Why Are There So Many UFOs?

In an age when sightings of UFOs are rife, we look at other possibilities that may help to explain the strange apparitions many see.

My First UFO

I read about UFOs a lot as a kid. Enough to learn to make a cheapie lookalike. Back in 1967 a friend tossed a garbage can lid into the air as I photographed.
Bob King

Once upon a time, a middle-aged gentleman attended one of my local astronomy club's meetings. Excitedly, he explained he'd photographed a UFO and wanted us to see it for ourselves. He said it had to be a UFO because of its brilliance, round shape and rapid pulsations.

As soon as the video got underway, it was obvious that the "UFO" was a bright star, jerking about from unsteady hands and rhythmically moving in and out of focus as the camera's autofocus struggled to keep the object sharp. After a few questions about time and direction of the filming, it was clear he had captured the star Sirius.

After explaining in a non-demeaning way that he had recorded the brightest and one of the most amazing stars in the sky, the man looked at the group incredulously. No matter our explanations, he was convinced it had to be a UFO. Facts about luminosity, twinkling, and closeness to our solar system left no impression. He collected the video and walked out in a huff.

#1 Sirius

Mystery Object? No, Just Sirius

The brightest star Sirius, often seen twinkling wildly on unsteady nights, is one of the most commonly reported UFO sightings along with Venus, the brightest planet. Check out this video of Sirius twinkling.
Bob King

I should say at the outset that I'm not a believer in the stream of UFO reports that gorge youtube every week, every year. I've looked at many, and it's clear, they're either natural, manmade, based on lack of information or deliberately created by a devious intellect to either befuddle, gain attention or both.

#2 Airplane contrails

Comet Camouflauge

Sometimes, people not familiar with the sky will mistake a distant airplane contrail, the streak of condensed water vapor in the wake of the plane, as either a UFO vapor trail, comet, or fireball.
Bob King

Not that aliens don't exist. Some say yes, others no. Count me among the yeses, but with a caveat. Given how long the universe has been around and the ubiquity of carbon-bearing minerals, not to mention the tantalizing amino acids found in certain meteorites, I believe the necessary ingredients for life to begin have been around a long, long time.

#3 Lenticular clouds

Saucer Cloud

This altocumulus lenticularis cloud looks like it's ready to beam up a rock sample. These UFO-like clouds form when fast moving air blows over mountains or hills, creating waves in the atmosphere similar to those created when you toss a pebble in a pond. Their saucer shapes can be both beautiful and evocative. Other atmospheric phenomena confused for UFOs include sundogs and related halo phenomena.
Bob King

With the discovery of more than 3,500 exoplanets to date in the short span of a couple decades, life seems ever more likely with every new find. But intelligent, spaceship-building life? Hmmm ... I'm not so sure. Even if the extraterrestrials could build a rocket, judging by the incredible variety of extraterrestrial chariots that have been reported, we're being visited constantly by a great many alien civilizations. How likely is this? And why does nearly every photo of a purported alien show a being with a human form?

#4 Superior mirages

Alien Craft? No, Just an Illusion

Spaceship or ?? Okay, mirages can truly be weird. This is a superior mirage of Granite Island in Lake Superior. In contrast to the "wet road" appearance of an inferior mirage, superior mirages can occur when the air layer near the water (or ground) is considerably colder than the air directly above it. Light from the distant island is bent downward into a new path that the eye thinks emanates from the air above the water. See the video.
© Shawn Malone

I'm not qualified to delve into the psychology of UFO sightings, but I've seen some strange stuff over the 2,000+ nights I've sojourned under the night sky. Each time, there's been a natural explanation for whatever caught my attention, and to date I've seen nothing that required an alien visit for explanation. That's not to say there aren't still mysteries out there. It was only recently that lightning sprites were positively identified and studied. Other reported sky events await explanation, but seizing on alien ships as the cause seems hasty.

#5 Uncommon auroras

Reflected Aurora

The aurora isn't always about rays and arcs. I've seen patches shaped like flying saucers and blobs like this one that appear without warning anywhere in the sky.They typically pulsate slowly and can become strikingly bright.
Bob King

Of course I wish a beam of light would hover over my car or a flying saucer materialize over a favorite observing site, but so far no luck. I think for skeptics like me, the reason aliens must necessarily be scarce has all to do with distance. Just like us, they're limited by the speed of light. Even at the space station's speed of 17,500 mph, it would take 165,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. Let's up that velocity of 157,000 mph, the top speed of the Helios probes, the fastest spacecraft yet clocked. To reach Proxima Centauri 4.2 light-years away at that speed would take about 17,900 years.

#6 Flashing lights

A Plane in the Night

The red and green flashing lights of an airplane, seen here in a short time exposure, can also be misinterpreted as an unidentified flying object. Ironically, the flashing lights are often a dead giveaway that we're seeing a plane. Distant planes over a major flyway can look like several lights moving as a group. Flashing or otherwise, satellites can also be misunderstood, especially to those not familiar with manmade and natural sky phenomena. Iridiums, with their spectacular flares, can throw the uniniated for a loop. 
Bob King

#7 Rocket launches

Flying Saucer Exhaust?

This is a contrail from a rocket launched from White Sands Missile Range as seen from Phoenix, Arizona approximately 450 miles away. The striking swirls and colors can appear so unusual and otherworldly some misinterpret them as UFO-related.
David Seay / Seay Photography

Yes, aliens might have advanced technology, but if so, why come from so far to visit Earth for brunch and then whoosh away without a word? Seems such a waste. Evolution worked long and hard with parts and pieces new and ancient to fashion our species. More than 13 billion years had to pass before we appeared on the scene. Could evolution proceed more quickly on another world hundreds of light years away? Possibly, but there's no guarantee that said intelligent species would become a spacefaring one. Otherwise dolphins would be making plans right now for a mission to Mars.

#8 Reflections

Reflecting Our Imagination

Internal reflections of bright light sources — car headlights, ceiling fixtures —  in multi-paned glass, especially against twilight, can appear single, double, or multiply-imaged, as if the source is hovering in the distance. This is a ceiling lamp reflected in a window.
Bob King

We may never know if other intelligent life with technology exists. Or maybe one day we will, thanks to continuing searches for extraterrestrial signals, which, by the way, travel much more efficiently and far faster than any spaceship. Many of you may differ with my skeptical approach. So be it. I could be flat-out wrong (and would secretly love to be!), but I hold out hope that some human in the distant future knock back a bourbon with E.T.

#9 Sky lanterns

Shedding Light and Confusion

A more recent phenomenon that confused me at first until I realized what I was looking at is the sky lantern, a paper hot-air balloon lit and heated by a candle. Lanterns look like red-orange, slowly-moving lights that resemble bright stars.
Takeaway / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

But for now, I'd like to share a few natural and manmade phenomena, beautiful as all get out, that are often confused with UFOs in hopes of shedding a shaft of light on how fecund planet Earth is with wonder-provoking events that fire our curiosity. Without specialized knowledge, some of these can be difficult to interpret for the lay person. Use them as a go-to when something weird is overhead.

#10 Barium releases

Chemical Sky Show

Barium launched aboard a sounding rocket and released into the upper atmosphere is used to study the motion of both ions and neutral atoms in space. A fraction of a barium cloud ionizes quickly when exposed to sunlight and has a purple-red color. Its movements can be used to track the motion of charged particles in the ionosphere.

#11 Weather Balloons

Up, Up and Away

Mate Airman Harley Houston releases a weather balloon aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy to measure atmospheric conditions. Balloons come in a variety of shapes and colors, either singly or in clusters, and are frequently mistaken for UFOs as they creep across the sky gathering weather data.
U.S. Navy / Eric Cutright

26 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many UFOs?

  1. Gerald-Hanner

    Having spent 25 years as an aviator, I have never seen something in the sky, especially the night sky, that I could not eventually identify. None have been “UFOs.”

    You pretty well covered the board, however, in some special cases where I live (near Omaha NE) we happen to be on the approach path to Eppley and Millard airports. The jets at night coming in from Denver and from airports to the south commonly give the classic appearance of UFO descriptions with a bright central light and small blinking lights surrounding it.

  2. Frank-ReedNavigation.comFrank-ReedNavigation.com

    One of the biggest problems for observers trying to interpret phenomena they see in the sky is that we human beings have no means to estimate distance except visual parallax, which only works for relatively nearby objects, and familiarity with similar objects of known size, which works when it works but also fails miserably when we see something that resembles a known object but is, in fact, an entirely different phenomenon. Meteors and fireballs are classic examples of this problem. When you see a bright fireball, you will swear that it is just over the next fence or maybe half a mile away, probably because fireballs so closely resemble fireworks and other smalll pyrotechnics seen at short range. In reality, fireballs are bright and spectacular typically 40-50 miles above the ground and when seen at a low angle in the sky they are often 100-150 miles away from the observer. Observations of “ufos” suffer from the same problem. The perception of distance with unknown phenomena is “all in our heads”. A reflection, as noted in the article, can appear to be a large distant object when it is only a few feet from the observer.

    Two types of ufo connections with artificial satellites have been analyzed in great detail in recent years by aerospace expert Jim Oberg and satellite observation expert Ted Molczan (search for ‘seesat-l molczan ufo’). First there are satellite formations, which most observers, even those who have seen satellites many times, are surprised to learn exist. Certain types of classified satellites, prototypically the former “NOSS trios”, can appear in a triangular formation a degree or two across travelling across the sky as a stable group. These can create a powerful illusion of a single triangular object with lights on the corners gliding over the observer. Satellite re-entries create especially convincing illusions of large objects with multiple lights or “windows” as the debris slowly glides from horizon to horizon in formation. A number of famous historical UFO sightings have been convincingly explained by Molczan and Oberg as satellite re-entries, which are spectacular in their own right.

    For myself, the most impressive UFOs that I have seen turned out to be ‘silvered’ mylar party balloons at high altitude. I once saw a very convincing “flying saucer,” shimmering with bright illumination, which at first appeared to be a hundred feet across and apparently hovering above a nearby airport… Fortunately I had binoculars close at hand and when magnified it was clear that I was looking at a cluster of balloons three feet across, glinting in the sunlight, and drifting above the next block. On another occasion I spotted a bright “sphere” darting back and forth seemingly thousands of feet above my backyard (this was in the pre-drone era). That turned out to be a single reflective balloon roughly a hundred feet up moving about in light breezes. Once again, the inability to determine distance of unknown objects was a key element in the apparent illusion of a strange phenomenon.

    Frank Reed
    Conanicut Island USA

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Frank, I really appreciate your thoughtful comments about mistaking natural and man-made objects due to the limitations of visual parallax. Excellent point! My first “UFO” was a V-shaped group of moving “stars” seen through a small telescope. I later realized they were geese. I’ve also seen lots of brilliant “supernovas” that soon turned out to be airplanes (with brilliant lights) along my line of sight!

  3. Clark

    Twice I have briefly confused low flying birds as something unidentified. Both times were in late twilight light conditions. I was tricked into believing they were significantly further away. Binoculars confirmed my error and showed they were a birds. Even the legendary Leslie Peltier tells a similar story in his “Starlight Nights” autobiography.

  4. Gerald-Hanner

    On a slightly different note, I do recall seeing a rather fearsome sight just after sunset while crossing the Pacific Ocean between Guam and Hawaii: About two hours into the flight the sky started turning an ominous shade of red — and then a blood-red Moon, appearing to cover about a third of the horizon, began rising. It really got the copilot’s attention. Even though I knew the Moon was in eclipse it was an awesome sight. After the Moon was fully risen the copilot finally regained his composure.

  5. micheal-allen

    It’s amazing what anyone can see on any given night. Twice in my 51 years I was observing celestial objects through binoculars only to have my attention diverted by a satellite passing by and as I watched the satellite a fireball zoomed through the field of view. AMAZING!!

  6. David Fried

    I live in the Boston area. An internally illuminated advertising blimp at a good distance makes a terrific “UFO,” as I’ve noted several times. A telescope will reveal that the aliens use our alphabet, only upside-down!

    The illusion that Venus is moving as you stare at it can be remarkably powerful, though. I once remarked to someone in the late twilight “There’s Venus,” only to have them insist for several minutes that it was a moving plane.

  7. brittfaaborg@gmail.com

    Great article, Bob! I am a State Section Director & Field Investigator for MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network). I have been an amateur astronomer all of my life and I have witnessed several UFOs over the years. (Of course, living less than 20 miles from Whiteman AFB, the home of the B-2 Stealth, you can see lots of things!) Being a MUFON investigator, we get many different kinds of UFO reports. Your article gives great details on some common natural and man-made occurrences that can be mistaken for UFOs. I wish more people outside the astronomical community could read your article. Thanks!

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Britt, that’s really nice of you to say. Thank you! It sounds like you’ve also dealt with your share of false UFO reports. Feel free to share the story link with others.

  8. rjf5@me.com

    The most realistic “flying saucers” I have seen were gliding seagulls, seen through a large plate glass window that distorted the view, looking East in the early morning. The light reflected off their bottoms looked just like shite saucer shaped objects seen mostly on edge.


    UNIDENTIFIED RADAR OBJECT: In December, 1999 I was flying over the Florida Panhandle heading south on an Air Refueling Track, from the IP to the CP. ATC had cleared us for the AR with the KC-135 which was about to start its turn for our rendezvous. All of a sudden ATC canceled the clearance. This was the first time and was my only time that ATC canceled a previously issued clearance especially with the tanker in the turn (rare from my experience of 19 years in a heavy). ATC did not tell us why. Then after about a minute they re-issued the clearance. We did a quick AR for a contact and then as the tanker was turning away (not at my 12 o’clock) I saw a very large radar return on the Weather Radar set in Map Mode with a 25 NM range. I have never seen a radar target that large (about 3 X the size of a KC-135). There was nothing visual. I actually timed it as it moved quickly away from us at our 12 o’clock. Knowing the radar sweep timing and the time it took to move off the radar scope (25nm range), I guesstimate it was moving away from us at Mach 5 minimum and probably Mach 7. I have seen chaff on radar before and other large returns but this beat them all based on the size and speed of the return. Again, no visual sighting at our 12 o’clock.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Great story! I wonder what it was. While I have no expertise in reading radar much less refueling in mid-air, I can only guess. Were there no other planes in the area? Could another plane have been hidden by your plane and not visible at your 12 o’clock?

  10. Cfin

    I have a BA in astronomy and have been an amateur astronomer since 5th grade, but I’ve witnessed three UAPs or rather three things I personally could not definitively explain:
    A stationary glowing purple orb along a tree line at my grandparent’s farm in Upper Michigan. I’d call it a ghost light but nobody died and coincidentally the area is quite swampy.
    5 bright stationary lights in a line about 10 degrees above my southern horizon at 4 AM several years ago. Since I had an 8 AM business meeting that day and the lights showed no sign of movement, I figured the aliens could wait and went back to bed. It turns out my house is not aligned N-S and I was looking SE toward a small airport where things like the Snoopy blimp occasionally tie down.
    And finally a rather dim orange orb floating contrary to surface winds as I was walking to my college observatory for a photometry run one night.
    I recently saw a pair of satellites or perhaps a sat and booster tracking side by side, but was unaware of the military “trios”, etc. until now.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      I’m glad you mentioned the pairs and trios of military satellites. Only a few weeks ago at a star party, the bunch of us saw a trio of closely-spaced satellites gliding down the Milky Way. That same night I saw three geosynchronous satellites by happenstance in the field of view of my telescope while hunting a variable star.

  11. David

    “why come from so far to visit Earth for brunch and then whoosh away without a word?”
    I have said this before in workplace discussions: if aliens came this far to spy on us, and let’s call it spying since they are not landing on the White House lawn and saying the stereotypical “take me to your leader”, then why are the aliens so afraid of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration)? I say this because everyone reports “lights in the sky”. So you are telling me these aliens that do not want to be seen are so afraid of getting a ticket from the FAA for not turning on their landing lights, that they are willing risk being seen by humans on earth even though they are on a covert mission to study us! If the “UFO” truly was covert aliens, then we would not see ANY lights in the sky.

  12. degrove

    About 15 years ago, I was at my club’s star party near Harrisburg, PA. It was a cloudy night and I was talking with some friends, looking west, when I saw a light in the distance doing all sorts of crazy maneuvers. But all of them were below a visible distant tree line. It took me a couple of minutes before I realized what I was seeing. A few miles away, there was a security light. As I had no frame of reference to judge it’s location or distance, the background was absolutely pitch black, what was occurring was autokinesis. The normal movements of my eyes were causing the security light to appear to be moving. Our eyes are constantly moving, even though we don’t notice it. I’m sure that many of the “movements” seen by “UFO’s” are this phenomenon.

  13. Marc Dubbeldam

    It must have been a November evening back in 1998 (if I remember correctly) when I witnessed five lights moving high overhead which rapidly brightened (to about mag -4 or so) and subsequently faded. A quick check on the internet confirmed that there had been an Iridium launch earlier that day and obviously the spacecraft had not yet drifted very far apart along their orbital plane. This was probably a once in a lifetime observation as Iridium launches ceased in 2002 or so. And the most amazing thing was: there wasn’t an alien in sight!

  14. Terry Tibando

    I’m surprised that Sky and Telescope now takes the position of debunking other people’s sightings of UFOs by employing the lame explanations as used in the article. This a typical practice used by the military, the government and the intelligence agencies and anyone else who works or aides them. Such pseudo-explanations are nothing more than a cover for misinformation, disinformation and deception, all dressed in the guise of scientific respectability to hide the truth of what people really see!
    Admittedly, these explanations do address some of the UFO sightings as misperceived and misidentified common conventionalities of things seen in the sky, however, that percentage of misidentification has changed over the decades as the public is better educated and more familiar with current aerial objects that fly.
    What is curious is the fact that the above article is only half the story which is heavily biased to discredit the reality of the UFO phenomenon. There are no examples for instance of the remarkable photos and videos of UFOs taken by the million of global witnesses even when they originate from US military jet gun-cameras as recently reported by a Pentagon official or from other high-level witnesses who are a part of Dr Greer’s Disclosure Witness program.
    One of Dr Greer’s witnesses is a fellow astronomer, well known for his equation searching for life in the universe, Dr Drake, founder of SETI who told Dr Greer that alien signals had been received which includes the famous WOW signal that came in at Harvard!
    When Dr Steven Greer and Seth Shostak debated the UFO subject on public television, Shostak was told that Dr Drake admitted that they had been receiving alien signals. Shostak responded with denials claiming that it never happened because if it had he would have been the one to make it such an announcement. Now, this is either pure arrogance or naivety to what is really happening or Shostak is apart of the many schills working for the military industrial intelligence complex as a professional debunker!
    It has eveen been said by Dr Richard Haines a former employee of NASA Research Center that SETI was nothing more than a smoke-screen for public consumption while the real work in communications was going on behind closed doors!
    Dr Drake stated privately to Dr Greer with regard to SETI or other radio observatories receiving of alien signals that if it were ever known I was having this conversation with you, it would be the end of my career and my life! George Fennel and Jim Malaney of Sky and Telescope (your magazine) have also confirmed independently that alien signals had come in, but that it had been kept quiet.
    The fact that the upper physical limit of any object or any electromagnetic waves whether microwaves, radio waves, etc. is the speed of light which for communicating across the vast interstellar and intergalactic distances is impractical and far too slow to be efficacious for scientific research, especially in astronomy.
    Yet, there have been Navy lab experiments with modulated transdimensional electromagnetic signals that were multiples of the speed of light, thus indicating that the speed of light is not inviolate, this has been a myth!
    for more honest and unbiased information on this topic see:

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Hi Terry,

      Thanks for writing. You’re free to believe that UFOs are spaceships piloted by alien beings. That’s your choice based upon how you see the evidence. I chose not to because I’ve yet to see any incontrovertible evidence to make me believe otherwise. As for the recent blurry videos from the Navy, the supposed UFO looks more like a bug caught between the glass in the instrument than a craft piloted by extraterrestrials. We’re easily fooled by nature, our ignorance and each other (not to mention we wish many things true that may not be.) As much as I’d like to believe that aliens have been sighted over virtually every country in the world, my skeptical side gives me pause.
      All that said, I’m hopeful we’ll get a real signal someday — the kind scientists will observe, confirm and write up in a refereed journal to share with the world. I also sincerely believe that Earth isn’t the only habitable planet with intelligent life forms. More power to the aliens, wherever they are!

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