Ufology is said to be going through a quiet period at the moment, despite the 60th Anniversary of Kenneth Arnold's famous sighting in 1947. Like the paranormal, it suffers from a striking split between 'believers' (broadly, those who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial craft) and 'skeptics'. There is a feeling among many serious ufologists that the vast majority of UFOs have natural, if sometimes bizarre, explanations. Like ghosts, UFO reports seem to have many explanations (including some barely understood atmospheric and even geological phenomena). The many different reports of UFO, with differing explanations, are treated as a single phenomenon primarily because cultural influences portray them as such.
Despite all of this, UFO reports continue to come in from the public, no doubt in part inspired by the continued heavy output of science fiction from the media.* The fact that reports inevitably come mostly from untrained observers adds to the frustrations of ufologists. You can't hold a vigil for UFOs, like you can for ghosts, or do experiments as with ESP. Of course, some people organise sky watches but these rarely yield results in the same class as spontaneous reports from the public. Inevitably, much of the material available to ufology is entirely anecdotal. Inevitably, witness reports are not always reliable.
Unfortunately, there are more and more things out there that can be reported as UFOs. As well as the 'traditional' astronomical, meteorological and aviation inspired reports that have been around since 1947, there are new things in the sky. Laser light displays, for instance, are a consistent source of reports. Then there are increasingly bright satellites, like the ISS (the International Space Station) and the Iridium constellation. Iridium is a system for satellite phones, used in remote places where there is no other telecommunications. The Iridium satellites can produce a dramatic flash, called an Iridium Flare. The times when these will happen is predictable but only a few enthusiasts are likely to be aware of the phenomena.
Another increasingly common source of weird objects in the sky are balloons. Once upon at time, balloons were all roughly the same shape (and generally of similar size) and easy to recognise. Not any more!
These days balloons, whether large or small, manned or unmanned, come in a bewildering variety of shapes. They range from party balloons, shaped like toys, to huge advertising balloons shaped like whatever product they are designed to sell. From a distance, it is difficult to recognise what these objects are.
The UFO shown here (right) was recently photographed over London. It appeared to change shape and glint in the sun. It was not immediately obvious to observers what it was. Luckily, there was someone present with a pair of binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens. Even through the telephoto lens it wasn't easy to make out. Though the photo above gives little hint to the true nature of the object, it was obvious in binoculars and a magnified version of the photo (below) shows it as well. It was, in fact, a Thomas the Tank Engine balloon - probably an escape from a children's party. In the bottom picture, the same 'UFO' is shown from another angle (also magnified). This time it looks as though it has a shiny metallic surface and it doesn't look like an engine any more.
Then there are Chinese Lanterns (or Sky Lanterns or UFO Balloons or Flying Lanterns)! These special one-off hot air balloons are usually launched at night, often in groups, and can look mysterious to witnesses not familiar with them. They are most commonly orange, but can look yellow or reddish, and usually appear to hang motionless in the sky (or moving very slowly), unlike aircraft. Once at a reasonable altitude you cannot see the flicker of the flame that might otherwise give their identity away.
Look at this website which documents several cases of people reporting these balloons as UFOs. These Sky Lanterns are becoming a common cause of UFO reports in the UK. They are generally associated with celebrations and festivals (like New Year or birthdays or weddings), whether personal or public. See this video.
Weather balloons can also look dramatic and impressive to those who are not familiar with them. They tend to be slow moving as they are usually at a very high altitude. They can catch the sun so that it is obvious something is there but not obvious what it is.
Then, of course, there are powered balloons or airships. Like unpowered balloons, airships can come in many sizes and different shapes nowadays. Like microlight aircraft, they can fly high enough for observers on the ground not to hear their engines. It is, thus, possible to see powered craft flying high in the sky with no sound and high enough for their true nature to be unobvious. Not everyone goes around with binoculars!
Kites, too, have become much more exciting in both their shapes and aerial capabilities in recent years. Some are rather large these days and can fly to amazing altitudes. Then there are radio-controlled model aircraft that can look impressive from a distance too. And then there are military vehicles, like UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and who knows what else secret stuff!
A major problem with UFO observations is estimating the altitude and size of an object. Without these facts it is difficult to say what it might be. A UFO is, by definition, an object that is unrecognisable to the observer ('unidentified flying object')**. The observer cannot, therefore, know what the typical flying abilities of the object are. A plane obviously typically flies higher and faster than a balloon, for instance. All that an observer can say for certain is what angular size (the apparent size in the sky) and angular speed the object had. But even these are difficult to estimate since, in the sky, there are few objects of known size to compare them with. Untrained observers, faced with an unexpected and surprising phenomenon, may not always have the presence of mind to make reliable estimates of angular size and speed (by comparing them with an object of known size held at arm's length, for instance). In any case, angular measurements only put limits on size and speed rather than definitively identifying an object. Thus, when the ufologist is told by a witness that the object was 'large, very high and moving fast', these are subjective judgments rather than straightforward observations. It is also possible that the object in question was, in fact, small, at low altitude and drifting slowly (like a balloon, for instance).
There are, of course, still the 'traditional' sources of UFO reports to contend with as well! These include things like the planet Venus (see photo right - Venus, as the evening star, is the white dot in the sky in this picture of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin). It is amazing how many UFO reports are attributed to Venus considering it usually appears as a small, slow moving white dot. It reflects, perhaps, how little modern people, particularly city dwellers, are aware of the night sky and nature in general. Many reports of UFOs, as well as other anomalous phenomena, seem to arise from simple unfamiliarity with things that not that particularly rare. Maybe we are so busy these days we just don't notice what is going on around us any more.
Yet another problem for ufologists is orbs and other nearby out of focus objects. Though not many people are reporting obvious orbs as UFOs, sometimes mysterious blurry objects appear in daytime shots. As with orbs, they are nearby objects that are out of focus (though not illuminated by flash). If the camera is focused on a distant object, or the sky, objects can be too close to be in focus at a distance of a few metres. The objects are usually nearby insects, birds or falling leaves, so out of focus as to be unidentifiable. If they are moving quickly, they may appear elongated.
Sometimes birds may be in focus but at a strange angle (see photo right - this is a Kestrel!). If the bird was not noticed at the time of exposure and onlyseen later in the final photo, it could be interpreted as a UFO. There are more pictures in the UFO Gallery.
There is so much more going on in the skies, night and day, than in 1947. It is little wonder that the UFO reports continue to roll in, no matter what the state of ufology.
* Just as in the case of ghosts, the media is apparently completely unaware of the serious research into these subjects.
** Of course, other people in the area may recognise it, which may explain why UFOs, which ought to be visible to hundreds of people, may only be reported by one or two witnesses.
© Maurice Townsend 2010, 2011