Frame grab from the Peekskill fireball video

THE ROCKET'S RED GLARE

Tim Printy 1999 Updated October 2008

One of the major sources of a UFO report is an astronomical event. I have already demonstrated how stars can be mistaken for UFOs but there are other phenomena that generate UFO reports. The other most likely sources are meteors and re-entering space debris. If an individual reports a UFO that traversed the night sky and then disappeared, one must first determine if the event were simply an astronomical event of this nature. Even if the witness claims the object disappeared beyond the horizon or seemed to appear to land just beyond the trees, it can still be a meteor or space debris.

After examining many reports of known fireballs and re-entering space debris, I have discovered that the average observer can make many mistakes in their observations. Many will claim that the fireball landed just over the next ridge, often overestimate apparent size, and sometimes get their sense of direction incorrect. UFOlogist John Keel once wrote:

Early in my own investigations I discovered that the average witness could not even pinpoint true north- even when he or she had lived in the area all their life...Estimates of altitude are much more difficult to make even for experienced pilots. And at night it is almost impossible to judge the altitude of an object (usually just a light of unknown size...estimates of UFO speeds are usually inaccurate and altitude estimates are questionable unless the object appears near something of a known altitude - such as a mountain or a conventional aircraft. (Spencer and Evans 187-188)

Understanding that witnesses sometimes make mistakes is important in identifying the true source of UFO reports. To accept their statements as being accurate is to ignore the fact that, as Astronomer Frank Drake makes clear, "the human mind does not always have perfect sensors; it is an imperfect computer in dealing with the stimuli it receives" (Sagan and Page 257).

BASIC METEOR FACTS

Meteors are usually small objects the size of a grain of sand that plummet through the earth's atmosphere at a height of 100km. One wonders how it is possible to see such a small object at such a great distance. The reason is that one is actually seeing the ionization of atoms surrounding the path of the meteor. As the atoms return to their normal state, they emit light. The bigger the meteoroid, the more atoms are ionized and the brighter it appears. Many fireballs are about the size of a softball or maybe a bit larger. The larger the meteor, the more likely it is to strike the ground. They usually disappear from visual observation at an altitude of 20 km but the remnant still plummets towards the earth. This remnant is called a meteorite.

Sometimes a meteor will leave a smoke-like trail called an ion train. These are atoms that do not return to their stable state readily and can take up to an hour to do so. I have personally seen ion trains last 8-10 minutes. However, there are records of some fireballs producing ion trains that lasted over an hour.

Meteors can also be seen in the daytime but this is infrequent. One can recall the great fireball of August 10, 1972 was visible over the western United States for a significant period of time. The meteor was filmed by one camera for 26 seconds and calculations put its duration at over a minute in length. You can read more about this meteor at http://comets.amsmeteors.org/meteors/1972.html.

These conditions set the scenario that meteors can be seen for long periods of time and can be misinterpreted as UFOs.

REENTERING SPACE DEBRIS

This is a little trickier phenomenon. Unlike meteors, space debris usually enters the earth's atmosphere at a much slower rate. As the debris enters the atmosphere, it breaks up into smaller parts. The end result is multiple lights and trails being left in the sky. The phenomenon can last for much longer than the average meteor (minutes compared to seconds). Meteors usually have speeds around 40-70 km/sec. However, the speed of reentering space debris is much less than this. Usually space debris will enter the atmosphere at a speed of on the order of less than 10 km/sec.

THE CASE OF ZOND IV

Sketches provided by witnesses of the event (Klass)

The single most interesting study on how these events can be misinterpreted as UFOs was revealed during the Condon study. Dr. William Hartman evaluated one "mass sighting" of a UFO that was determined to be the reentry of a Russian booster stage for the satellite Zond IV. Several of the reports given by witnesses sounded incredible. Here are a few reports:

It was shaped like a fat cigar, in my estimation. I was impressed that it seemed of considerable size, the size of one of our largest airplane fuselages, or larger...It appeared to have square-shaped windows...I thought I caught a glimpse of a metallic look about the fuselage...It appeared to me that the fuselage was constructed of many pieces of flat sheets of metal-like material with a "riveted together look."...The many "windows" seemed to be lit up from the inside of the fuselage with light that was quite bright...From out of the back end of the fuselage came a wide (roughly about the width of the fuselage) long, reddish-orangish-yellowish stream of dusty fire. It seemed as though particles of dust were on fire...I was impressed with what looked to me like low altitude of the craft at this point of my sighting-I thought, around 1000 feet or less... (Sagan and Page 155-156)

The object flew at tree-top level and was seen very clearly since it was just a few yards away. All of the observers saw a long jet airplane, looking like a vehicle without wings. It was on fire both in front and behind. All the observers observed many windows in the UFO. My cousin said, "If there had been anybody in the UFO near the windows, I would have seen them."

The next morning we heard it was supposed to have been a meteor. But the other observers and myself know the UFO could not have been a meteor because meteors don't have windows and turn corners like IT did. (Sagan and Page 160)

Dr. Hartmann writes in his study that there were two factors in effect with this report. The first was the "excitedness effect". He defined this as, "observers with the poorest observations are most likely to submit reports" (Sagan and Page 19). The second factor was the "airship effect". This is defined as, "observers conceive of moving lights in a dark sky as connected in a single entity" (Sagan and Page 19). Dr. Hartmann also recognized that out of 78 reports received only 30 were of sufficient value to evaluate. Of these 30 reports, Dr. Hartmann stated that only one-fourth indicated the object was reentering space debris and half did not provide enough information to draw a conclusion. The final fourth was entirely misleading and pointed away from reentering space debris. The two examples above are some of these misleading reports. Dr. Hartmann's study is on line at http://www.ncas.org/condon/s6chap02.htm.

 

THE CASE OF THE TSYKLON ROCKET

On March 30-31, 1993, there was a repeat of the Zond IV incident. Many fisherman who saw the reentering debris as a "flying catamaran", which passed overhead in complete silence at about 800 foot altitude (Brookesmith 144). This was another repeat of the airship effect. Even more interesting is the plots made based on the reports of witnesses shown in UFO:The Government Files (Brookesmith 145). While a majority showed the track of the UFO to be in a North-South or West-East direction, several indicated it was moving South-North or East-West. This is probably due to the inability of the witnesses to give accurate descriptions of directions or not realizing which direction was North (as Keel pointed out).

THE CASE OF THE JAPANESE SATELLITE

On August 12, 1986 many witnesses across the United States saw an incredible UFO display. Amateur astronomers saw it and reported it fairly accurately. In northern Maine, Wayne Madea saw "a pinpoint of light, like a satellite, traveling with a cloud" (Frazier, Karr and Nickell 162). The most interesting reports went to NUFORC (The National UFO Reporting Center). Robert Gribble told James Oberg "I got no reports of it moving across the sky" (Frazier, Karr and Nickell 165). This is amazing since the object did move across the sky. Was it possible that the reports to NUFORC consisted mainly of observers who were taken in by the "excitedness effect"? Oberg also states that CUFOS (The Center for UFO Studies) had similar reports. Sherman Larson told him that his calls stated, "In each case, witnesses said an object appeared to have exploded in the sky and then moved into a cloud" (Frazier, Karr and Nickell 165). It appears that UFO centers draw the reports from persons that are most likely to link such events to alien spaceships or unknown phenomenon.

THE CASE OF THE LIGHTS OVER THE NORTHWESTERN US PT1

On November 14, 1997, a vast array of lights was seen passing over the Northwestern US. Peter Davenport of NUFORC reported this on the Art Bell radio program as an extraordinary UFO event. In the database, there are 22 reports from that night. Here are some excerpts indicating that it was satellite debris reentering the Earth's atmosphere:

There were two parallel primary bright objects with multiple bright objects following, much like one would expect of a comet or a shooting fireworks display...My comment was it looks like a sattelight breaking apart and burning up, but again it was very low on the horizon. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Bright white lights, long tails of light that appeared to dissipate and then return; almost as if there were streaks of smoke or haze along with the lights. Seemed to be three or four large ones and several small ones all flying in the same pattern. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

I observed some objects moving across the northern sky from left to right at about a 45 degree angle. They appeared to be in formation. Some of the were trailing sparks...looked kind of like a childs sparler used on the 4th of July. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

2 groups of 10 to 15 burning objects going from W by Nw sky towards E by NE sky moving much slower than a shooting star; moving at a constant speed. only 3 or 4 object remained visible as they reached the horizon to the NE (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Some reports included inaccurate information in them such as altitude:

I was driving west on 196th St SW,in Edmonds, when I noticed a mass of bright lights in the sky to my north. I could not identify what they were. At first I thought they were a squadron of helicoptors flying in formation with their lights on. I immediately pulled over and got out of my truck. I looked up and saw the mass, moving very slowly to the east. It looked to be about 3,000 feet off of the ground. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Then there are those who demonstrated the "airship effect" and "excitedness effect". There were six reports describing such. This is over 1/4 the reports and a greater percentage than Condon's. After reading the Condon report and Hartmann's study, I was amused to see that dogs are affected by space debris reentry!

There were 3, it seemed. Each had 3, I think, bright white lights in front of them. I think there may have been something in between those 3 lights, but I couldn't see it clearly. One of those 3 lights seemed to be a bit bigger and brighter than the other two. They each had these "tails" that were golden, and came out of those front lights like perfect rectangles! I mean, the tops and bottoms were a perfect straight line, and there was golden glittery stuff in them. The "glitter" was of different sizes, too. Not all the same size. And NO glitter was outside of those rectangles! (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Looked at lights and started to count them there were about seven pairs of lights traveling west to east ones in front seemed traveling faster and ones in the middle and in back seemed to be hovering then moving and hovering again. I watched for about two minutes and then went over the horizen. It was like a light show and very eloquent looking. My dog is usually hyper and follows me everywhere especialy outside but when I went outside she would'nt move from the door and I had to walk around her.she was not herself for the rest of the night. Also my t.v. did'nt work right I had to unplug it to turn it off.and other stereo equipment, VCRs. And primestar didn't work correctly. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

If these were high in the atmosphere, then the grey object that was moving with these lights had to be hugh. Because it was close enough to be illuminated by these lights. Only a jet could have kept pace with these lights, I saw no wings, no undercarriage as on a blimp/zepplin. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Large object seen traveling northeast at a slow rate of speed approximately 300-500 feet above the ground and 250 to 300 yards from observer. Object was rectangular, and was about the size of a football field. Appeared to be translucent with reddish/orange lights of different intensity surrounding the perimeter, however, the dark superstructure could be seen, outlined by the lights. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

A large, well lit flying wedged shaped object flying very low over my house without any noise...There were many lights outlining the wedge shape. They seemed to be about the same brightness although some appeared to be reddish while others blue. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

We witnessed several, at least twenty, lights off to the north, toward washington, moving in an easterly direction through the gorge. The lights seem to be contained within a glowing nebula. At the front of the formation was a dark object, larger than an airplane. Lights looked like streamers breaking off the main body. Object moved quickly up the gorge away from the coast. It definitly did not move west. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

There appeared to be a desire to believe that the reentry was a cover story. Didn't UFOlogists learn from previous incidents? Peter Davenport apparently did not. He posted a summary on the NUFORC Website and also included a press release. Unfortunately, it is the wrong press release. Note that this event occurred in 1997 but Peter posted the release No. 41-96 of November 29, 1996 (Davenport, November Online)! This became a point of discussion on the UFOMIND website and was the reason to disagree with the booster reentry answer since the debris described reentered on November 17. However, nobody noticed the 1996 date and just jumped on the November dating. I am not a subscriber but gave an email to Ted Viens, who corrected the discussion group. The opposition to the idea of the booster reentry quickly began to fade at this point. Is the research this sloppy such that any report that indicates an object is a "genuine" UFO is accepted but any report indicating that the event was a reentry is rejected?

UFOlogists have floated several reasons for the discrepancy in the descriptions. Probably the most absurd is the fact that UFOs make themselves visible during the time that space debris reenters the atmosphere! Amazing that such incredible craft that constantly evade detection need to resort to such methods. The proposition is ridiculous. If only all UFOlogists really read the reports and did a bit of research, they would be able to sift through the reports and discover the true cause of the "sightings". Dr. Hartmann would shake his head and wonder if anyone ever read his article about Zond IV. However, a few level headed UFOlogists were able to come to the correct conclusions. Ted Viens wrote:

This makes it easy to understand how popular misconceptions can sensationalize a common reentry. The many ways that a booster can break up and the many aerodynamic forces affecting the varied pieces can easily explain the various fireballs and their paths. Sadly, several of the postings on the NUFORC page clearly described the how's and why's of this being an SL-12 reentry. Yet this did nothing to stem the mystification and glamorization of the event. (Viens Online)

Gary Val Tenuta wrote the following about the event:

...I'm suggesting the possibility that the excitement generated by the spectacular sightings of the rocket debris could have activated a temporary disturbance in the "stable illusion" of some people's personal realities, thus allowing their unconscious intellects an opportunity to create a momentary illusion of a an anomalous group of lights, a hovering disk, or whatever. What the person believes he sees, as Budden points out, is determined by whatever related ideas or images the UC (Unconscious Intellect) was able to grab, at a moments notice, from the storehouse of the persons memory banks. Think of all the related items that are stored up in our memories these days: visual images from the X-Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Strange Universe; the movies like Independence Day and Men In Black; alien Grey's in car commercials; Whitley Strieber's "Communion" book cover; thoughts, ideas and images broadcast daily by radio programs such as Jeff Rense's Sightings On The Radio and Art Bell's overnight program. (Tenuta Online)

At least somebody is learning a little but sadly this is not the case for most UFOlogists.

THE CASE OF THE LIGHTS OVER THE NORTHWESTERN US PT2

Just when you think the witnesses in the Northwest had learned their lessons, we receive another rash of reports following the reentry of a rocket booster engine on September 1, 1999. Of the twenty-one reports I found in the NUFORC database, several were very unclear on what was visually seen. Most indicated space debris reentering the atmosphere. There were no "airship effect" reports that were distinctly reported in the database. However, some indicated that they felt the reentering debris were craft. One of the reports may have indicated why the "airship effect" was not evident in some of the reports:

I saw a meteor with a pale, golden white glow, about a quarter the size of my fist, came from the northwest at about the speed of a fighter jet. I expected the meteor to disintigrate, as most do after they fall to the earth, but as it approached zenith, the object began to have a glowing white trail after it, so I assumed it was a fighter jet, but the object made no sound like a jet and made no jet trail. A little past zenith, in the eastern part of the sky the object began to slow down and without any indication, the object split into four separate parts, a bright, large portion that continued on the original path of northwest to southeast, and three smaller pieces that went northeast, northwest and southeast. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

As the group of objects passed slowly, almost "drifting" past my windshield higher than my aircraft, I could see flames coming from each object and a comet-like tail behind each object. My next thought was that it might be a huge aircraft breaking up, some objects were long like a wing or odd shapes. However, it was not descending, but rather was moving straight and slowly across the sky almost appearing to be level. It had the appearance of flaming, huge objects, in formation, or in a group. There was one large object following the group somewhat behind the others. I thought it might be space debri but they all appeared too large and too many. (commercial pilot) (Davenport, Sightings Online)

The fact that the debris started as one light may have allowed many of the "excitable" witnesses to rule out a single craft with lights. Still, some reports were very erroneous:

At approx 10:30pm Wed. 9/1, I saw an orange something that I thought was an airplane on fire and going slowly down towards the ocean. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

The closest report to the "airship effect" is listed below:

No blinking just solid light. traveling in perfect formation. either one large object or 3 small ones. traveling faster than jet or plane yet slower than a shooting star. No sparks or trails seen. traveled the sky from left to right headed towards direction of rising moon. when got to where moon would have been (was not up at the time) they? changed direction heading away from field of view as if it was moving towards the moon. light faded out at this time. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

However, NUFORC was not the only place witnesses could provide input to and UFOlogist Steve Moreno determined that the events involved an extraterrestrial craft based on two reports he received. The first was from a boy named Ben who told Steve,

A huge black triangular object was seen slowly traversing across the sky very close at what he estimated to be 300' off the ground. It was witnessed at aprox. a 60 degree angle traveling from a Northwest to a Northeast direction, seeming to be possibly over "Air Base Parkway" and heading toward the North side of Travis. This object was completely silent, massive and solid in its structure, as the star fields behind it became blocked as it moved along in a slow controlled trajectory...Ben described the object as a huge black mass which might have gone un-noticed if it were not for this trailing flame which shone behind it. As he stared in awe at this huge mass in such a close proximity he began to look for details on it. He noticed several small independent white lights, which were spaced randomly on the object, and emitted a continuos white light. He noticed that the lights revealed some sort of piping apparatus details around them, on the surface of the craft. (Moreno Online)

Steve then compares this to a report made by a man named John, who told him:

...that the tail was a light colored, or a star color, and that it didn't just come out of what he might of considered to be the exhaust, but came off the entire surface object and quite a ways back, longer then the actual object. He stated it was like a trail or something. He described the trail having a luminescent sparkling effect which just randomly dissipated off behind the object. He compared it to sparks coming off a campfire at night and disappearing into sky. However he did not get the impression it was a flame... When asked about any discernible geometric shape or solidity he stated it was a very dark night, and that if not for this erie trail which followed it, it might have gone unnoticed. He stated it was almost as if you could see through parts of it. He described it as having a ghost type effect.. That you could see the outline of it, but it was hard to tell where the object ended and space began. He speculated that this was due to the tails erie effect however. He mentioned having the distinct impression there was definitely a controlled solid object. (Moreno Online)

So the airship effect did take hold in some cases but at a lower rate. It appears that the object broke up and some witnesses only saw portions of the debris. When Moreno posted his conclusions on the newsgroups, I responded with references to Hartmann's study. I received no reply and it appears Moreno ignored my posting. He continues to profess that it was a single object.

It is clear from the detailed reports on this local case that this incident was NOT a returning rocket booster or space debris. It is also clear it was not a conventional air craft. Only two possibilities remain, either a super-secret government Black Budget craft, or an extraterrestrial UFO. (Moreno Online)

Moreno examined all the reports available at NUFORC, but he chose to arrive at a different conclusion based on two eyewitnesses (one a young impressionable boy of 13). This does not make a case when comparing them to reports made at the same time describing space debris. Moreno has become highly selective in his data used for evaluation. How can this be considered research?

 

THE CASE OF THE REENTRY OVER FLORIDA

Only 6 days later, another Russian booster rocket reentered over the US. This time it happened in the Southeast over the Gulf of Mexico. It was Florida residents, who made the reports. The NUFORC database was full of "airship effect" reports. In this case there were only 6 reports but four of these displayed the "airship effect".

There were at least 5 very distinct upright disks or spheres, the first being a pulsating green, and the other 4 behind it bright white (and all exactly the same size). The disks were spaced evenly apart and each had an INTENSE beam of light shining from one to the next. It had been raining so we knew the object(s) were under 2000' (clouds did not interrupt the light), and the object was traveling (apparently) the speed of a cessna aircraft, but was obiously much higher. The size of each disk was about 1/4 moon, or the size of your thumbnail at arms length, but MUCH brighter. I followed the object visually for over 20 seconds from my direct west, until it disapeared over my southern horizon (about where Disney World is). I've worked midnight shifts for over 3 years, the last 2 sitting exactly where I was; in my car facing south, and I have seen planets, meteors, low and high flying planes and jets, bugs, you name it...this was NONE of those things. By the way...it did not make ANY sound at all, OR leave a visible com-trail. My estimate is that if it was a single object would have HAD to be (at the apparent height; just under 2000 feet), at least a quarter of a mile long. Please take note that the "leading" disk was green and pulsing, there were NO "trails" of any kind, and there were VERY clearly visible light "beams" (equal in size to each disk/sphere), between each of the 5. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

5:00 A.M. ON 9-7-99.on the right windshield area i noticed a low large cigar shaped object with 3 lights (bright) hovering above the telephone poles. the craft was a military standard silver color with no sound.

Traveling from north to south was an object that I only could describe as a glass cigar tube with smoke in it and three equally spaced blue lights. It was not foggy that night. The moon was clearly visible. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

...this object was moving way to fast for a plane and had no visible navigation lights. It was emmiting an orange glow from the back which made the contrail more visible. I couldn't determine a shape from the angle I was from it but I could make out a large form. I thought it might be a fighter aircraft with it's afterburners on but it was to large to be that high up and still be seen. The contrail was also very wide. After it got low in the East, I saw the orange turn to red for just a brief moment and it started to fade. It seemed like it was losing altitude and making a southeast turn and it was about the 9 o'clock position at this time, very low and far to the east. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Also, we again see how people may make mistakes in what they think they saw:

Went out to get paper and saw bright light in the sky. Looked like a huge plane exploding at first. Bright flames at rear bluish in color. Appeared to be crashing then it stopped and moved several times then it disappeared in what looked like a cloud. Hundreds of people in area saw it but we were told it was a russian rocket destructing. But I saw it change directions?????? (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Remember it was at 5AM and a semi-alert person could misperceive a direction change very easily.

George Filer, of MUFON, incorporated another observation in his Filer's Files for September 24, 1999.

An individual was driving from Arcadia toward Sarasota between 4:30 and 5:00 AM. Suddenly, the cab of his truck lit up three miles east of Myakka State Park. He rolled down his window to see where it was coming from and was shocked to see a huge object 75 yards from him. The driver said, He saw a spaceship!" (his words). He said, it started out as a bright star and it got "real bright." It was a football field and a half long (450 feet). The UFO had a blimp like shape and was brown gray in color. It had windows that were 15 or 20 feet long by 8 inches wide with a bluish light emanating from them. It stopped parallel to him and moved towards him before backing off a bit. Then it departed faster than the speed of light. It had an intense narrow cylindrical beam of light coming out of the back of it that left a little smoke for a fraction of a second when it took off silently. After watching for a while he panicked and drove off at high speed with the UFO following for a while. Then it abruptly took off He described the whole event and size of the spaceship as overwhelming. (Filer Online)

In this posting of UFO reports, there was no indication that George was going to offer the possibility that this was the reentering debris despite the fact that the witness saw the event at the same time as the reentry!

Another "UFOlogist", Ignatius Graffeo, posted a video file on his website of this event and then claimed it was the "smoking gun" evidence of a true UFO. Ignatius stated:

I'm amazed how such a sighting could be mistaken for a rocket booster re-entering the atmosphere! The craft was observed to be moving very slowly. It tilts and reorients itself. This is not what a falling rocket booster does! The news report is rife with disinformation and confusion. It is truly frightening how this type of craft can flaunt itself in our skies and be explained away and dismissed so easily. This video speaks for itself. (Graffeo Online)

However, when I examined the video, I was amazed to see a classic case of reentering space debris. Are UFOlogists this gullible? Has Graffeo ever seen space debris reenter the earth's atmosphere before? Graffeo's knowledge of space is very limited when one examines this statement he makes:

Seems like these "booster" rockets are a convenient cover story. It used to be meteors, temperature inversions, swamp gas, or the planet Venus. Now it's Russian boosters. If this is true, why aren't our local civil defense authorities concerned about warning people in populated areas on falling booster tonnage? And why are "Russian" boosters all of a sudden falling across US territory?? That last "booster" (item # 25761) which fell over the Western part of the country wasn't even in NORADS catalog! (Graffeo Online)

Graffeo makes several errors in his statements. First, the Russians launched several rockets in late August 1999 and this is the reason for so many events. Second, Booster #25671 was in the catalogue but Graffeo failed to do the proper research and quoted a misinformed source! The individual he quotes failed to understand the basic numbering system for space debris and that the SL-12 booster is a common vehicle used by the Russians (he proclaimed that there were hundreds of pieces of this booster in orbit but in reality it was different boosters from different launches). The reason he did not have 25671 listed is because the database apparently only included debris currently in orbit. 25671 had already reentered the atmosphere. Had Graffeo looked at Space Warning Bulletin #551, he would have discovered the following:

Actual decays/landings of payload spacecraft and rocket bodies (R/B) only. Additional information is not available.

Designations Common Name 1999
1999-010E(25761) R/B Upper stage of Proton-K 02 SEP
1999-047C(25898)
R/B Proton-K
07 Sep

(Bell Online)

NOTE: The dates listed are for Universal Time (UT) or Greenwich time (GMT) and the date of 02 September is actually 01 September for those in the Pacific Northwest.

Third, and finally, space debris normally burns up high in the atmosphere. Very rarely does any survive the plunge downward. The space warning bulletins are adequate since it is assumed no debris will fall on the public's heads. When such events as Skylab and MIR happen, it is big news and the space agencies take great pains to make sure this debris reenters over water. Graffeo displays considerable ignorance concerning these events. He then has the nerve to state, "We do have the right to demand the truth about what the hell is going on in our skies!" (Graffeo Online) Yes, we do have a right to know but Ignatius seems to not even understand what is going on with our sky in regards to astronomical and space events. It is hard to inform people about things they know nothing about.

THE MISSILE ATTACK THAT WASN'T

Not only rockets generate UFO reports but meteors too. However, in this case, the meteor was not described as a UFO but a missile attack! It happened in the spring of 1991. I was stationed aboard USS Providence (SSN 719) and we had just returned from sea to our homeport in Groton, Connecticut. The Gulf War had recently ended and many of our young sailors saw much of the events on the television. On this particular night, I had the duty and had to tour the ship at 4AM. Upon going topside to check on the watch there, I found an excited individual, who claimed a missile had been launched from the New London side of the river and it had missed the submarine base. He stated that it must have fallen down just beyond the hill. Although, he saw it travel across the sky, the missile was noiseless and no explosion was heard. Being an amateur astronomer, I quickly determined he had seen a brilliant meteor. The topside watch on the submarine across the pier from us also felt they had seen a bright "falling star" but could not be sure. I informed the duty officer of the incident and he agreed with my conclusions. The young Petty Officer felt we were wrong and kept a wary eye out for subsequent "attacks" on the base. There were no fire alarms on base or any indication of an exploded missile outside the base. The night was very quiet and not one siren could be heard. The following day, I showed him the local paper's story about a brilliant fireball seen all over the New England. Even faced with all the evidence, he still felt that the meteor was really a missile attack. It was my first experience in how eyewitnesses to an event can have a preconception about it, which will affect their interpretation of what they saw. It also demonstrated how an eyewitness would be reluctant to admit that they were incorrect in their assessment even when faced with evidence to the contrary.

THE IDES OF MARCH 1995 FIREBALL

On March 15, 1995 a brilliant meteor was seen over the Midwest and eastern US. If an object is seen over a wide area, we usually are assured that it is a meteor or satellite reentry. Anyway, we get another report on NUFORC. Here we read,

"In summary, it appears that one or more egg-shaped objects, radiating intensely bright green, blue-green, and yellow light, and periodically spewing out a cloud of sparks, streaked over at least seven states, stopping from time to time, and the whole event occurred in a matter of minutes!! " (Davenport, Ides Online)

Or perhaps the individuals made their reports a little out of time with each other. The event happened at the same time but the times were a bit off since each of the reported times were not synchronized. If NUFORC uses their own clocks for synchronization, it is hard to actually get a feel for the exact time of the event. Each report would come in and the only way to get a feel for the time of the event is by actually asking the reporter. If he says 10:15 or 10:16, who is to say their clock was exact? As for the reports, there were some interesting comments:

The first call we received was from Cannis City, FL, reporting that two males were walking along railroad tracks near that town and were stunned to see a luminous, white disc-shaped object streak across the sky, pass below or near several aircraft in the night sky, appear to ascend back up into the sky, and disappear to the north. " (Davenport, Ides Online)

A young woman called to report that, after visiting with her mother in Westover, WV, she had just sat in the driver's seat of her car to leave, when a bright light had streaked silently over her car at a breath-taking velocity. She added that as she glanced up at the light, she thought she could make out the outline of an "egg-shaped" object imbedded in the orb of bright light. The back portion of the object was bright yellow. " (Davenport, Ides Online)

The third call we received minutes later from a gentleman in Jackson, TN, who reported witnessing a blue-green "cloud of light" hovering in the night sky. He had seen it streak from the northwest beneath, he thought, almost solid overcast, hover for approximately 30 or 40 seconds, during which time he could almost see some kind of object apparently imbedded in the cloud of light. The object then began to drift generally to the southwest, the caller reported, at which time it belched out a large "cloud" of sparks, and then streaked southwest, quickly disappearing from sight. " (Davenport, Ides Online)

As they were driving west (at a heading of approximately 250 degrees magnetic) on Westford Avenue (?), approaching the exit for Chain Bridge Road, the father and daughter both simultaneously observed an bright object, apparently at some distance from them, streak down out of the sky almost directly ahead of them, descending at approximately 70-80 degrees from the horizontal plane. They both expected to observe some kind of explosion when the object reached ground level, but nothing happened! Rather than explode, the object simply disappeared from sight--uneventfully-- when it reached the horizon... " (Davenport, Ides Online)

Sounds intriguing but I found this in the Fireball data center (FIDAC) on line.

1995 Mar 16 04 27 UT

Solar longitude J2000: 355.189deg

Magnitude: -10 Zenithal magnitude: -12

Location: St. Louis Co., MO (USA) (090 deg 20'40'' W, 38deg 34'20'' N)

First sighting: alpha=093deg, delta=+09deg

End sighting: alpha=132deg, delta=-35deg

Duration: 18 seconds Color: ye-wh-or-rd

Trail: visible for 5s

Persistent train: none

Fragmentation: none

Velocity: 3deg/sec

Sound: none

Observer: J. Bentz (FIDAC Online)

The magnitude of -12 was unusual and equates to full moon brightness. This casts shadows and will stun even experienced observers. The duration of 18 seconds is pretty long for a meteor but not out of the ordinary. It appears our witnesses were just viewing a brilliant meteor. However, Davenport does not post any of these reports in his database. He only posts the summary, which is devoid of any times. I can only assume by the descriptions given and the above report is of the same event. They do appear to be similar. Just in case you are confused by the date, it is the date Universal Time, which is based on Greenwich Mean Time. 0427 on 16 Mar is equivalent to 1127PM on 15 March.

THE CASE OF THE BRILLIANT METEOR OF 3 OCTOBER 1996

This occurred over the western US and many of the reports had misperceptions. Only one report (from Santa Fe, NM) existed in the NUFORC database and it stated:

Thought it was a plane coming FROM the SE (moving NNW), it moved at a very regular plane-like speed. Felt it might have been a military or civilian plane coming to a smooth CRASH. But it was apparent it was a BIG plane and going too fast to make such a maneuveur without hitting I-25. There is only a small airport in SFE and it was not headed there. Pulled over on I-25, fearing it was going to cross our path. It was HUGE, rectangular, like a LADDER on it's side: two parallel rows of white lights connected by "rungs" of white lights. It then stopped and SHOT perpendicular to itself at an AMAZING SPEED. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

This does not sound like a meteor but it was at the same time that others made a report about a meteor. It is highly likely that this observer, excited by his observation, made a highly misperceived and misconceived report. The conclusion by the witness that it could not have been a meteor and that he reported it three years later indicates there was several reasons for the error. One, the delay of the report probably made the individual add details and the second is this individuals strong emotional desire to ridicule the explanation that it was a meteor. NUFORC added the following note to this report:

We have other dramatic reports on file about this incident. At least 7 vehicles stopped on I-25 to look at an object estimated to be "as long as a football field. One teenager is reported to us to have been so upset by the event, that he was taken to a hospital emergency room for treatment. A senior engineer at JPL in Pasadena, CA, was witness to this event, as well. The object was reported by the press to be a "meteorite." We believe this to be a severely flawed conclusion. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

There is a videotape of a bright fireball seen from Texas during this time period and several fireball reports were made. The two events appear to have been linked and the California meteor were the result of the breakup of the Texas meteor skipping out of the atmosphere and then re-entering 104 minutes later. Mark Boslough, of Sandia Labs, and John Wasson of UCLA created this hypothesis.

THE CASE OF THE JULY 10, 1998 FIREBALL

Another fireball case occurred in the United Kingdom. Some witnesses correctly identified this one but it seems that UFOlogists did not want to let this one go. It left a brilliant train that lasted over an hour. The train changed shape (as trains will do when they last for significant periods of time) and formed a "question mark" or "Z" shape. The train lasted for over an hour and the UFOMIND website was full of speculation and assertions that it could not have been a meteor. However, the worst comment came from Joe Trainor, the editor of a weekly report called "UFO Roundup", who stated, "Excuse me, but luminous meteor trails last between five and ten seconds--twenty seconds tops. They do not persist in the sky for over an hour. Whatever this phenomenon was, it was no meteor" (Trainor Online). I waited for a few days and not one person corrected this individual. I sent him e-mail and gave him a few references to look at to correct his lack of understanding. His response was that he would correct it in the next issue of his UFO Updates newsletter. He then retorted that a meteor train that lasted over an hour would have to be a record. He was more willing to believe that it was an authentic UFO despite evidence to the contrary. The correction never appeared in his newsletter.

THE CASE OF THE AUGUST 15,1999 FIREBALL

This was another meteor that was widely seen over a large area of the west. There were eleven reports in the NUFORC database. There was no "airship effect" because of the short duration of the event (only a few seconds). However, the "excited" witnesses again made some rather interesting reports. My favorite sounds like the individual must have been in his early teens.

as i was saying that i see that the sky is lit up and i was thinking cool lightening rock on and my mom is just looking up and she kinda slowed down and we're both kinda staring at the sky and everything was silent the sky stayed lit up for awhile(perhaps 10 seconds if that) and i looked at my mom and i was going to say something but then i turn my head towards my window for some reason and i see this huge and i mean HUGE trail kinda looked like millons and zillons of sparklers coming down it was long then it just exploded it was brillant, it lit up the sky more i dunno how to explain it it was like first the sky lit up then it went dark then the explosion came and lit up the sky like daylight the explosion(thats the best way i know how to call it an explosion) was like a white yellow orange type colour all rolled into one but the center of it was white and bright almost as if the sun was falling it came down super fast but when it exploded it slowed down after it exploded it was all normal again no trails of like stuff falling down it just stop as if nothing ever happened it was at an angle when it was falling but before it exploded it went straight. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

On Art Bell, Peter Davenport made several highly erroneous statements when interviewing witnesses. He stated the object moved too fast to be a meteor based on the fact the meteor moved from the zenith to the horizon in only a few seconds. Sorry to tell Peter that he needs to do more meteor observing and understand the concepts involved. This is not that unusual at all and to draw such conclusions indicates Peter is more interested in selling UFOs than doing real research.

THE NOVEMBER 16, 1999 FIREBALL

On November 16, 1999, a brilliant fireball was seen over the Midwest and eastern United States. Observations of the event were varied. The duration varied from a few seconds to 1-2 minutes and the time of observation varied from on the hour to up to half past the hour. Actual time seems to concentrate at 5 minutes past the hour and the majority of the observations pointed towards duration of 10-20 seconds. The observations in the NUFORC database were extremely varied. Davenport agreed that it was more than likely a fireball but could not understand the varied reports. Perhaps he should have read Dr. Hartmann's accounts on the Zond IV incident. There were several reports involving the "airship effect" in the NUFORC database.

From what we could tell as it glided over the treetops, it was in my estimation at least 60 feet long and narrow. Cigar shaped, traveling about 20-25 feet in the air at about 20 mph. When we first saw it, my father recalled the meteor shower expected in 2 days, but as it went by, we realized it was too close to the ground, and definitely not fading. It also traveled in a steady straight line with respect to the horizon. The lights themselves were almost like white light. Some seemed stationary on the object while others streaked by with the continuous movement of the object, sort of like a trail along side. It was like a long skinny bus moving through the sky. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

From what we could tell as it glided over the treetops, it was in my estimation at least 60 feet long and narrow. Cigar shaped, traveling about 20-25 feet in the air at about 20 mph. When we first saw it, my father recalled the meteor shower expected in 2 days, but as it went by, we realized it was too close to the ground, and definitely not fading. It also traveled in a steady straight line with respect to the horizon. The lights themselves were almost like white light. Some seemed stationary on the object while others streaked by with the continuous movement of the object, sort of like a trail along side. It was like a long skinny bus moving through the sky. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

It first apeared like a large plane with a row of windows. I thought it was a plane atempting to land on the highway. As it grew closer i realized the object was to large to be a plane. In addition it had no flashing lights or landing lights. It was very long in length, possibly 200' to 500' feet. It had a row of what apeared to be windows yellow orange in color, with several lights in the front and rear the same color. It seamed to slow as it got closer to my truck, almost directly in front, about 1/4 mile away. It dipped down behind some trees, and dissapeared. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

I noticed how black the sky was and a few stars and saw something shaped like a rectangle, like the size of the windows on this form that we use to fill out information. I was traveling about 70 MPH and saw this shaped traveling in the sky along side of the car. I thought it was a shooting star, but it didn't have a tail and it was airborne too long. It never disappeared in the sky!!!! As I slowed down, the object got closer and I was able to see it much clearer. This object had several windows that were seperated by some kind of bar and very bright lights. I was stunned by what I saw and pulled off the road to get a better look, but The craft disappeared. (Davenport, Sightings Online)

Hartmann related the Zond IV data to the infamous Chiles-Whitted sighting in 1948. His conclusion was that a meteor was the cause for the 1948 event. Although space debris can usually produce similar reports to the Chiles-Whitted event, meteor events are less likely to do so. Most people who conclude a fireball is a UFO refer to them as being "disc-shaped" or "tear-drop shaped". However, if a meteor breaks up, as in the November 16 event, the necessary illusion similar is now available. Eyewitnesses now can perceive a dark object with lighted windows and the similarity between these reports and the Chiles-Whitted sighting is readily apparent.

Drawings from the Chiles-Whitted sighting (Klass)

CONCLUSIONS

Dr. Hartmann is correct in his evaluation of misperceptions and the limitations of eyewitnesses. It appears that a majority of the reports filed with UFO centers also are highly erroneous. Dr. Hartmann is also correct in the fact that the more excited the individual is, the more likely they are to submit a UFO report. A UFO forum on line or a phone hotline is a magnet for exaggerated reports. Why do UFOlogists not recognize this? It is probably due to their desire to accept such events at face value and not attempt to discriminate what is fact and what is fantasy.  

Works Cited

Bell, Edwin ed. "Space Warning Bulletin 551" National Space Science Data Center. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/spacewarn/spx551.html

Davenport, Peter. "Sightings database." National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.nwlink.com/~ufocntr/webreports.html

Davenport, Peter. "Ides of March Sightings." National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.nwlink.com/~ufocntr/CB950315.html

Davenport, Peter. "November 14, 1997 Northwest Sightings." National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Online. Internet. Available WWW:http://www.nwlink.com/~ufocntr/CB971114.html

Filer, George. Filer's Files #38, 1999. Online. Internet. Available WWW:http://www.filersfiles.com/njmufon/Filer/filer9-22.htm

Frazier, Kendrick ,Barry Karr, and Joe Nickell ed. UFO Invasion. Amherst: Prometheus, 1997

Graffeo, Ignatius. "Tampa Home Video Shows Details of Large Triangle Craft" UFOSeek. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://members.aol.com/ufoseek/

Intrenational Meteor Organization. Fireball Data Center (FIDAC) Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.imo.net/fireball/fidac95.003

Klass, Philip. UFOS Explained. New York: Random House, 1974.

Moreno, Steve. September 99' flap in depth study & analysis. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://psi-app.com/SeptSightingA.htm

Sagan, Carl, and Thornton Page, eds. UFO's: A Scientific Debate. New York: Barnes & Nobles, 1972.

Spencer, John and Hilary Evans eds. Phenomenon: Forty Years of Flying Saucers. New York: Avon, 1988.

Trainor, Joe. UFO Roundup Vol 3 Number 28. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.ufomind.com/ufo/updates/1998/jul/m12-025.shtml

Val Tenuta, Gary. "Northwest Sightings Event: A Study in Mass Hallucination? What Happened Here?" UFO Folklore Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.qtm.net/~geibdan/a1998/feb/nw.html.

Viens, Ted. Re: NUFORC Reports on the US Northwest Mass. Online. Internet. Available WWW: http://www.ufomind.com/ufo/updates/1997/dec/m07-028.shtml

 

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