Tag Archives: ufos

Not a UFO

On one of the photo sites I follow someone posted this image with a leading title that suggested this was a ufo confirmation:

In 5 of the 21 frames that make up the animated gif there are 2 red, a blue, and a green dot, all in a line (you might need to pull the image into your favorite image editor and zoom in to see the second red and blue dots).

Taking pictures of things in space isn’t like taking pictures in your back yard. You don’t take color images, instead you take long exposure black and white images with very specific color filters over your camera lens. The images are then post processed, having each filter corresponding to a different color.  These images are called false color for that reason.

This works pretty well for imaging things that don’t move very quickly, but creates a very funny effect for things that are moving fast through the frame, because the object is in a different position in each color. This is what asteroids or satellites look like when they are captured in an astro photograph. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has a whole chapter on their website on finding asteroids in their images. The pattern in the SDSS data is a little different because their imaging equipment is different than what we are seeing here. Galaxy zoo also has some really good information on funny things you see in CCD images.

Which raises a good question, what are we looking at? It turns out this is one of the sample runs of the Palomar 200 inch telescope showing off their adaptive optics in 2006. These 21 frames were taken from earth, through our atmosphere, with manipulators bending the mirrors on the telescope to reverse out atmospheric distortion. Really impressive stuff.

Update: given the rotational speed of Neptune, you are looking at between 3 and 4 hours worth of time elapse here.  That means you could calculate the angular velocity. This would push for it being an asteroid instead of a satellite because it is actually moving reasonably slowly in terms of degrees per hour.

Update 2: it could also be a moon of Neptune, many of them end up about that close, and orbit fast enough that they could move like that in the frame.

It’s not a UFO… it’s Jupiter

Lack of familiarity with the night sky has led a number of people in Washington state to call 911 for a UFO sighting. The police pulled out their binoculars, and correctly determined that it was Jupiter. This happens a lot when one of the bright planets (Venus or Jupiter) are near one of the horizons at sunset.

Jupiter is low in the East at sunset, and the brightest thing in the sky right now besides the Sun and the Moon. If you have a set of binoculars you can even see up to 4 moons lined up on either side of it. It’s really pretty spectacular, and definitely worth doing wherever you live. In a telescope you can see atmospheric bands on the planet, and we had a great view of that last night.

The pseudo science pattern

I’ve gotten asked a few times since I took up Astronomy whether or not I believed in UFOs.  While I may have had a wishy washy negative in the past, after getting into amateur astronomy that became a definitive no.

Once you get a telescope and start observing, you come to realize a number of things.  First off, there are many people like you looking up into the sky on every clear night.  In the united states that number is in the 10s, if not 100s of thousands.  After a couple weeks of observing you get a pretty good sense of the sky, and can quickly identify not only the major bits of natural structure out there, but the major man made pieces that show up from time to time.  You can tell the difference between a high flying plane, a satellite, the space station, and the occasional iridium flare.  After a year you have a mental map in your head about what should be up on any given night, including the planets that move around.

This understanding of the structure of the sky actually gives you a very good filter for anything that would be out of the ordinary.  There are people that are scanning every night for that unusual, which is how they find new comets, asteroids, and even super nova with backyard scopes.  In addition there are groups that by eye are measuring light fluctuations in variable stars, the most skilled members can measure to within 1/10 of a magnitude.  There are tens thousands of people expert in finding the extra ordinary looking for it every night, and they are find it, but it’s not space ships.

The #1 object in the sky that is misidentified as a UFO is Venus, a planet.  It’s bright (often the 2nd brightest thing in the sky besides the moon), and it’s not in the same place every night, and if it’s at the horizon it can look like it’s popping in an out of existence due to the same reason you get the wavy lines above pavement on a hot day.

But the real root cause for this misidentification is a lack of understanding of the environment.  Knowing very little about the sky, people just fill it in with hopes and dreams.  The same effect makes people fill in their lack of understanding on plate tectonics to attribute it to government energy weapons, or pacts with the devil, depending on their inclinations.  Or their lack of understanding of quantum mechanics to decide the earth is 6000 years old, or thousands of other things that people mistakenly think quantum physics means.  It is a common recurring pattern with pseudo science.  You can see it all over the place once you realize it’s there.

Which is a shame.  There is incredible splendor in the universe, both in the skies, on the ground, and in the microscopic, that there really is no need to fill the skies with UFOs to make them wondrous.