Great Space Balls of Fire! How to Explain Weird Sightings Over Australia?

By Jennifer Welsh | December 1, 2010 4:29 pm

Ball_lightningThose “green UFOs” that caused a stir in Australia four years ago? Researchers say they definitely weren’t alien spaceships (not like they were going to say anything different), but they still aren’t sure what they actually were.

The three green fireballs were spotted by more than 100 people in the sky over Queensland, Australia on May 16th, 2006. The potential abductees said the lights were brighter than the moon, but not as bright as the sun. A single farmer claims to have seen one of the green balls bouncing down the side of a mountain after hitting the earth.

Stephen Hughes, a researcher at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, has just published a paper on the phenomenon in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A. He explained to LiveScience that the main fireballs were most likely caused by a meteor breaking up and burning in earth’s atmosphere:

In fact, a commercial airline pilot who landed in New Zealand that day reported seeing a meteor breaking up into fragments, which turned green as the bits descended in the direction of Australia. The timing of the fireballs suggests they might have been debris from Comet 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann 3.

Hughes believes that the strange color of the meteor shards might be due to electrically charged oxygen molecules around the debris, similar to how electrically charged particles in the upper atmosphere produce the northern lights. But the meteor theory doesn’t explain the farmer’s sighting of the light-ball rolling down the hillside. A foot-wide perfectly spherical meteorite wouldn’t be slowly meandering down a hillside after impacting the earth.

To explain the bouncing ball, Hughes told Live Science that he has a second hypothesis–ball lightning, which he thinks could have been caused by the meteor, though it is usually thought to be caused by storms:

“A transient electrical link between the ionosphere and ground, created by meteors or some other means, could help to solve the mystery of many UFO sightings,” Hughes told LiveScience. “Since such balls would be very insubstantial they would be able to move and change direction very fast as has often been observed.”

Ball lightning is itself poorly understood and controversial: One recent study suggested that the phenomenon might just be a hallucination. But other researchers seem to buy Hughes’ explanation, according to New Scientist:

“It is certainly plausible,” says John Lattanzio, an astrophysist at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. But he adds: “It’s almost impossible to prove anything with such an ephemeral event as this.”

Of course, Hughes told New Scientist that no one else reported seeing the rolling ball that the farmer described:

Hughes … set up an online survey to find out more. More than 100 people, scattered over a 600-kilometre-long strip along Australia’s east coast, reported seeing a bright fireball like the first green ball that Vernon saw, but no else saw the bouncing ball.

Related Content:
Discoblog: Is Ball Lightning Just a Hallucination Caused by Regular Lightning?
Bad Astronomy: A tornado made of fire. Seriously.
Bad Astronomy: Oh, those Falcon UFOs!
Bad Astronomy: NYC Fox station reports Jupiter and balloons as UFOs
Bad Astronomy: Aliens? Yes. UFOs? No.
DISCOVER: 10 Bizarre-Looking Tricks of the Weather (gallery)

Image: Wikimedia commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Events, Space & Aliens Therefrom
  • Bigby

    Cover-up.
    UFOs.
    Definitely.

  • JMW

    Green?

    Kryptonite.

  • Remember

    The scientists have been trotting out this lame excuse for decades. They either have their head in the sand or are part of the larger disinformation campaign begun in the 1960′s. If the phenomenon wasn’t real then why did the U.S. government investigate it officially and secretly for almost thirty years.

  • Eugine

    Frankly the “rolling ball” seems to me to fit perfectly the phenomenon of retinal afterimage.
    Try staring at a bright light, like the sun, for a few seconds (actually try to avoid doing this) – and then look elsewhere, and you will see a glowing shape, moving with your gaze. This shape will seem to slide around almost at random but in one general direction – often downwards – simply because your gaze moves in that direction.
    This explanation is certainly less romantic than ball lightning – but also quite a bit simpler – and just as well-justified.

  • http://www.kiralik-oto-ankara.com ankara oto kiralama

    That’s a mold-braeekr. Great thinking!

  • http://www.paranormal-videos.com paranormal videos

    Thats a good article! I am getting some work done on our truck and this place does not have any reading material plus lacks any telly so it dawned on me that I have our notebook in the vehicle along with a witeless Internet connection. Anyway, back to this great article. Whoever wrote this did a great job. I ACTUALLY once was a magazine editor and can tell the big difference between a great piece of writing as well as a poor one. Thank you for the write-up. I book-marked your website as a favorite!

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