This post began life as an email, which I felt compelled to write in response to a ‘UFO’ video I was shown, and which a friend then persuaded me to rewrite in the form of a blog post.
Here is the video:
At the time of writing, it has had over one million views in its first month or so.
While I don’t like to spoil the fun – we all enjoy being a bit ‘spooked’ now and again – this video is a great example of the sort of thing most of us could do a much better job of debunking, by improving our critical thinking skills and by doing a bit of legwork.
A first word of advice might be to try not to let the spooky music impair your judgement! Plus don’t be misled by the fact that most of the news presenters appear bamboozled. With the exception of specialist reporters such as science and space correspondents, I find that news presenters quite often lack a good grasp of scientific subjects and of the kind of phenomena shown in the video.
Let’s proceed through the video segments and see where a bit of investigation leads us. I’ll use the elapsed time in the video to mark the start of each segment.
00:11 – China, Jul 7th 2010
An ABC News report tells of an incident in which Xiaoshan airport was temporarily closed when a flight crew saw lights which did not have a corresponding signal on radar. This in itself is perhaps little more than an embarrassment to the airport’s flight traffic control. However, the report proceeds to show us some stunning images, for example this one:
The first thing which struck me was that the pictures didn’t appear to match the description. Why weren’t we told something like “residents captured stunning close-up photos of airborne craft flying near Xiaoshan airport?” The pictures also appeared to me to have been taken in very different locations from one another, which at least hints that something might be awry. In situations like this one, TinEye reverse image search proves very useful, and it found the following when applied to the image above:
This is a photo of a helicopter taken in France, 3 years before the alleged sighting. The helicopter is shining a searchlight at the ground, and appears stretched because of the long exposure. It turns out the other images from the news report are also long-exposure photos of helicopters, all of which predate the alleged sighting, with the exception of one which is a similar photo of a plane. More detail is given here:
It is unfortunate, but not atypical for news media, that ABC News decided to jump on the sensationalist bandwagon rather than do a little background checking on the photographs before reporting.
00:45 – China, Jul 15th 2010
We see a Fox News report describing a second UFO sighting in China, and containing video of this beautiful object:
Once again, the image seems to not even vaguely match the description in the report. And, as before, a little digging around reveals that this is actually a video of an earlier incident in a different country – in this case June 30th 2010 in Kazakhstan:
You’ll see that this exactly matches the video in the Fox News segment, but was uploaded to YouTube a couple of weeks before the China sighting occurred. Fox failed to notice that they were showing the wrong video.
Still, we need to explain the Kazakhstan video. What is that luminous trail? Luckily, this effect is a fairly routine sight for anybody living sufficiently close to a satellite launching facility. I live about 100 miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base and have seen several twilight launches which looked just like the object in the video.
In this case, we can research exactly what we’re seeing. On June 30th 2010, an unmanned Soyuz cargo transport called Progress M-06M was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, to send supplies to the International Space Station:
Here is a video of the launch of Progress M-06M:
It’s easy to see that this is the same object viewed from a different location. The reason the rocket’s exhaust plume takes on that characteristic shape is that the upper atmosphere is very thin and provides almost no drag to the expanding gases, allowing them to expand to huge size. Also, at higher elevations the trail is lit by sunlight while observers on the ground are still in the darkness of night, and this is how the trail appears to glow.
01:25 – Norway Spiral, Dec 9th 2009
We are shown images of a bizarre display. Here’s a particularly nice photo I found on the web showing the same incident, which appears at first sight to have been Photoshopped:
Far from being a mystery, this event was well-known to those who follow science news and astronomy. The cause was quite quickly discovered to be a failed Russian Bulava missile; the third stage of the rocket malfunctioned and began to spin, spewing its exhaust plume like a Catherine wheel:
02:30 – Australia Spiral, Jun 5th 2010
A sighting similar to, though less spectacular than, the Norway one was witnessed over Australia:
You should by now already be equipped to guess at the nature of this object: it’s due to a tumbling rocket stage. The rocket causing it is thought to have been the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon-9:
02:47 – Moscow, Oct 8th 2009
We are shown video of this delightful thing:
Though spectacular, it’s just an uncommon type of cloud formation – you can try an image search ‘fallstreak holes’ or ‘hole punch clouds’.
Perhaps revealingly, the immediately preceding footage of a news presenter describing it has been edited so that it sounds a lot like she says “and scientists / left baffled by…”, where ‘/’ represents the moment of the edit, as can be clearly seen by watching the news ticker jump to a completely different sentence.
03:15 – Jerusalem, Jan 28th 2011
We see parts of 4 videos which allegedly show, from 4 different view points, an object hovering above the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s old city, which then appears to swoop down to a spot just above the dome. It remains there for a while, after which there are some flashes and the object shoots skyward, leaving a pattern of dancing red lights in the sky.
Given the obvious religious significance of the site, we should be on high alert that a hoax might be in effect here. And hoax is precisely what this is. Luckily the debunking has already been done for me, showing that the videos are the result of special effects trickery. (Not particularly good trickery, even.)
The first video has been shown to have been played with digitally. Software has been used to add in a camera-shake effect, introducing gaps at the edges which were filled by mirroring the image contents:
Here’s an analysis of the second video in which camera shake has been removed, revealing severe registration errors between the object and the background:
The third video used this stock photo in place of the real scene, as you can verify yourself:
The fourth video has been debunked by audio analysis:
04:13 New York, Oct 13th 2010
No especially revealing footage is shown, but people in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York spent the afternoon gazing up at some brightly-colored distant objects which appeared to hang in the sky. Here is a representative photo of the incident which I found on the web:
There is no mystery to this one, once it is known that earlier the same day several large bunches of bright yellow balloons were released from another part of the city, in celebration of the Centennial of Madrid’s Gran Via:
04:50 – 06:32
The video then launches into a frenzied montage with few specifics and many repeats. While many of the shots are easily identified, I’ll perhaps save this for a future post. However one rather lovely image worth mentioning is this one:
06:08 – Hubble Space Telescope photo, Jan 29th 2010
This curious display is actually the debris which resulted from a rarely-seen collision between two asteroids:
Following the montage, there are a few more clips worthy of debunking.
06:32 and 06:38 – California, Jan 6th 2011
A set of three lights is shown. In the first clip they appear to hang in the sky; in the second they appear to be falling. A bit of checking reveals that skydivers from the ‘Golden Knights’ US Army Parachute team made a night-time jump using flares over Lake Elsinore, California:
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the first clip is of the parachutists with their chutes already deployed, and in the second they are free-falling and then deploy their chutes, slowing their fall rate, and begin steering in various directions.
07:16 – Russia, Feb 26th 2010
A mysterious plume hangs in the sky:
Further searches for this sighting turn up some more UFO videos, such as this one:
But this sort of expanding-plume effect is by now probably familiar to you: it’s a rocket launch, in this case the launch of a Russian Glonass-K1 satellite which took place on that date:
07:22 – Russia, March 7th 2011
We see video of another nebulous formation – here’s an image from the web:
But the video and claimed date do not match. This is yet another case where a video from a completely different and much earlier event has been trawled up. In this case it is the launch of another rocket, the Progress M-03M supply ship on October 15th 2009, on its way to the International Space Station. (The country at least is correct in this instance.)
Here is some video of the launch:
The rocket appears to be travelling downwards in the video, but this is just an optical illusion: it is travelling away from us and heading over the horizon. It appears to travel down towards the horizon, in just the same way that an aircraft does when travelling away from the observer. And if you are curious about the adjacent objects which appear to flare up at 02:16 in this last video and then separate away, these are the booster rockets being jettisoned. You can see them twinkling later on around 03:30 in this last video, as they tumble in free-fall.
08:15 – Caller to the Art Bell radio show
There isn’t a great deal to add here, except to say that I don’t think the caller will be winning any Oscars. And it doesn’t take much background checking on the radio program’s host to discover that the forum in which this conversation aired is less than credible:
- In 1998, Bell was named as recipient of the less-than-prestigious Snuffed Candle Award. The CSICOP Council for Media Integrity cited Bell “for encouraging credulity, presenting pseudoscience as genuine, and contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of the methods of scientific inquiry.”
So, to sum up, am I actually interested in ‘flying saucers’? Yes, I find them fascinating – but as a purely social phenomenon and a tremendously prolific meme (in the original, Dawkinsian sense of the word). There has never been a single piece of scientifically substantiated evidence in support of the notion that we are being or have ever been visited by aliens. But there is plenty to be excited about if you really are interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and a good place to start might be to read up on the following topics:
The SETI program: http://www.seti.org/page.aspx?pid=235
The real scientific work behind missions to other bodies in our solar system, for example an upcoming Mars mission: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/overview/
The hunt for exoplanets, where you can even participate and help find them from your computer: http://www.planethunters.org/