Do I Believe in UFOs?

Whenever I do a new livestream on Instagram (hint hint, @universetoday on Instagram), it’s generally with an audience that doesn’t have a lot of experience with my work here on Universe Today or YouTube.

They’re enthusiastic about space, but they haven’t been exposed to a lot of the modern ideas about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrials. They have, however, seen a lot of TV and movies.

And so, the most common question I get, by a long shot is, “do you believe in aliens?”

That’s actually a more complicated question. On the one hand, the question could be: do I believe that aliens are visiting Earth, creating crop circles, infiltrating our government, and experimenting on human/alien hybrids for the eventual overthrow of human civilization?

The answer to that question, is no.

Capturing a Bright Fireball, breaking up with debris. Yellow Springs, Ohio. Photo credit: John Chumack

I believe in UFOs, in that, I believe there are unidentified objects flying in the air, which haven’t gotten a definitive categorization. And when they do get an explanation, it’s weather balloons, or Venus, or airplanes, or fireworks, or drones, or a hoax.

It’s never aliens.

Because if it was aliens, we would have some kind of evidence. There would be something, anything, that gave definitive proof that aliens were here.

What I’m talking about is some kind of monument, or machine, or vehicle, or factory. Something that’s been around here on Earth for as long as human history, and has no explanation for how it could have been created.

UFO researchers point to things like the pyramids, or the statues on Easter Island, or the Nazca lines, when there’s plenty of evidence these things could be created by humans and their tools of the age. Even when the hoaxers who created crop circles with a plank on a rope and a little planning tried to explain how they did it, people didn’t really believe them.

I want to show you a series of amazing visualizations created by Sam Monfort, a data researcher in the Human Factors and Applied Cognition program at George Mason University. Sam pulled in data from the National UFO Reporting Center or NUFORC which has been collecting reports all the way back to 1905.

Since its inception, NUFORC has received almost 105,000 UFO reports. And sighting are at an all time high.

Reported UFO sightings per decade. Credit: Sam Monfort

But what’s really fascinating is how the trends of what people see have changed over time. A century ago, the vast majority of UFOs were spheres or cigar shaped. But then saucers showed up in the 20s, and that’s all anyone saw.

Types of UFOs reported per decade. Credit: Sam Monfort

Cigars have dropped down to almost nothing, while lights in the sky have grown in prominence to become almost 50% of the UFOs that people see these days.

Clearly spaceship design took a turn away from cigars, to saucers to glowing lights. Oh, fickle aliens spacecraft designers, following the latest fashions.

The timing is interesting too. There’s a rise in sightings around July 4th in the US every year. Fireworks maybe?

Reported UFO sightings in July peak on the 4th. Credit: Sam Monfort

The other piece of data that’s pretty interesting is that people in the US are 300 times more likely to report a UFO sighting than any other country in the world. My own Canada is number 2.

The distribution by country of reported UFO sightings. Credit: Sam Monfort

Here’s the thing. A huge percentage of the population is now carrying around their own personal tricorder, which will record audio, video and take amazing pictures, even in a dimly lit alien spaceship. And yet, there still hasn’t been any definitive, scientifically proven evidence for aliens.

Google is watching everywhere I go, and reminds me that I visited Home Depot last week, but you think the occasional trip to an orbital research facility would get picked up.

I feel pretty confident when I say, there’s no evidence that aliens are visiting Earth.

But the deeper question is a little more unsettling. Do I believe there are aliens in the Universe?

The observable – or inferrable universe. This may just be a small component of the whole ball game.

The Universe is huge. The very edge of the Universe we can see is known as the observable Universe. The first light in the Universe has been traveling through space for 13.8 billion years to reach our eyes. And because of the expansion of the Universe, those regions are now more than 46 billion light years away from us.

That’s just the observable Universe. The actual physical Universe is much larger. Hundreds of billions, trillions, quadrillions or more light years across. Maybe it’s even infinite.

Forever is a long way.

And we know that the Universe is old. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years. Our Milky Way has been around for almost that entire period. The Solar System showed up a relatively recent 4.5 billion years ago. We’re late to a party that’s been raging for almost 10 billion years already.

Fossil evidence tells us that life formed here on Earth pretty much as quickly as it was possible to do so. Just a few hundred million years after the Earth formed, and it wasn’t entirely a ball of molten rock, life popped up and started evolving.

Hematite tubes from the hydrothermal vent deposits that represent the oldest microfossils and evidence for life on Earth. The remains are at least 3.7 billion years old. Credit: Matthew Dodd/UCL

Multiply the Universe’s age by its size and you get a place that really should be teeming with life, and yet we don’t see any evidence of aliens. Not in cigars nor saucers.

This is of course, the Fermi Paradox, and we’ve talked about this several times in the past. We can’t seem to find evidence of aliens, or their robotic spacecraft which should be busily colonizing the Milky Way turning every planet they reach into more robots.

The Fermi Paradox has been the source of arguments and existential terror for many.

In fact, if the Fermi Paradox doesn’t bother you in an existential way, then I don’t think you’ve thought about the Fermi Paradox enough.

Are there aliens? There might be single-celled, simple organisms across the Universe. But more complex animals like we have here on Earth might be incredibly uncommon.

Earth, seen from space, above the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA

This is the idea of the Rare Earth hypothesis, which was put forward in the year 2000 in a book by paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee. If you have any interest in this subject, I highly recommend you give it a read.

In Rare Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that Earth was lucky in many factors that we never really thought about before.

The Earth is the right distance from the center of the Milky Way so we’re not bombarded by radiation, but not too far so that we’re in the outskirts, with no heavy elements.

We orbit the right kind of star, and the right configuration of other planets in the Solar System. No big bully super-Jupiters that caused havoc with our planet or kicked us out of the Solar System entirely.

The orbit of the Earth has been stable for a long time, following a roughly circular orbit around the Sun. Our planet is the right size and density for life to survive and thrive. With plate tectonics, which help recycle our rocks and atmospheric gasses, so we don’t become a hellworld like Venus.

With a single large Moon that helped regulate our tides and provided an environment where some lifeforms could have been forced to find a better way.

And then some kind of secret sauce that helped give Earth life the kick it needed to go from simple to complex lifeforms.

Maybe there’s life everywhere, but we’ll never find anything more complex than bacteria. Or maybe we’ll never find anything anywhere. Ever.

A bright Taurid meteor falls over Deadfall Basin, near the base of Mount Eddy in California. Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint.

I understand why the search for UFOs is so fascinating for people, and why many think that’s a reasonable default answer for seeing glowing lights in the sky. But for me, I want to know for sure that we’re not alone, that there are other aliens lifeforms and maybe even civilizations out there among the stars.

I don’t believe UFOs are aliens, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s anyone else in the entire Universe.

And that’s why I think we should dedicate ourselves to finding out the answer. Listen to stars for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, search planets for the chemical signatures of alien life. Scour our own Solar System for anything. Under the rocks on Mars or under the oceans of Europa.

If it does turn out that we’re alone? What then? Do we have a greater responsibility to take care of ourselves and our planet, to make sure the candlelight of life and intelligence doesn’t flicker out?

Now you know how I feel about aliens, what about you? Do you think we’re being visited on a regular basis? Do you think there are aliens out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered? Or do you think we’re all alone in the Universe. I’d like to know your thoughts.

In our next episode, we’re going to talk about one of the biggest current mysteries in astronomy: Fast Radio Bursts. They were only recently discovered, and they’re a total mystery. No answers next time, only questions.

What would we do if aliens actually visited us here on Earth? How prepared are our governments to deal with them? It turns out, there are some specific plans and preparations, and I detail them in this video.

We’re Not Saying It’s Aliens Because It’s Not Aliens. But Check Out These UFO Data Visualizations

The number of UFO sightings per year, Credit: Sam Monfort

When it comes to conspiracy theories and modern preoccupations, few things are more popular than unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and alien abductions. For over half a century, there have been rumors, reports, and urban legends about aliens coming to Earth, dabbling with our genetics, and conducting weird (and often invasive) experiments on our citizens.

And while opinions on what drives this popular phenomenon tend to differ (some say hysteria, others that it is media-driven), a few things are clear. For one, sightings appear to take place far more in the United States than anywhere else in the world. And in recent years, these sightings have been on the rise!

Such are the conclusions of a series of visualizations based on the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Established in 1974 (and located in Davenport, Washington), the National UFO Reporting Center is “dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data”. Since that time, they have been monitoring UFO sightings worldwide and have maintained careful logs about the 104,947 sightings that have taken place since 1905.

The geographic distribution of UFO sightings. Credit: sammonfort3

Using this data, Sam Monfort – a Doctoral Candidate from the department of Human Factors & Applied Cognition at George Mason University – produced a series of visuals that illustrate the history of UFO sightings. And based on the visualized trends, some rather interesting conclusions can be drawn. The most obvious is that the geographical distribution of sightings is hardly even. For starters, reports in the USA were equal to about 2500 sightings per 10 million people.

This is almost 300 times higher than the global average. Based on individual states, the concentration of sightings was also quite interesting. Apparently, more sightings happen (per 10 million people) in the West and Northwest, with the highest numbers coming from Washington and Montana. Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico also made strong showings, while the Great Lakes and Midwestern states were all consistent with the national median.

On the opposite coast, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire all had a good number of sightings per capita, though the state of New York even as New York was beneath the national median. Texas actually ranked the lowest, and was followed by the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. But as Monfort told Universe Today via email, this may be slightly skewed because of who is collecting the information:

“[I]t’s worth mentioning that the NUFORC is an American agency (“N” stands for “National”). They make an effort to record international sightings (phone banks staffed 24/7), but I’d guess that sightings in the USA are still over-represented. Honestly, I’d bet that the NUFORC being based in Seattle is the main reason we see so many more sightings in the States. A more thorough analysis might cross-reference sightings from other agencies, like MUFON.”

The geographic breakdown of annual UFO sightings (per 10 million people) in the US. Credit: sammonfort3

Canadians did not do much better, coming at second place after the United States with 1000 sightings per 10 million people. And according to a recent article by Allan Maki of The Globe and Mail, its becoming more common – with a record 1982 sightings reported in 2012. He also suggests that this could be due to a combination of growing interest in the subject and reduced stigma.

Iceland, the UK, Australia, the Virgin Islands and Cyprus all ranked a distant third, with between 250 and 500 sightings per 100 million people per year. New Zealand, Mexico, Israel and the Gulf States also produced considerable returns, as did the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Danemark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

From this distribution, one might make the generalization that more developed nations are more likely to report UFOs (i.e. better record-keeping and all that). And this is a possibility which Monfort explored. In another visualization, he cross-referenced the number of sightings in a respective country with amount of internet access it has (per 100 people), and a limited correlation was shown.

Nations like Israel and the Gulf States have a higher number of sightings than neighboring countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while South Africa has more reported sightings than several North African and Sub-Saharan African nations surveyed. However, fast-developing nations like Russia, China and India showed a lower than average level of sightings, while Guyana and Suriname showed a higher than average level.

The number of UFO sightings per year, subdivided based on the type of object reported. Credit: sammonfort3

France, Italy and the Czech Republic also lagged behind many of their European counterparts, and Germany and Spain were only slightly higher than the average. So much like distribution by state within the US, internet access does not seem to be a consistent determining factor. Another interesting visualization was the one which broke down the sightings per decade based on the nature of the sighting.

As you can see from the table above, when UFO sightings first began in the early 20th century, they reportedly took the form of either a sphere or a cigar-shaped object. This differs from the 1920s, when “flying saucers” began to appear, and remained the dominant trend throughout World War II and the Cold War era. And ever since the 1990s – what Monfort refers to as “post-internet” era – the most common UFO sightings took the form of bright lights.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was a combination of factors,” said Monfort. “Like I mentioned in the blog, it seems a lot more plausible that someone would see strange lights in the sky than a flying object with a concrete shape (like a saucer). Seeing a shape implies that the object is pretty close to you, “and if it’s that close why didn’t you take a video of it?”

As for other factors, Monfort considers the possibility of fireworks and (as one comment on his blog suggested) Chinese lanterns. “Those are the little paper balloons you light a candle in and let fly. Some of the bright light sightings could be those, especially since I’d bet most Chinese lanterns are released in groups, with several people going out in groups to release them together. (Often people report formations of lights.)”

Naturally, the data does not support any ironclad conclusions, and plenty can be said about its reliability and methodology. After all, while UFO sightings are documented, they are famous for being routinely debunked. Nevertheless, visuals like these are interesting in illustrated the patterns of sightings, and can allow for some insightful speculation as to why they take place.

Further Reading: Visualize This

Chilean Government Releases Declassified UFO Video

The term UFO has a way of stirring up speculation and controversy. Even though this bland acronym refers only to an airborne object who’s appearance hasn’t been explained yet – with no references whatsoever to “aliens” or “extra-terrestrials” – one cannot mention it without inspiring talk of little green men and massive conspiracies.

This has certainly been the reaction to a video that was recently released by the Committee for the Study of Anomalous Air Phenomena (CEFAA), the Chilean government agency responsible for investigating UFOs. Originally captured by a helicopter belonging to the Chilean navy two years ago, the release of this 10-minute video coincided with the conclusion of the Committee’s investigation into the anomaly.

Such is the procedure of the CEFAA whenever a UFO – or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) as they call them – comes to their attention. And once an investigation into the sighting is concluded, the details are released to the public. Interestingly, this particular encounter – which took place on November 11th, 2014, in the coastal region between San Antonio and Quinteros – had them stumped.

A Chilean Navy version of the Europcopter Airbus Cougar AS-532, which was being flown by the aircrew that spotted the UFO. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Evogol

According to their report, a Chilean navy helicopter (an Airbus Cougar AS-532, like the one pictured above) was conducting a daytime patrol when a technician aboard spotted an object flying in their airspace. The technician then directed the helicopter’s infrared camera towards it and began filming. As the CEFAA recently indicated on their website:

“At 1:52 pm, while filming the terrain, the technician observed a strange object flying to the left over the ocean. Soon both men observed it with the naked eye. They noticed that the velocity and the altitude of the object appeared to be about the same as the helicopter, and estimated that the object was approximately 35 to 40 miles (55-65 km) away. It was traveling W/NW, according to the Captain. The technician aimed the camera at the object immediately and zoomed in with the infra red (IR) for better clarity.”

Further details from the investigation revealed that the officers reported the sighting to the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC) in Santiago. The DGAC reported that no air traffic was authorized to be in the region, and that they could detect no trace of the object on their radar. They also confirmed that their attempts to communicate using the standard radio frequencies (which the helicopter crew had also attempted) yielded no response.

What was even more strange was the way the object appeared as two “hot spots”, which looked to be connected. In addition, on two occasions, the object threw off some kind of trail before finally disappearing into the clouds. According to the technician who filmed it, the plume of material appeared to be very hot, which was indicated from the footage that showed how the stream glowed bright in the infrared band.

The route of the helicopter, based on the displayed geographic coordinates displayed on the camera. Credit: CEFAA

Much like the object itself, the CEFAA investigation was hard-pressed to explain the appearance of these hot plumes:

“Some analysts have suggested the hypothesis that it is a medium-sized line aircraft and that the stelae of the detachable element may be the reserve water inside the apparatus, thrown by the crew. However, meteorology asserts that neither the altitude at which the object moved, nor the ambient temperature of that moment, allowed such a wake of condensation.”

After the encounter, the Chilean Navy submitted the footage to the CEFAA, which has spent the past two years looking into it. However, their investigation proved inconclusive. As General Ricardo Bermúdez, Director of CEFAA during the investigation, told Leslie Kean of the Huffington Post, “We do not know what it was, but we do know what it was not.”

In essence, they ruled that the anomalous object could not have been a military or civilian aircraft. They also ruled out the possibility that the clouds it emitted were caused by the expulsion of waste water, and that the object was too low to emit contrails. In the end, the CEFAA cataloged this object as an UAP, which is standard practice whenever a particular sighting merits that designation.

Image captured from the footage shot by the Chilean Navy helicopter, showing the thermal trail cast by the object, and its two bright spots. Credit: CEFAA

However, since the video went public, one UFO hoax-buster has come forward with what he believes to be a sound explanation for the sighting. According to Mick West, an administrator at Metabunk.org – a website dedicated to debunking unscientific theories – what was seen in the video was actually the result a four-engine airplane leaving flying out of Santiago and leaving aerodynamic contrails in its wake.

Using online flight records, West tracked down two flights that were in the same airspace at the time – LA330 (from Santiago to La Serena) and IB6830 (from Santiago to Madrid). After examining the flights GPS data and conducting a 3D analysis, West concluded that the four-engine IB6830 was the likeliest culprit. The thermal plumes were engine exhaust, and its failure to show up on radar was because the radar operators were looking in the wrong place.

As West explained in his write-up about the incident:

“At the time this was spotted (the very first sighting on the video, at 13:52:34) IB6830 was actually around 35 miles away. However it would very quickly get further away. By 13:57 IB6830 would be 65 miles away. This explain why it was not seen on radar (IB6830 was on radar, just not where they thought it was).”

Image captured from the video showing two connected white circular lights, or “hot spots”. “Envoltura” means “envelope”, refers to the glow surrounding the two spots. Credit: CEFAA

In addition to being in exactly the right position (according to West), aerodynamic contrails explains the thermal flare and the two “thermal spotlights” on the object itself (see image above). Basically, the pilots were looking at the plane’s engine glow, which was caused by its two engines on either side of the fuselage glowing hot and giving the appearance of two connected hot spots.

As the plane climbed, its engine exhaust created hot trails that looked like plumes when viewed through an IR camera. Given the fact that the plane was at a higher altitude than originally reported, the presence of contrails would therefore be a possibility, which is something the CEFAA had ruled because the object was believed to be too close to the ground for those to form.

As William of Ockham famously said, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In this case, it would seem that West’s hypothesis accounts for all the knowns and unknowns in this case, and is therefore the correct one. In the coming weeks and months, the Chilean government may choose to revisit their ruling and reconsider designating this a UAP.

But in the meantime, UFO enthusiasts are likely to interpret this however they want. And many (not all) may indeed see this video as further confirmation that extra-terrestrials are already among us!

Cue the theme music from X-Files! And be sure to watch West’s video explaining his conclusions:

Further Reading: CEFAA, Huff Post, Metabunk

Interesting Facts About Venus

Venus was once considered a twin to Earth, as it’s roughly the same size and is relatively close to our planet. But once astronomers looked at it seriously in the past half-century or so, a lot of contrasts emerged. The biggest one — Venus is actually a hothouse planet with a runaway greenhouse effect, making it inhospitable to life as we know it. Here are some more interesting facts about Venus.

1. Venus’ atmosphere killed spacecraft dead very quickly:
You sure don’t want to hang around on Venus’ surface. The pressure there is so great that spacecraft need shielding to survive. The atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide with bits of sulfuric acid, NASA says, which is deadly to humans. And if that’s not bad enough, the temperature at the surface is higher than 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit). The Soviet Venera probes that ventured to the surface decades ago didn’t last more than two hours.

2. But conditions are more temperate higher in the atmosphere:
While you still couldn’t breathe the atmosphere high above Venus’ surface, at about  50 kilometers (31 miles) you’ll at least find the same pressure and atmosphere density as that of Earth. A very preliminary NASA study suggests that at some point, we could deploy airships for humans to explore Venus. And the backers suggest it may be more efficient to go to Venus than to Mars, with one large reason being that Venus is closer to Earth.

Artist's conception of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission, a far-out concept being developed by NASA, approaching the planet. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/YouTube (screenshot)
Artist’s conception of the High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission, a far-out concept being developed by NASA, approaching the planet. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center/YouTube (screenshot)

3. Venus is so bright it is sometimes mistaken for a UFO:
The planet is completely socked in by cloud, which makes it extremely reflective to observers looking at the sky on Earth. Its brightness is between -3.8 and -4.8 magnitude, which makes it brighter than the stars in the sky. In fact, it’s so bright that you can see it go through phases in a telescope — and it can cast shadows! So that remarkable appearance can confuse people not familiar with Venus in the sky, leading to reports of airplanes or UFOs.

4. And those clouds mean you can’t see the surface:
If you were to look at Venus with your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to see its surface. That’s because the clouds are so thick that they obscure what is below. NASA got around that problem when it sent the Magellan probe to Venus for exploration in the 1990s. The probe orbited the planet and got a complete surface picture using radar.

Artist's impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the surface of Venus Credit: ESA/AOES

5. Venus has volcanoes and a fresh face:
Venus has fresh lava flows on its surface, which implies that volcanoes erupted anywhere from the past few hundred years to the past three million years. What this means is there are few impact craters on the surface, likely because the lava flowed over them and filled them in. While scientists believe the volcanoes are responsible, the larger question is how frequently this occurs.

6. Venus has a bizarre rotation:
Venus not only rotates backwards compared to the other planets, but it rotates very slowly. In fact, a day on Venus (243 days) lasts longer than it takes the planet to orbit around the Sun (225 days). Even more strangely, the rotation appears to be slowing down; Venus is turning 6.5 minutes more slowly in 2014 than in the early 1990s. One theory for the change could be the planet’s weather; its thick atmosphere may grind against the surface and slow down the rotation.

Artist's conception of Venus Express doing an aerobraking maneuver in the atmosphere in 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
Artist’s conception of Venus Express doing an aerobraking maneuver in the atmosphere in 2014. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

7. Venus has no moons or rings:
The two planets closest to the Sun have no rings or moons, which puts Venus in the company of only one other world: Mercury. Every other planet in the Solar System has one or the other, or in many cases both! Why this is is a mystery to scientists, but they are doing as much comparison of different planets as possible to understand what’s going on.

8. Venus appears to be a spot where spacecraft go to extremes:
We briefly mentioned the Venera probes that landed on the surface, but that’s not the only unusual spacecraft activity at Venus. In 2014, the European Space Agency put an orbiter — that’s right, a spacecraft not designed to survive the atmosphere — into the upper parts of Venus’ dense atmosphere. Venus Express did indeed survive the encounter (before it ran out of gas), with the goal of providing more information about how the atmosphere looks at high altitudes. This could help with landings in the future.

As you can see, Venus is an interesting, mysterious, and extremely hostile world. With such a corrosive atmosphere, such incredible heat, a volcanically-scarred surface, and thick clouds of toxic gas, one would have to be crazy to want to live there. And yet, there are some who believe Venus could be terraformed for human use, or at the very least explored using airships, in the coming generations.

But that’s the thing about interesting places. Initially, they draw their fair share of research and attention. But eventually, the dreamers and adventurers come.

The CIA Cheekily Blames Itself For 1950s UFO Sightings

A single aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s accounted for half of all UFO sightings collected by the Air Force at the time, according to a newly highlighted CIA report. The agency made a coy reference to the report on its Twitter account Monday (Dec. 29): “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s? It was us,” the tweet read.

The aircraft was known as the U-2, and was deemed an essential piece of security hardware in an era that had very few satellites. Recall it wasn’t until 1957 that the first satellite was launched — Sputnik, a Soviet one — and it wasn’t until 1958 that the first American one (Explorer 1) followed.

According to the Air Force, the U-2 was a top-secret project completed by Lockheed Skunk Works and Kelly Johnson, and which flew in August 1955. It was used for flying over the Soviet Union (a former republic that now includes Russia and several surrounding countries) starting in the late 1950s. In 1962, the aircraft played a pivotal role in the Cuban Missile Crisis after a U-2 pilot captured photographs of nuclear missiles in that country.

A photograph of a launch pad at the Tyaratam Missile Testing Range in the Soviet Union taken by a U-2 flight. It is now a part of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Central Intelligence Agency
A photograph of a launch pad at the Tyaratam Missile Testing Range in the Soviet Union taken by a U-2 flight. It is now a part of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Central Intelligence Agency

U-2’s UFO confusion is explained in the report, called “The CIA and the U-2 Program, 1954-1974.” (At least some of the information covered was also in a 2013 release about the U-2 program, which Universe Today covered at the time.)

High-altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) … Such reports were most prevalent in the early evening hours from pilots of airliners from east to west. When the Sun dropped below the horizon of an airliner flying at 20,000 feet, the plane was in darkness. But, if a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner at the same time, its horizon from an altitude of 60,000 feet was considerably more distant, and being so high in the sky, its silver wings would catch and reflect the rays of the Sun.

According to the CIA, the pilots talked about their sightings with the local air traffic controllers and even wrote into the Air Force. This led to the famous Project Blue Book investigation that dealt with UFO sightings. “This enabled the investigators to eliminate the majority of the UFO reports, although they could not reveal to the letter writers the true cause of the UFO sightings,” the CIA report adds.

For more information about Project Blue Book, you can consult this CIA webpage or this mini-library of information at the National Archives. A version of the U-2 still flew as of at least 2005, which you can read more about at this Air Force website.

SpaceX Says Falcon 9 Upper Stage Did Not Explode in Orbit (and it wasn’t a UFO, either)

When the US Space Surveillance Network indicated they were tracking additional objects in orbit following Sunday’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s next generation rocket, speculation began among satellite trackers that the upper stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1. rocket may have exploded. But SpaceX issued a statement today that their data indicates no such explosion occurred, and that insulation may have come off the second stage, creating extra objects.

Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed via Twitter that reports of a “fuzzy” UFO over South Africa following the launch came from liquid oxygen released by the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage.


In the September 29 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, SpaceX successfully launched and deployed the Canadian Space Agency’s CASSIOPE weather satellite (Cascade, Smallsat, and Ionospheric Polar Explorer) and six additional small satellites.

SpaceTrack was tracking 20 objects from the launch, but only fourteen should have been in orbit (CASSIOPE, 6 small sats, 4 spacers from the POPACS satellite trio, the second stage and two fairings) leaving ssix objects unaccounted for.

“Regarding the rumors you may have heard about the Falcon 9 second stage, in short, our data confirms there was no rupture of any kind on the second stage,” SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin wrote in an email on October 1.

SpaceX gave this account of what likely happened after launch:

Following separation of the satellites to their correct orbit, the Falcon 9 second stage underwent a controlled venting of propellants (fuel and pressure were released from the tank) and the stage was successfully safed. During this process, it is possible insulation came off the fuel dome on the second stage and is the source of what some observers incorrectly interpreted as a rupture in the second stage. This material would be in several pieces and be reflective in the Space Track radar. It is also possible the debris came from the student satellite separation mechanisms onboard.

The new, more powerful version of the Falcon 9 is powered by a cluster of nine of the new Merlin 1D engines that are about 50% more powerful compared to the standard Merlin 1C engines and can therefore boost a much heavier cargo load to the ISS and beyond. The Falcon 9 v.1.1 is taller than a standard Falcon 9: about 22 stories high vs. 13.

Musk told reporters at a post-launch news conference that they attempted to reignite the upper stage after payload separation for demonstrating the capability of putting satellites into a geostationary transfer orbit. However, the reignition sequence was aborted after a problem was detected.

Several images and videos were posted online of a UFO seen over South Africa, Madagascar, Botswana, and Malawi. But it was quickly determined to be a cloud of rocket propellant surrounding the spent Falcon 9 upper stage.

SpaceX said they will continue to review their data to help identify the source of the extra debris.

CIA’s Declassified Documents Reveals Secrets About Area 51 and UFOs

The CIA has released a 355-page document which officially acknowledges that Area 51 in Nevada does exist, and the agency comes clean about their weather balloon cover stories. The document covers the U-2 and SR-71 spyplane programs and Project OXCART, the aerial reconnaissance programs, from 1954 to 1974.

Nope, no revelations about extraterrestrial spacecraft or alien bodies hidden at the base, but a really grainy map showing the location of Area 51 is included.

While Area 51 has been the subject of fascination for conspiracy theorists and paranormal enthusiasts — and is entrenched in UFO-ology and pop culture — the newly declassified information (with surprisingly few redactions) admits the base was a top-secret aircraft testing facility for Cold War reconnaissance of the Soviet Union.

That UFO sightings increased during the times of the flight tests was an unexpected side effect, the document says:

High-altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect-a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). In the mid-1950s, most commercial airliners flew at altitudes between 10,000 and 20,000 feet and military aircraft like the B-47s and B-57s operated at altitudes below 40,000 feet. Consequently once U-2s started flying at altitudes above 60,000 feet, air-traffic controllers began receiving increasing numbers of UFO reports.

The document also explains Project Blue Book and other frequently associated UFO story staples. The job of Project Blue Book was actually to figure out when civilians were reporting UFOs that were actually U-2s and then work out how to keep that from happening again.

Why did people on the ground and even other pilots report “shiny” UFOs? The document explains that the U-2s silver wings were at the right altitude that when the ground below, or even planes flying at a lower altitude were in darkness, the U-2 was in sunlight and its silver wings would glint in the sunlight:

Such reports were most prevalent in the early evening hours from pilots of airliners flying from east to west. When the sun dropped below the horizon of an airliner flying at 20,000 feet. the plane was in darkness. But, if a U-2 was airborne in the vicinity of the airliner at the same its horizon from an altitude of 60,000 feet was considerably more distant, and being so high in the sky, its silver wings would catch and reflect the ray of the sun and appear to the airliner pilot 40,000 feet below to be fiery objects. Even during the daylight hours, the silver bodies of the high-flying U-2s could catch the sun and cause reflections or glints that could be seen at lower altitudes and even on the ground. At this time, no one believed manned flight was possible above 60,000 feet, so no one expected to see an object so high in the sky.

A handwritten document about the U-2 spyplane design that was included in the information released by the CIA about test flights and Area 51.
A handwritten document about the U-2 spyplane design that was included in the information released by the CIA about test flights and Area 51.

But then, not all the UFO reports were explained by U-2 flights.

Air Force investigators then attempted to explain such sightings by linking them to natural phenomena. BLUE BOOK investigators regularly called on the Agency’s Project Staff in Washington to check reported UFO sightings against U-2 flight logs. This enabled the investigators to eliminate the majority of the UFO reports, although they could not reveal to the letter writers the true cause of the UFO sightings. U-2 and later OXCART flights accounted for more than one-half of all UFO reports during the late 1950s and most of the 1960s.

In the document, the CIA admits the weather balloon stuff was just a cover story, but it was the standard operating procedure for how to explain away the sightings as well as debris from any crashes. However, this cover story ended up having disastrous results in May of 1960 when the crash of a U-2 in Russia and the subsequent capture of pilot Gary Powers set in motion a pattern of mistrust between the US and USSR that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

After the plane and the pilot went missing, and with the fate of the plane and pilot unknown, the CIA had NASA release a statement that they had a weather airplane that went off course over the Soviet Union because the pilot had passed out due to a loss of oxygen. That story was quickly proven to be a hoax when the USSR produced the crashed U-2 plane and the pilot, who survived the crash and who had admitted to spying.

The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted in 2005 by Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives. Originally, the CIA had released a heavily redacted document with all mention of Area 51 blacked out. This new document reveals pretty much everything except names of military personnel and private citizens involved.

Richelson has pointed out that the location of Area 51 was not a particularly well-kept secret. Its location appears in satellite imagery like Google Maps and Google Earth, as well as in books on aerial surveillance.


You can wade through the 355 page document here.
If you enjoy military and aircraft history, its a great read. One interesting fact revealed is that President Eisenhower wanted the pilots of these planes to be non-US citizens. “It was his belief that, should a U-2 come down in hostile territory, it would be much easier for the United States to deny any responsibility for the activity if the pilot was not an American,” the document reports.

And while I have this chance, I’m going to share a great graphic going around Twitter on how to identify any strange light in the sky you may see:
light in the sky

NASA’s Mighty Eagle Takes Flight; Finds Its Target

No, it’s not a UFO — it’s NASA’s “Mighty Eagle”, a robotic prototype lander that successfully and autonomously found its target during a 32-second free flight test at Marshall Space Flight Center yesterday, August 16.

You have to admit though, Mighty Eagle does bear a resemblance to classic B-movie sci-fi spacecraft (if, at only 4 feet tall, markedly less threatening to the general populace.)

Fueled by 90% pure hydrogen peroxide, Mighty Eagle is a low-cost “green” spacecraft designed to operate autonomously during future space exploration missions. It uses its onboard camera and computer to determine the safest route to a pre-determined landing spot.

During the August 16 test flight, Mighty Eagle ascended to 30 feet, identified a target painted on the ground 21 feet away, flew to that position and landed safely — all without being controlled directly.

“This is huge. We met our primary objective of this test series — getting the vehicle to seek and find its target autonomously with high precision,” said Mike Hannan, controls engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center. “We’re not directing the vehicle from the control room. Our software is driving the vehicle to think for itself now. From here, we’ll test the robustness of the software to fly higher and descend faster, expecting the lander to continue to seek and find the target.”

In the wake of a dramatically unsuccessful free flight test of the Morpheus craft on August 9, another green lander designed by Johnson Space Center, the recent achievements by the Mighty Eagle team are encouraging.

Here’s a video from a previous test flight on August 8:

Future tests planned through September will have the lander ascend up to 100 feet before landing. Read more here.

The Mighty Eagle prototype lander was developed by the Marshall Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, Headquarters Science Mission Directorate Image/video: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Spiral Seen Over the Middle East Likely Russian Missile

Remember the Norway Spiral back in 2009 and the Australian Spiral in 2010? On June 7, 2012 there was another swirling spiral of light, this time see in the skies over the Middle East. People across the region reported seeing a “UFO” and soon videos began showing up on YouTube.

The strange sight has been confirmed to be a Russian ballistic missile test of the Topol ICBM from the Kapustin Yar firing range near Astrakhan in southern Russia.
Continue reading “Spiral Seen Over the Middle East Likely Russian Missile”

Aliens Don’t Want To Eat Us, Says Former SETI Director

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Alien life probably isn’t interested in having us for dinner, enslaving us or laying eggs in our bellies, according to a recent statement by former SETI director Jill Tarter.

(Of course, Hollywood would rather have us think otherwise.)

In a press release announcing the Institute’s science and sci-fi SETIcon event, taking place June 22 – 24 in Santa Clara, CA, Tarter — who was the inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in the film “Contact” — disagreed with both filmmakers and Stephen Hawking over the portrayal of extraterrestrials as monsters hungry for human flesh.

“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” Tarter said. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.

“Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”

SETI's Alien Telescope Array (ATA) listens day and night for a signal from space (SETI)

Tarter, 68, recently announced her stepping down as director of SETI in order to focus on funding for the Institute, which is currently running only on private donations. Funding SETI, according to Tarter, is investing in humanity’s future.

“Think about it. If we detect a signal, we could learn about their past (because of the time their signal took to reach us) and the possibility of our future. Successful detection means that, on average, technologies last for a long time. Understanding that it is possible to find solutions to our terrestrial problems and to become a very old civilization, because someone else has managed to do just that, is hugely important! Knowing that there can be a future may motivate us to achieve it.”

On the other hand, concern that searching the sky for signs of life — as well as sending out your own — could call down hungry alien monsters would make a good case for keeping quiet. And a quiet search may not get the necessary funding to keep going. I can see where Tarter is coming from.

Let’s just hope she’s right. (About the eating part, at least.)

Top image: Alien 3, © 20th Century Fox. Tip of the tinfoil hat to EarthSky.org