncritical, bad witnesses" (Sagan 71). Science Fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, in the book, "The Promise of Space" adds the following astute observation,

Much of the trouble arises from the fact that the sky presents an almost endless variety of peculiar sights and objects, only a few of which are likely to be encountered by one person in a lifetime. And when this does happen, he may be misled into thinking that he has seen something extraordinary--- instead of merely unfamiliar. (Klass 301)

Appreciating this problem is important to conducting an investigation of any UFO report. The next time you hear about a strange light in the night/twilight sky, think about the possibility of this UFO being an astronomical object. Just because it is accompanied by "high strangeness" when the witness tells his story does not necessarily mean it was an alien spaceship or is "unexplainable".

WORKS CITED

Anderson, Delbert. Online Internet Available WWW: http://cc636243-a.twsn1.md.home.com/mufo0107.htm - Scorpio.zip (Has since become a dead link).

Brookesmith, Peter. UFO: The Government Files. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 1996.

Condon, E. U., et al., eds. Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. New York: Bantam 1968.

Hendry, Allan. The UFO Investigators Handbook. London: Sphere Books Ltd. 1980.

Klass, Philip. UFOS: The Public Decieved. Amherst: Prometheus, 1997

Minnaert, M. The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air. New York: Dover 1954.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon Haunted World. New York: Ballantine 1996.

Thompson, Laird A. McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of Science and Technology Vol. 18. New York: McGraw-Hill 1997

 

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