Another example of a ‘close encounter’ with Venus concerns a Spanish family driving home one evening, known as the Serena encounter after the family involved. They reported that they were chased by a bright light
which descended to a height of 7 to 8 metres above their car, lowered landing
gear and caused one of their children to be violently sick. Venus at that time
was a brilliant object in the evening sky but the investigators of this case,
who included an American professor of physics, Willy Smith, rejected Venus as
an explanation because its setting time was around 9.30 pm GMT, whereas the UFO
was visible until 10.30 pm.
However, the investigators forgot that Spain keeps one hour ahead of GMT and so
the visibility of the UFO matched that of Venus exactly. The child’s stomach upset is easily explained by a combination of fear and travel sickness
on the winding road. Hence even a supposed close encounter endorsed by a
professor of physics can have a simple astronomical explanation.
In recent years, I have seen a number of videos taken with hand-held camcorders
which appear to show saucer-shaped objects making erratic motions in the
evening sky. These videos are clearly of Venus in twilight. The “movement”, noticeable only when the camera is zoomed in, is due simply to tremors in the
hands of the excited camera operator, while the apparent shapes of the objects
are optical effects in the camera itself.
Video evidence has also made it clear that many daytime UFOs are now caused by
small, shiny helium-filled balloons of the type given out at fairgrounds. In
addition, a type of rotating reflective kite called the UFO SAM has made its own contribution to sightings. More recently, small decorative hot
air balloons called Chinese lanterns or Sky Lanterns have joined the list of culprits, generating reports of orange-coloured “saucer fleets”. (For more about fire balloon misidentifications and pranks, see here and here). Another addition to the list, brought to my attention by someone who was
temporarily fooled by one at night, are kites and balloons designed to scare birds. Even black plastic bags, when heated by the Sun, can become UFO-like balloons.
Amazed by the Moon?
Getting back to astronomy, it is understandable that people can misidentify
planets and bright stars – but surely not the Moon? Yet it happens. Allan Hendry describes a case in which
three witnesses observed a saucer “25 ft in diameter” accompanied by two pulsating lights which hovered over a car park for nearly an
hour, dimming the car park lights as though draining power from them. A humming
noise was heard which changed to a loud beeping before the saucer shot straight
up into the sky. A parakeet owned by one of the witnesses screeched and her
dogs barked. The woman felt as though she was in a trance and could hardly
This has all the hallmarks of a classic UFO case: electromagnetic effects,
animal reactions, and physical effects on the witnesses. However, Hendry
determined that the witnesses were looking at the crescent Moon (the “saucer”) with Mars and Jupiter next to it (the “pulsating lights”). The dimming of the car park lights was caused by intermittent mist which
eventually obscured the Moon and planets. The rest of the report is a
marvellous product of human imagination.
Meteors (bits of dust and rock from space burning up in the atmosphere to
produce a brilliant streak of light) are less easy to identify after the event
because of their transient nature. Humans are as bad at estimating time as they
are at estimating brightness and distance, and reports often exaggerate the
duration for which a meteor was seen. Very bright meteors – say, brighter than the planet Venus – are termed fireballs. These are so bright they can be caught on normal video cameras, and a
fascinating selection of sightings can be found on this page – particularly impressive is the Perth fireball of 2005, filmed by chance during
a family party at a house in Western Australia, which generated widespread
reports of an aircraft crash [2.5 MB QuickTime file].
Even people familiar with normal meteors can be fooled by unusually bright
fireballs. Here is an example quoted by Philip Klass in his book UFOs Explained (Random House, 1974). Pilots aboard a commercial jet flying at 39,000 ft over
the United States in 1969 were reportedly buzzed in daylight at a distance of
300 ft by a formation of four objects emitting a blue-green flame. A military
jet flying some miles behind the airliner reported a squadron of UFOs
approaching that suddenly started to climb as if to avoid a collision.
Even experienced pilots can make major errors of identification and distance
At the same time as this UFO “encounter”, a brilliant daylight fireball broke up into several flaming pieces over the
United States, and there seems little doubt that this is what the pilots saw,
despite the fact that it was actually over 100 miles away from, them. So even
experienced pilots can make major errors of identification and distance. That
doesn’t make them bad airmen, simply human. The encounter near Manchester reported at
the start of this article seems to have been a more modest example of the same
thing. For an example of how a brilliant fireball and bright stars featured in
a multi-witness sighting involving the US Air Force, see my investigation of
Rendlesham Forest UFO case. Faced with incidents such as this and the Belgian Air Force case, both still
declared unexplained by some UFOlogists, one wonders how far it is possible to
credit any UFO report.
Over half a century after the launch of Sputnik 1, many people are still
surprised to find that orbiting satellites can be seen from the ground with the
naked eye. Satellites have tricks that can fool even experienced observers.
Some satellites flash as they rotate; others travel in convoys, including
triangular formations; and others fade and disappear as they enter the Earth’s shadow, giving an effect that is sometimes described as “vanishing rapidly upwards”.
A more recent breed of UFO culprits is a series of satellites launched to relay
signals for the Iridium mobile phone system. There are over 70 of these,
launched since May 1997, and they have highly reflective aluminium antennae
which can catch the Sun, giving sudden spectacular glints far brighter than any
star or planet, lasting for a few seconds. Such sudden brightening followed by
fading may give the impression of something rapidly approaching and then
If real alien spacecraft were whizzing around in orbit they would rapidly be
noticed both by amateur satellite spotters and by defence radars.
I have mentioned the zig-zagging of satellites due to effects in the eye. In his
collection of essays The View from Serendip (Gollancz, 1978), Arthur C. Clarke described an unexpected sighting of the
balloon satellite Echo which appeared to stop and hover overhead before
resuming its onward path. The reasons, as he realized afterwards, were that he
and film producer Stanley Kubrick, who was also watching, were too excited to
observe calmly; it is almost impossible to assess the motion of something
overhead; and moonlight had swamped the background stars against which the
motion could be judged.
Echo, a particularly brilliant satellite, re-entered long ago, but many other
bright satellites have taken its place, notably the International Space
Station. If real alien spacecraft were whizzing around in orbit they would
rapidly be noticed both by amateur satellite spotters and by defence radars
which are actually designed to look for spaceships – our own.
Finally, satellite re-entries occur on a daily basis. In appearance they are
similar to fireballs but can be brighter, longer-lasting, and slower-moving. As
a man-made object burns up it usually fragments into numerous pieces, giving
the impression of a cigar-shaped UFO with portholes.
For instance, a widely reported sighting over the British Isles early on 1993
March 31 termed the Cosford Incident is now known to have been caused by the re-entry of the rocket that launched the
Russian Cosmos 2238 satellite into orbit, combined with the misidentification
of a police helicopter by a meteorologist at an RAF base an hour and a half
later. Yet the MoD investigator at the time, Nick Pope, declared: “It seems that an unidentified object of unknown origin was operating in the UK
Air Defence Region without being detected on radar.” Hence another solved case has come to be regarded by some as an officially
Satellite predictions, including flashes from Iridium satellites, can be
obtained for any location in the world from the web site hosted by the German
Aerospace Centre (DLR) on http://www.heavens-above.com
Good UFO spotting!
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved
Content last updated 2012 October