by Dennis Allen
Ever been to a star party and someone asks about UFOs? Been there, done that. Here are a few tips that might help you out.
The first thing I tell visitors: If you see a steady light traveling across the night sky, it's a satellite. If that object is blinking, it's a jet. If you see something odd, assume it's manmade. Might be natural, but assume manmade. Only when you eliminate all the known manmade and natural causes, can you call it an unidentified flying object. Doesn't mean it's an alien, just means you haven't identified it yet. Click here for a chart to help you out.
When I first got into astronomy, my sister ran up to me all excited, claiming to have spotted a UFO. I grabbed my 8" Coulter, my eyepiece case and tracked it down. Nice looking UFO, an eagle between two letter As on a tail fin. It was just hazy enough that you couldn't see the jet's blinking lights without a telescope. Another time I was up on the property when my uncle pointed out two UFOs just above the horizon, sliding back and forth above the tree line. Again, I got my telescope out and showed my uncle Venus and Mercury. He didn't believe me! Didn't believe the scope was actually pointing at them. Had to explain how a Newtonian works. I also explained that when stars and planets get close to the horizon, humidity in the atmosphere makes them look like they're moving about. It's an optical illusion.
In fact most UFO sightings can be contributed to optical illusions and inexperience. When the first commercial planes flew at night, pilots saw UFOs following their plane from below. Not realizing, of course, what they saw was the full moon reflecting off the small lakes below. I had one visitor tell a tale of his pilot friend flying at night seeing a UFO. He estimated the object was traveling more than a thousand of miles an hour, came to a dead stop, then took off straight up at more than a thousand miles an hour. Ah, an object seemingly breaking the laws of physics. Whenever you see an object, it may be twenty miles away, two miles away or only two feet away. I suspect what the pilot was looking at was a reflection on his canopy. Maybe a star or a planet, reflected from behind him or off his instrument panel onto the inside of his canopy. The object seems to be moving toward him, so the pilot changes course to avoid it, which makes the object suddenly stop and change direction. It's not the object that's moving, it's the plane orientation to it. Recently we've been seeing a video of a jet chasing a glob. Notice every move by the glob was matched by the jet. Really? I suspect the flying glob was actually bird poop or ice slush sticking to the jet's camera lens. Again, without knowing the true size of an object it's hard to know it's true distance.
FYI: If you take a compass reading to an object, then take another compass reading a known distance away from your first compass reading, you can use triangulation to calculate the approximate distance to that object. With this distance, you can also determine the object's altitude. Extend your arm and make a fist. Your fist will be about 10 degrees, so determine how many fist or half fist lengths from the ground to the object. With this angle and the approximate distance, you can use trigonometry to calculate the object's altitude.
Another example of an optical illusion: On these UFO hunting shows you always see some object on granny video with no magnification. They try to magnify and enhance the heck out of the image. If you go beyond a certain point, all you are doing is magnifying and enhancing fuzz. After that, you can Photoshop the object to look like anything you want. Please, if you plan to go UFO hunting, get a telephoto lens for your camera and at the very least bring a telescope.
And when taking pictures, take care you stay in focus. I recall seeing another UFO episode about the space shuttle. They saw these fur balls drifting past the shuttle window. If you look closely at the fur balls, you can see a black spot in the center of each one. That's a secondary mirror from the optics of the camera's lens. The fur balls are just dust particles that are magnified and way out of focus.
Here in west Michigan we got two UFO stories probably listed in some UFO book somewhere. The first one was the Lake Michigan sighting. There was the large object spotted over Lake Michigan. Turns out, an inexperienced radar operator was just seeing a large temperature inversion over the big lake. We get a lot of inversions over the lake during the summer. The other story was the famous Wolf Lake sighting. Well, several of us astronomy club members were at our observatory that night to witness the event. What we saw was a C-131. It was coming straight at us (planes often use our dome as a turn around back to the airport). It had the landing lights on, so you couldn't see the plane itself. The cross wind was making the plane drift from side to side. Since you couldn't hear the engines, what else could it be but a UFO? <g>
Keep in mind, for some you're dealing with their belief system. Had a visitor claiming to have seen a UFO touch down in a field in front of him back in the 70s. He wanted me to report it to the authorities. He didn't report it thirty years ago and didn't have any physical evidence, not even a photo. What can you do? Not much, except be very polite. I suspect the guy had dreamt about UFOs and over the years the dream got more and more detailed until he was finally convinced it was real. You're never going to be convince him otherwise and I wouldn't try.
I'm sometimes asked if I believe in alien UFOs. Well, our universe is just too big not to have life somewhere. But that life needs to be advance enough for space travel (life on Earth has been around for a hundreds of millions of years, but space traveling life only a few decades). And the odds that ET could find this tiny rock we call home in this vast ocean of a universe is extremely small. So I wouldn't hold your breath on making contact anytime soon. Anyway, I hope you find these little tips useful the next time you're running a star party.
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This web page was last updated 01/12/18