Three dots of light in the sky above Lafayette, Colorodo.

Unidentified Triangles

Article written: 31 Mar , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Apparently I have a reputation as a debunker. When I first started writing for Universe Today, Fraser told me to feel free to do articles relating to skepticism. I haven’t much, but I’ve been asked to cast a skeptical eye on the topic of UFOs and aliens, especially given a recent sighting which made it onto Good Morning America.

My general opinion on UFOs is that there’s really just not enough evidence to say whether or not the people making claims about them are right. In fact, there’s so little coherent evidence that it’s more apt to say that they’re “not even wrong“. In such cases, I generally find the topic uninteresting and not worthy of attention. I could address them as an exercise with Occam’s razor, but that’s been done to death. Instead, there needs to be something else that makes the topic worthy of addressing. Coincidentally, this case does.

Typically, there’s two additional reasons I’ll discuss such a topic. The first is if such baseless belief causes demonstrable harm (such as recent doomsday criers convincing people to give up their homes and family to go on a fire and brimstone tour of the US to proclaim The End). With UFO buffs, this isn’t a concern generally.

The other reason I’ll discuss something is if I notice a particular logical fallacy that’s worth exploring in its own right. In watching a few of the videos related to the one shown on Good Morning America, I found another one that I think does a good job of highlighting the willingness to jump to conclusions. In this clip, an awestruck spectator is stunned by the lights because they form “a perfect triangle”. I’m teaching a geometry course this semester and I’ve been dealing a lot with triangles, but I’m not quite sure what he means. By definition, a triangle is simply a polygon with three sides, which meet at three points. Pick 3 points anywhere and you’ll be able to form a triangle by connecting the dots. Thus, all you need to form a “perfect” triangle is 3 points. There’s nothing inspiring about that.

To give the guy as much credit as possible, I’ll assume that the guy meant “equilateral” which would mean that each side is perfectly equal. This would be slightly more interesting. It would mean they were each affixed to a larger body to keep them at just the right distance, or, they were each manipulated independently to remain in the right formation. Still, neither of these tasks is especially impressive (I’m more impressed by the Blue Angels keeping formation at supersonic speeds), but before we need to consider that, we should be asking an even more fundamental question: Is the triangle actually equilateral?

Quickly taking a screen cap and importing it into a drawing program in which I can trace on some lines shows immediately that it doesn’t look at all equilateral. But there’s a good reason for that: We’re seeing it at an inclination and objects will look very different depending on your particular point of view . What we’re really seeing is a two-dimensional projection of a shape in three-dimensions. The closer to the plane of the triangle you put your eye, the flatter it looks. Rotate it and the third point will seem to shift relative to the other two. In other words, we could very easily have an equilateral triangle projected in such a way that it looked just like the one the spectators saw. But at the exact same time, any triangle, equilateral or not, could be viewed in such a way to replicate that projected shape.

Why then, did this fellow claim it was a “perfect triangle”? Simple: He had prior expectations. He couldn’t know, but mentally, he could envision it being “perfect” and his mind seized on that solution, ignoring all others and manufacturing details that didn’t necessarily follow from the observations. Sound familiar?

Ultimately, we can’t say what these lights were (although I find the road flares on balloons explanation to be simple and fit perfectly with all observations thus passing the test of parsimony). And I think that’s the important note: We don’t know. But let’s at least be knowledgeable and honest enough to admit what we don’t.

17 Responses

  1. FVAS says

    Hey Fraser. I gather you have never seen the NOSS 2-1 satellite. Actually it’s three satellites that are tethered together and fly in formation. These satellites are used by the U.S. Navy who use them to triangulate ships at sea. Quite awesome to see on a good night, they move extremely slowly and at first you have a tendency to rub your eye’s because at first you think you’re seeing things. But as you watch you soon realize they are moving and in perfect formation. Other times the triangle will look slimmer or skewed depending on where they are in the sky as you have explained in your story above.

    At any rate it would be good to know when, where and what time these three points of light were seen, I would then be able to pin point the event to see if indeed this was the Noss satellites.

    Fraser Valley Astronomers Society.

    • paul.swanson says

      I’ve seen the NOSS satellites. I think there is more than one set of them. I never knew that they were tethered together, I thought they made adjustments to keep in formation. They are very cool to observe, but I’ve usually had to use binoculars to see them.

      If you knew the date, time, and location of where the observer was located, you should be able to identify them using

  2. FVAS says

    My apologies Jon! I just realized it wasn’t Fraser that wrote the above story but rather it was you. I’ll bet you a timmies and a bucket full of donuts that the photograph above is that of the Noss 2-1 satellites.


  3. FVAS says

    Here’s a short video of these satellites being tracked by Starry night Pro…during the event that was seen on the same evening.

  4. Hi, I’ve some images of the NOSS satellites taken back in 2006, when I saw them first time (very cool from dark skies). The images are medium lenght exposures (15 secs), so they show as trails instead of dots.
    Go to the bottom of the page from my website:

  5. joed293 says

    (close brackets in paragraph 3)

  6. joed293 says

    (ignore that)

  7. joed293 says

    So, before i leave in shame, good article, Cheers.

  8. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    Slightly (eh heh … well …) OT, but on the topic of serious (post and thread) debunking, people have come up with a thermal model predicting the Pioneer observations:

    “The developed method, based on Phong shading, provides
    results that generally confirm those previously obtained
    in Refs. [13, 14]: the acceleration arising from
    thermal radiation effects has a similar order of magnitude
    to the constant anomalous acceleration reported in
    Ref. [2].”

    Their fig 7 tells it all really. Add up thermal radiation contributions (here with the half heuristic Phong model many use for affordable light tracing in computer graphics), mainly from reflecting of the Sun pointing antenna dish. You naturally land smack in the middle of the deviation from pure gravitational acceleration _and_ in the regime of required exponential diminishing from RTG half life behavior.

    RTG rocket engines. And MOND fantasies rejected to boot.

    [HT: MIT technology review.]

  9. Dav_Daddy says

    I’d like to see a serious scientific study done on this whole UFO thing. The results from Project Blue Book had a statistically significant number of cases that were reliable and unexplained (I believe 12%ish (sry I’d google it but I’m on my BlackBerry.)

    I remember hearing that the Russian equivalent turned up mostly secret gov’t stuff, but I’ve never seen hard numbers on that.

    I never used to put much stock in the whole UFO thing until I read an article (it was either here or on physorg) about how the Apollo 8 astronauts saw something following them shortly after reaching orbit. (Again sry no link god do I need an Iphone!) I don’t think anyone will argue that this sighting is about as reliable as humanly possible.

  10. k2killer says

    ….”Three little ‘chinese lanterns’ are weeee… up in the sky so gently float weeee..till sooner than later.. one by one go out go weee…..”

  11. marlon says

    I think fraser is an alien in disguise.. you know, i mean, he just doesnt want to be ovboius. or probably he is a mouthpice for nasa or both.. I wonder if he believes in God! According to him, before he believes in something, he must first see it face to face…

  12. Greg says

    I have said this in previous posts, but is worth saying again. Extraordinary claims require extradorinary evidence. The burden of proof has to be very high if we are to begin to accept the notion that UFOs are a consequence of alien intelligence. If an alien craft landed outside the CNN headquarters and conducted several interviews on camera and then got back in their craft and took off again, then I might be convinced.

  13. glafebe6 says

    It is easy to project a triangle onto three points of light but in reality it could be an infinite number of shapes assuming they are connected to a singular body. For example airliners are often mistake as triangular UFOs due to their landing lights and navigation lights when viewed from the ground from certain angles

  14. Surak says

    I saw two satellites moving in tandem, probably less than a half a degree apart on the night of the super moon. I was looking through the polar alignment scope of my telescope mount and saw them pass … a highly inclined orbit I’d say! I then watched them continue towards the northern horizon by eye.

  15. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says

    Though a mutual friend, I’ve known about sightings of these triangular craft “Black Triangle or Black Project” for some time now. The evidence, while often vague, seems against them, though there are some people that think they are terrestrial in origin as some secret military or Department of Defence project. Their arguments seem to be centred on more advanced aircraft than the stealth B1 bomber or stealth fighter jet. (An example of commonly copied images appear at SHFT411)

    While much of the stuff it really nonsensical and likely bogus, but it is possible that these craft could be more advanced prototype aircraft of designs developed and now seen in existing stealth aircraft. I also agree that the sudden appearance of these UFO have a remarkable correlation and coincidence with the rise of stealth aircraft; leaving suspicions these are physiological imprints rather than based on reality. I.e. They see what they want to see.
    Bizarre story, and unlikely alien UFOs.

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