Sunday, July 04, 2010

UFO on the Fourth of July

Last night a Facebook friend posted about seeing a UFO. Her description sounded like she might have actually seen the International Space Station. A check with revealed that the ISS had in fact made a spectacular pass over her location, though not at the time she specified. So the jury is still out on what exactly she saw, although she is now fairly certain that it was the ISS.

Tonight I saw something that definitely wasn't the ISS.

Today was my recovery day from work, so after going to church (a morning Mass) I spent much of the afternoon sleeping. I got up early in the evening, puttered around for a while, and heard the weather forecast. It was hot outside today, and is supposed to get hotter as the week progresses. I realized I hadn't watered my potted tomatoes in a few days and decided that evening would be a safe time to water them as long as I avoided getting water on the leaves.

It was around 9:00 by the time I finally got myself together. Fireworks were in full swing - not the local city-sponsored display, which was last night, but the illegal stuff that is fired off every year on the Fourth of July and the weeks before and after without any sort of legal repercussions. And then I saw something rising out of the northwestern sky that didn't look like a firework.

It looked like the ISS at first, a little, though it was very bright and - like the object seen by my friend last night - was orange. I believe I saw the ISS once glowing orange in reflected moonlight that had refracted through the atmosphere, but that was in the sky opposite the rising Full Moon. Tonight the Moon is in a completely different position, and less than half as bright as it was then. Besides, I could quickly see that this object was extended in space, a slightly flattened sphere like two bowls joined mouth-to-mouth, glowing orange from the bottom and dark red on top; no matter how hard I have tried, I have never been able to see the ISS as anything more than a very bright point source. And it drifted in front of some clouds, something the ISS could not possibly do.

I ran into the house to get my camera and my mom, so she could see this too. I quickly snapped off a series of photos in sports mode, though these showed nothing more than a fuzzy red dot. I realized I would have been better off grabbing my binoculars instead, and left my mom outside to continue viewing.

"It's turning red!" she shouted as I pulled my binoculars out of the case. "It's gone dark!" she added as I popped off the lens caps and ran back outside.

The sky was still bright enough to see the now-dark object drifting and dropping. I turned the binoculars on it and saw it clearly: a deflating bag, looking like red mylar, crumbling and tumbling through the night sky. It fell clumsily, passed behind some trees, and was gone.

So what was it? Most likely some sort of Chinese Lantern.

I've seen other versions of this same idea: Solar balloons, which absorb the heat of the sun to expand gas within the balloon and provide lift, and even expensive LED-illuminated toys from the likes of Hammacher Schlemmer. The color changes were probably due to the changing angle of view, or to the fire that provided lift and illumination burning itself out.

I don't know for sure. I didn't perform a search for debris at a crash site, nor did I investigate any possible launch sites. But it seems likely that a Chinese Lantern was the source of this brief and mysterious incident.

UPDATE: Chinese Lantern UFOs were reported all over the place last night:


...tom... said...



Is setting a small fire adrift in the sky _ever_ a good idea..??

Maybe if you are on a desert island or someplace where you know errant flames would not possible cause great damage.

Sounds crazy to me . . .I must be getting old.


D.B. Echo said...

Yeah, seems like a good way to start a wildfire, especially given the dry conditions we're in. I suppose, it the lantern is properly constructed and launched, it will stay aloft and high up until the candle has burned out. Still, there seems a really huge chance that something very hot might hit the ground!