Tag: UFO

Did a pilot really drop a plane into a nosedive to avoid Venus?

By Phil Plait | April 18, 2012 10:30 am

I fly a lot, and sometimes get the sneaky suspicion that the airline isn’t always telling me everything I need to know about why the plane is delayed (assuming they don’t want to say "A doohickey fell off mid-flight"), why there’s turbulence ("We’re flying through an active hurricane"), or why they’re out of food ("The rabid badgers that broke loose in first class ate all the honey-roasted peanuts").

But what was allegedly first claimed to be "severe turbulence" on an Air Canada flight in January 2011 turned out to be something a wee bit more scary: the First Officer (FO) woke up from a nap, and thought he saw an approaching Air Force jet, so he plunged the plane into a dive. The Captain then took over and pulled the plane up, resulting in a violent ride for the passengers.

The thing here is that a lot of folks are reporting that the FO mistook Venus for the oncoming airplane, which is why he took the plane into the nosedive. For example, Reuters, CNN, and the NY Post all imply or outright say that.

However, I don’t think that’s the case, or it certainly isn’t that clear. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued a report, and while it mentions Venus, it doesn’t look like that was the immediate cause of the incident:

The FO initially mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft but the captain advised again that the target was at the 12 o’clock position and 1000 feet below. The captain of ACA878 and the oncoming aircraft crew flashed their landing lights. The FO continued to scan visually for the aircraft. When the FO saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them. The FO reacted to the perceived imminent collision by pushing forward on the control column.

[Emphasis mine.]

Note how it says the First Officer initially saw Venus, but then continued to look around until he saw the oncoming plane. At that point, for whatever reason, he misinterpreted the position of the plane and took his own aircraft into a dive.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, Piece of mind, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Air Canada, UFO, Venus

Man calls emergency service to report flashing lights in the sky…

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2011 7:41 am

Recently, a man called the Hertfordshire (UK) police to report flashing lights in the sky… and, well, listen for yourself:


Heh. Well, I’m actually glad he called back to admit his mistake!

You might think this is really unusual, but this call doesn’t surprise me at all. Take a look at the links in the Related Posts section below; people have reported Jupiter and balloons as UFOs, and the Moon has made an appearance once or twice as well. Even dust motes on old photographic plates have spurred warnings of a menace from space…

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to Nancy Atkinson.

Related posts:

NYC Fox station reports Jupiter and balloons as UFOs
It’s a UFO, by Jove
That’s no moon… oh, wait, yes it is.
Giant spaceships to attack December 2012?
9-1-1, that spells "Moon"


Holy UFO hoax!

By Phil Plait | February 9, 2011 12:00 pm

I have received approximately an infinite number of emails about a video purporting to show a UFO hovering over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The video went viral last week, with several others being released not long after. When I first saw it, I knew instantly it was a hoax. How? Watch for yourself.

It’s pretty cool, but an obvious hoax. Imagine you’re standing late at night videotaping the scene with a friend because it’s so pretty. Out of nowhere a bright light comes down out of the sky, hovers over one of the most famous temples on the planet, then flashes brilliantly and shoots straight up at fantastic speed.

Would you just stand there like a lump without showing any reaction at all, like the guy in the video?

Also, it seems a little weird that such an incredibly bright object could hang over this heavily visited site, even in the middle of the night, and there were no reports of any eyewitnesses. Just one video that turns up, and a few days later a couple more. Seriously?

And now this video has been conclusively shown to be faked. Read More

Giant spaceships to attack December 2012?

By Phil Plait | December 27, 2010 1:01 pm

Are there three giant spaceships on their way to Earth, dooming us to extinction when they arrive in — gasp! — December 2012?

Duh. No.

But you might think otherwise reading an article about this on The Examiner’s website. It documents the three spaceships, shows images, and even has quotes from a SETI astrophysicist!

SETI Astrophysicist Craig Kasnov (not to be confused with Craig Kasnoff ) has announced the approach to the Earth of 3 very large, very fast moving objects. The length of the "flying saucers" is in the range of tens of kilometers. Landing, according to calculations of scientists, should be in mid-December 2012. Date coincides with the end of the Mayan calendar.

There are some teeny, tiny, problems with this story, though. Like, the "spaceships" are actually image defects and aren’t real, there’s no way to figure out how big they from the picture, and the "astrophysicist" quoted in the article doesn’t even exist.

But gee, other than that…

1) The spaceship that wasn’t

examiner_ufo_dec20102It’s been a while since I’ve done a good ol’ smackdown debunking, so let’s take these one at a time. First things first: the spaceships. Shown here, as you can see, the article refers to a picture of a big blue wormy-thingy floating in space. What could it be? Well, because I don’t trust articles online talking about giant spaceships invading us (or anything anyone says about doomsday in 2012), I went to the original pictures themselves.

NASA has an image archive viewer called SkyView, which I used to use all the time when I worked on Hubble data. It has access to dozens of surveys of the sky taken using various telescopes, including the Second Digitized Sky Survey the UFO article mentions. Amazingly, the article gives coordinates for the "spaceships", so I took a look for myself. Read More


NYC Fox station reports Jupiter and balloons as UFOs

By Phil Plait | October 15, 2010 12:01 pm

ufos_zappingI know a lot of the media do their best when it comes to reporting science and astronomical-related stories, but sometimes they seem to go way out of their way — or, more accurately, not go out of their way at all — to report nonsense.

Case in point: Fox News in New York City. Yesterday, there were UFO reports from all over the city. Not to keep you in suspense, but those UFOs were actually hundreds of balloons released on Broadway to celebrate a visit by Madrid officials. You can see more about this by my friend Ben Radford and at Science-Based Parenting.

Note that balloons explain everything: the UFOs were in clusters, they moved randomly, they were seen as dots, nothing was reported on radar, they floated for hours, they slowly disappeared, the timing was right. As far as explanations go, we’re done here. [I’ll note that there were some reports of UFO earlier in the day, but those look just like balloons as well, probably from a different event.]

Now, I can forgive the Fox reporter for not knowing about the balloons; cases like this do happen. However, watch the video of the reporter: she clearly didn’t do any investigation at all of this other than to talk to a few people in the street (if the YouTube video gets taken down, you can watch it on the Fox page, but at lower res):

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MORE ABOUT: balloons, Fox News, Jupiter, UFO

It's a UFO, by Jove

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2010 7:07 am

Whenever I mention UFOs on the blog, I get a fair number of rabid comments calling me names, attacking me on small details while ignoring the big picture, and so on. Most of these come because of a simple statement I need to repeat often: astronomers report very few if any UFOs because for the most part, we understand what we’re seeing in the sky.

When we see a satellites, a glint off a distant airplane, birds, astronomical objects, lightning, or meteors, we can generally identify them and don’t need to call the police or the newspapers. The vast majority of people out there, however, are not familiar with the sky, and so when they see these things they can (understandably) freak out a little. That includes sightings of Venus and the Moon.

ufo_jupiterAnd now the king of the planets can join that list: via Fark comes the news that residents of Washington state have been calling the police to report a UFO low in the east after sunset. And that UFO has turned out to be none other than the planet Jupiter.

I’m not surprised. Jupiter is very bright and obvious in the sky right now. Since it’s getting dark earlier, people are outside when they’re not quite used to it being dark yet. And since Jupiter is rising at sunset, it’s low in the sky; people driving will see it through the window and think it’s following them. And it’s very, very common for people to think a bright object is actually a big object.

It’s a perfect confluence of events to promote UFO sightings. I should’ve seen it coming!

But there’s some good to come of this. For one, it means people are in fact going outside and looking up. That alone makes me happy. Also, these folks find out they’re looking at Jupiter, when maybe they didn’t even know they could see a planet at all (though I bet a few won’t believe the cops or papers). And the best part? The article about the Jupiter UFO reports gives some basic info about Jupiter, too. That’s great! Kudos to the Peninsula Daily News for taking this chance to get a little astronomical coolness out there to its readers.

Related posts:

Erie UFO sounds familiar
That’s no moon… oh, wait, yes it is
Aliens? Yes. UFOs? No.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Astronomy

Followup: Falcon 9 spiral light video

By Phil Plait | June 5, 2010 6:08 pm

Just thought y’all would like this video of the spiral over Australia caused by the Falcon 9 second stage booster. This really shows you the motion of the spin, as well as the bulk motion of the object across the sky; it moves just as you’d expect something in orbit to move. Shocking, I know.

Apparently, a lot of people saw it; Aussies must be early risers. Man, I’d love to see something like this. So cool.

Tip o’ the tin foil beanie to The Plane Talking blog.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Space
MORE ABOUT: Australia, Falcon 9, SpaceX, UFO

Oh, those Falcon UFOs!

By Phil Plait | June 5, 2010 10:03 am

Yesterday, a lot of Australians reported seeing a bizarre UFO.

Just before 6:00 a.m. local time, numerous reports came in about a spiral of light in the sky with a bright central spot. The light was actually spinning around, like a pinwheel! One site has pretty cool video of it, and pictures are turning up on the web as well.


Sound familiar? Yeah, it should: these reports are almost exactly like a spiral shaped light seen over Norway last year. The Norway sighting — a picture of it is below, on the right — was positively identified as a Russian missile, so of course as soon as I heard of this new Aussie sighting the first thing I thought of was that it was a rocket booster.

norway_spiralSo I leaned over my keyboard and was about to Google "rocket launch schedule" or something similar, when I suddenly stopped. I smiled, leaned back, and almost literally facepalmed myself. Gee, I thought to myself, what rocket would’ve launched yesterday morning?

Duh: the SpaceX Falcon 9! The private company successfully held its first test launch of the big rocket, blasting off from its Florida pad at 18:45 UT Friday — which is 04:45 Sydney, Australia time.

I don’t have ground tracks yet (maps of the path of the rocket over the Earth’s surface) Here’s the Falcon 9 ground track — the path of the rocket over the Earth’s surface — provided by jetforme (based on orbital parameters):


Note how the path goes right over eastern Australia! The timing is perfect, too: about an hour later, the second stage would’ve been halfway around the world, matching the position and time of the UFO sightings.

The spiral pattern seen in Norway is known to be from gas leaking out of the booster. As the booster spins and the gas shoots out, it makes a water-sprinkler spiral pattern in the sky. As it happens, the second stage of the Falcon 9 was rotating; this was not supposed to happen and the SpaceX engineers are looking into it (it didn’t affect the launch adversely; the payload achieved orbit).

So the timing was right, the booster was spinning, and we know that spirals like this are an outcome of rocket launches.

Of course, this isn’t enough for some UFO believers. ABC in Australia had this from Doug Moffett of the UFO Research NSW:
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MORE ABOUT: Australia, Falcon 9, SpaceX, UFO

Erie UFO sounds familiar to me

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2010 1:45 pm

A wave of reports is coming in from the town of Euclid, Ohio, from folks there who are seeing a mysterious light hovering over Lake Erie and Cleveland. The light, they say, is very bright, lasts for a couple of hours, stays near the horizon, changes colors, and keeps coming back to the same spot night after night.

Here’s an MSNBC report about it:

Could it be an alien visitor from another world?

No, I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is another world. Venus, to be specific.

A Fort Wayne, Indiana website has an interview with one of the witnesses on video, and includes some still shots. Everything in his description, including the photographs, makes me think he and the others are seeing Venus.

Right now, Venus can be seen in the west — the direction to Lake Erie and Cleveland as seen in Euclid — shining brightly just after sunset. It is so bright it can be seen while the sky is still light (I’ve seen Venus in the middle of the day). It appears to hover. Changing atmospheric conditions can affect its color, especially when it’s low to the horizon. It can be seen night after night, in the same spot in the sky.

Sound familiar?

I’m not saying what these people are seeing is in fact Venus, but it sure fits everything I’ve heard in the news reports (sometimes the witnesses describe multiple lights, but when looking to the horizon, especially over a big city, it’s not too unlikely to see planes flying around). In the MSNBC report they talked to the FAA, the military, and others (including a UFO guy from England), but never talked to an astronomer. Hmmph. And note that in these news articles, Venus is never mentioned! That’s mighty peculiar, given how spectacular it is in the west after sunset. It’s really hard to miss. A likely explanation is that it’s not mentioned because it is, in fact, the culprit here.

I’m getting a kick out of just how positive so many people are that this is a flying saucer of some kind. I wonder how many of these folks actually are familiar with the night sky, and would recognize Venus when they see it? That’s why I think very few astronomers (pro or amateur) report UFOs: astronomers tend to know what they’re looking at in the sky.

The next time you hear a report like this, don’t jump to the conclusion that some interplanetary object is making a close encounter… because it may very well be interplanetary, but the encounter may not be terribly close.

Tip o’ the probe to Patrick Kent.

Another Russian rocket spiral lights up the sky

By Phil Plait | December 12, 2009 10:13 am

Hey, does this look vaguely familiar?


That is not a different view of the Norway spiral light; it was taken in Russia over a day later. It looks like the Russians are testing more rockets, and creating more lights in the sky.

Despite the lunacy involved with the last time we saw spirals in the sky, this picture is clearly of another Russian missile test. To recap: a weird spiral light thingy in the skies over Norway last week was caused by the sub-based rocket launch of a Bulava missile, a new system being tested by the Russians. The spiral(s) were due to the rocket spinning and venting some sort of gas, though the details are still being determined. It may have been done on purpose as part of a gyroscopic-stabilization move, or it may have been spinning out of control. The former would explain why the spiral is so beautifully symmetric.

This one wasn’t quite so well-formed, but is clearly the same thing. There’s video, too:

This new one was seen just a little over a day later inside Russia, and was from a Topol missile, the land-based version of the Bulava. According to space historian, NBC News consultant, and space folklore specialist James Oberg:

It was launched from the ‘Kapustin Yar’ missile range on the lower Volga, an old test range that goes back to the late 1940s. The missile impacted in
the Sary Shagan military reservation in eastern Kazakhstan. […] Since the flight path was completely internal, no navigation warnings were issued.

russian_booster_again2TASS claims it hit the target, and you can see in the video there appears to be a spiral there too; that supports the idea the spiral was on purpose and may be part of the stabilization. Interesting. Note that in this second picture, you can see the spiral expanding from the inside out, again, like last time, exactly what you expect from material being spewed out from a rapidly rotating booster.

Another important thing to people like me, though, is that the cause of this is clearly a rocket — it fits what we know about how these things work, there are good explanations of it, and we even have a mea culpa from Russia. But if you read the comments from the Norway lights post I made, or really anywhere this was discussed on the web, you’ll find hordes of people making claims that are pretty silly at best.

I have no doubt this will continue with this new sighting, as well. After all, why make one interdimensional holographic portal from the future when you can make two?

It just goes to show you that this sort of non-rational thinking will be with us forever. It’s rather ironic to think that the reality of a complicated and advanced rocket system sparks retro-fantasies of UFOs. It makes me wonder if the captain of the first starship will carry a lucky rabbit’s foot along.

In reality, I know we can never stamp out such irrationality. All we can do is hope to minimize it. I can be satisfied with that.

Picture credit: ww.e1.ru. My thanks to my friend James Oberg for notifying me about this.


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