Hey! I just saw a UFO!

Well, very briefly, anyway. Almost as soon as I got the binoculars on it, it became Identified.

Here’s the whole, sordid story. The Girlfriend was outside at roughly 10:25 pm EDT chatting with a neighbor when they saw the light in the sky, and came in to summon me, telling me to get the binoculars. By the time I came out it had disappeared, but I got specific location and directions from them (oriented on the handle stars of Ursa Major,) and scanned anyway with the 10x50s. Nothing to be seen. From the behavior that they described, I thought it might be a satellite flare, except that they said it was orange and “big.” I know enough about observations that “big” often means only “bright,” so I didn’t give this too much credence. No sound to be heard, and this is a quiet area and aircraft can usually be heard if they’re within eight kilometers or so.

Within a couple of minutes, however, I spotted it myself: still in the trees, deep orange, and very bright – close aircraft bright. It was clearly heading up and to the left, soon to come out of the trees, so while I was trying to get a good look at it through the branches, I knew in a few moments it would come into the clear. Within the trees, it seemed slightly amorphous, not a hard bright light like a star or planet, but more of a halo.

As soon as it cleared the trees and I knew I had sharp focus on it, the mystery vanished. It was clearly a Chinese lantern, a thin paper or plastic balloon with a light source within, in this case almost certainly something burning. Not only did it have the same hue as a small flame, but it faded and disappeared within a minute or so of coming into the clear. The bright light source was distinctly visible in the binocs, and could even be seen swinging around in relation to the surrounding, dimmer enclosure, of which it sat closer to the bottom edge. The movement and subsequent stalling in midair was consistent with a balloon rising on this wind-free evening.

While I toyed with the idea of getting the long lens on it, which could have resulted in something more magnified than the binoculars provided, there were three things that stopped me:

1. By the time I got the long lens and tripod set up and aimed, it likely would have vanished;

2. While bright, it was not short-exposure bright, and the shutter speed would have to be at least 1/4 second for any image, likely longer, and any movement at all in that time would have blurred it;

3. An indistinct shot would have done nothing towards demonstrating what it was – likely, it would have made it even worse, because no one would have been able to see what I was describing.

I am perfectly sympathetic towards those who would not have been able to identify such a sighting. The balloon was distant enough that “big,” even though an accurate description in this case, was relative to stars and aircraft lights and not a good indication of size. The angular size of the object was only perhaps 2mm at arm’s length – larger than any aircraft lights, planets, or even the ISS, but much, much smaller than the moon. In other words, too small to see the details of the balloon body and non-centered light source without magnification. Distance, naturally, was impossible to tell – we simply do not have viable depth-perception beyond about 15 meters, and it was only because I knew what it was and could discern a size of the flame within (through the binoculars) that I can say it was within 1,000 meters, probably more like 500. Once it cleared the trees its movement was difficult to pin down, since only the background stars could be used; only the brightest could be made out in these conditions, so this meant it spent a lot of time in “open air.” And even with what I know about careful observations, I did not note specific times nor have any way to pin down precise angles or travel.

The inability to discern the details that I had, however, does not open the door for such a UFO to be considered anything more than “mysterious.” Not immediately recognizing something doesn’t mean it’s not a mundane source. I am well aware that there are those who would still try to make something out of this, claiming I’m trying too hard to explain it or that something could simply have an appearance similar to a Chinese lantern while still being extra-terrestrial or whatever. But this is purposefully skewing observation in the wrong direction. The light had the appearance, behavior, and short life of a Chinese lantern, which are known phenomena and, while perhaps uncommon, certainly not unlikely in any populated area, and not impossible in any area. The goal should never be to say, “How can I still make this mysterious?” but only to demonstrate that a mundane explanation does not fit the observation.

There’s another post coming up shortly that deals with such topics in more detail – I’ve been working on it the past couple of days and am just shy of posting it, so watch for that. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see if any reports pop up locally, and how they’re treated.