From the March 2013 issue

Close encounters

May 2013: Careful observation is key to avoiding the unidentified.
By | Published: March 25, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Have you ever seen a UFO? I have — twice. Well, kind of, at first.

My first “close encounter” occurred in March 1970 as I stood in a field at sunset. Facing west, I scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the elusive planet Mercury. I spotted a light, but it was much too bright to be Mercury. It couldn’t be Venus, which was a morning planet at the time. Besides, this light was moving silently and steadily toward me. Suddenly, it made an abrupt 90° turn and disappeared. I was astounded. No earthly craft could have conducted such a maneuver!

Close encounter number two took place at an evening outdoor concert about 20 summers ago. As I gazed upward at the evening sky (something all amateur astronomers do at evening outdoor concerts), I noticed a formation of lights looming above the treetops and edging closer. They were lined up parallel to the horizon and moving from side to side. The unearthly sight conjured up an image of concertgoers fleeing in panic as death rays rained down from an invading armada of alien craft.
Each of these episodes is what ufologists refer to as a “close encounter of the first kind” — a visual sighting of a UFO. As exciting as mine were, they quickly became IFOs (identified flying objects).
In the first instance, I opted to remain in the field rather than rush indoors to describe the incident to my wife. It wasn’t long before my ears picked up the far-off drone of an airplane engine. As the plane neared, I noticed a flash of sunlight reflecting off its fuselage. My UFO must have been a similar reflection off one of the aircraft’s wingtips. The plane might have made a banking maneuver, causing the reflection to race across the wings at a 90° angle to the plane’s motion.
The would-be alien invasion at the outdoor concert was also airplane-produced. As I tensed to make a mad dash for the exit, I heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching airplane. Mounted underneath was a lighting system similar to the lit-up message boards that blimps carry at nighttime sporting events. A fleet of marauding spacecraft turned out to be nothing more than an advertisement for a local radio station.

An Iridium flare, like the one pictured on the right side of this long-exposure image, is just one night-sky occurrence that confuses the general public. // Miguel Claro
Those two episodes were the closest I’ve ever gotten to making a bona fide UFO sighting. Despite thousands of hours of backyard astronomy, not to mention thousands more on camping trips and nighttime strolls, my lifetime UFO count is zip, zilch, zero! I suspect the same holds true for most experienced amateur astronomers.

Truth be told, amateur astronomers are lousy UFO reporters. We know the night sky too well to be fooled by after-dark sights such as planetary apparitions, brilliant meteors, International Space Station flyovers, Iridium flares, and other events that confuse and alarm the general public. We see Venus; John and Jane Doe see a hovering UFO.

Outside at the telescope a number of years ago, I looked up to see a luminous patch of light high in the southern sky. Circular and multicolored, it slowly expanded and faded from view. I guessed that it was some sort of high-altitude scientific experiment and calmly returned to the telescope. At the same time, throngs of East Coast residents were rushing to their phones to call their local newspapers or police in a frantic effort to find out what was invading our skies. There was no need to panic. The spectral sight was indeed terrestrial in origin. A suborbital rocket fired from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia had released a barium cloud into the ionosphere to study the dynamics of the upper atmosphere.
A number of recent UFO sightings have described mysterious formations of yellow lights that bob up and down in the twilight or evening sky. If you’ve ever been at an evening wedding or holiday celebration, you know their nature. The bobbing yellow lights are Chinese lanterns — small paper “hot air balloons” carried aloft and illuminated by small candles suspended beneath them.

If I’ve piqued your interest in UFOs, check out “Bad Astronomer” Philip Plait’s article “The science behind UFOs” (p. 44). Plait relates his own UFO experience and then describes and explains several notable “extraterrestrial” sightings.

The next time you see something unidentifiable in the night sky, go through the usual list of possibilities — planet, aircraft, satellite, weather balloon, and so on. If none of them work, wait and observe. Just do it from a concealed location — you never know!

Questions, comments, or suggestions? Email me at Next month: Seeing double (stars)! Clear skies!