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2006-11-30
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UFO Photographs: Signs of an Alien Invasion

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Now, for the record, I'm not usually one to buy into the supernatural, the paranormal or believe the X-Files was a true documentary on conspiracy. I would also like to say that I have enough experience seeing normal things in the sky that I can usually attribute "the unknown" to something real.

  • Growing up around military installations, non-commercial aircraft do not surprise me.
  • After spending five years in the Army, I've seen military airplanes/helicopters performing combat maneuvers and can recognize such erratic flight for what it is.
  • I have been to airshows and seen the acrobatics that stunt pilots can perform and the precision flying of military pilots.
  • Astronomy has always fascinated me and I've watched the sky from various locations around the world for two decades.

Given all that, I have never seen a UFO (Unidentifed Flying Object) myself. But there are certainly numerous people who claim they've spotted a UFO; such reports ranging from hoaxes and mistakes to actual mystery. So much mystery that when the government actually does address the matter of UFOs, as it did with the Air Force's Project Blue Book, it makes you wonder about the possibility. I wondered enough to participate in the SETI@home project, lending my spare computer cycles (my SETI stats) go to use doing Fast Fourier Transforms on endless databases of space noise looking for a signal from an extra-terrestrial, alien civilization.

UFOs have captured man's attention throughout history. Perhaps the modern era, with the speed of information technology and the prevalence of alien/UFO themed movies, more so than before. After all, who hasn't heard of the Roswell Incident and the associated brou-haha of conspiracy theory? With plenty of research available on the recent history of man's UFO conquests, it won't be necessary to revisit that subject here.


First Sighting

In 2005, I was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq with the 3-7 Infantry Battalion. Summers in Baghad were "quite warm" to say the least, averaging 120 degrees Fahrenheit. On the hottest days, when the temperatures would push close to 140 degrees, I would lay on the roof of our headquarters at night where the temperatures were a little cooler with the random chance of a breeze. I used the opportunity to relax a little and watch the stars. It's amazing how the PVS7B nightvision goggles can reveal an enormous variety of stars normally invisible to the naked eye!

While lying on the roof, I spotted a peculiar point in the sky. What made this object stand out from the rest was how it did not "move" in unison with the others stars. Allow me to better clarify what this means. When watching stars through binoculars or a telescope, any vibration will cause all of the stars to shift in the viewfinder. However, every shift will be identical as the stars are fixed in relation to one another. This point of light however, did not. As a matter of fact, it would even jitter independently of the others.

There were any number of things the object could be. One of our UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles)? Perhaps one of those weird blimps always floating over the city? An Iridium flare? The International Space Station?At the time, an "alien space invasion" was about the last thing on my mind. But finding the object in the same location, night after night, month after month, and each time exhibiting the same behavior, was ... weird.


Spotted Again!

More than a year later, my wife and I traveled to El Paso, Texas to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents. On Friday night, the family went to Cattleman's Steakhouse (mmmmm .... drooooool) which is basically located in the middle of nowhere, five miles off the highway into the desert. The location is home to both great steaks and excellent star-gazing conditions. Following dinner, my wife and I opted to look into deep space.

With such good visibility, curiosity struck me - could I find that weird object again? I gazed across the sky, spotted Orion and then scanned down his side. Lo and behold, there it was! Just as before, the object jittered independently of the stars surrounding it. To ensure that I was not losing my mind, I explained what I was looking at and guided my wife to the location. She saw the object and was equally perplexed.

Naturally, we opted for some observational experiments. The anomaly was low enough on the horizon that we were able to contrast it against fixed reference points to observe its motion. Even more odd, we both witnessed differing jitters. While my wife announced the direction she perceived it to move, I observed distinctly differing movements.


More Irregular Observation

That was not the only irregularity over the Texas desert. Glancing north, I spotted another object exhibiting the same jitter. This one, however, did not "move" nearly as much as the primary object. Again, we pondered what physical explanation could create such an effect. Neither object was an aircraft as there would be a distinct red flash of anti-collision lights, visible even at cruising altitude. Plus, while the objects seemed to move, they remained fixed relative to the other stars which defies the motion of both fixed and rotary wing vehicles. Perhaps some weird military experiment? Ft. Bliss was relatively close to the west, although their research and development tends to be towards shooting down flying objects! Perhaps something weird from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico? A weather balloon? Again, an unlikely proposition considering its motion was also sidereal which means it was not an atmospheric event.

We also considered the effects of the atmosphere. Desert cooling? Heat thermals? Refractive properties of the many atmospheric layers? It was a cool night, but already close to midnight so I discounted that temperature changes were causing a shimmer in the air. Besides, if that were the case, the stars beside the object in question would exhibit the same behavior. As far as "twinkle" from the atmosphere is concerned, I have been watching the stars with my telescope for more than a decade, this was not twinkle.


An Even Weirder UFO

To add to the mystery, a third unidentified flying object emerged. While I had tried to rationalize different legitimate, possible explanations for the others, this one, however, took the cake for bizarre. We saw it just over the horizon above the foothills of El Paso's Franklin Mountains. For about five minutes, it behaved just as the other two. Then it moved - sideways. It took the object about four minutes to traverse forty degrees of the sky. Just as before, we immediately assumed that we were watching an aircraft. But before we discounted the object to look away, it began its erratic motion.

The UFO moved unlike anything I'd ever seen. Covering a 40 degree swath of sky in four minutes equates to roughly 1258 miles per hour. This is an "off the cuff" calculation based on knowing those foothills were at least 100 miles away (having just driven to them to explore Carlsbad Caverns). Now, assuming the object was just past the hills, the trigonometric equation (100 tan 40 = X) tells me it covered 83.9 miles minimum. This distance will increase proportionately the further away it really was. An object moving 1258 mph around a military installation is not a big deal, but the maneuvers it performed enroute were nothing short of amazing.

It doubled back on its exact course several times, a feat impossible for a fixed wing aircraft. A plane would have required room to perform the maneuver and we would have witnessed either a vertical displacement or aspect change to account for an arcing turn. A VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) or helicopter could have performed the move, but not without exhibiting a deceleration and acceleration. This object maintained its velocity, stopped on a dime and changed course with its original velocity. And throughout the entire observation, besides the erratic course shifts, it moved with a perfect fluidity. Now consider that my speed calculation was based on a continuous flight from point A to B. This object stopped and performed these gyrations within those four minutes. Thus, any actual maximum velocity was much higher and the forces upon the pilot would be enormous.

Those were not the only peculiar flight behaviors. I can think of only two analogies for describing the course it followed. Imagine a dot following a scribbled (yet smooth) line. To better picture the peculiarities, imagine a sentence written in cursive handwriting as representing the flow and pattern of the movement. Prior to witnessing this object move, it had been stationary in the sky just like all the other stars. During the duration of it's motion, it never exhibited signs or blinking lights indicative of commercial aircraft. After four minutes of watching it's gyrations race across the sky, it vanished behind the mountains.


Photographic Evidence

I realized there was only way to confirm what I saw was real - a photograph. Unfortunately, I was captured by awe and completely forgot my Nikon D70 was in the rental car. By the time we remembered it, the mysterious third object was gone. But the first was still exhibiting it's peculiar behavior below Orion.

First, I needed a reference picture so I chose Orion's sword. The idea behind a reference photograph is to establish how stars will normally streak after a 30 second exposure. Stars streak because the Earth is in constant rotation and proper astrophotography requires the use of motor-drives to compensate for sidereal motion.

Orion's Sword - Nikon D70 ISO 200, f/5.6, 30 seconds, 200mm.

I only had a cheap mini-tripod on hand, which allowed me to avoid vibrations, but still resulted in star streaks. However, any abnormal motion would be captured as aberrant streaks. The reference photo [above] shows the streaks are identical for all stars in the viewframe. I used Adobe Photoshop on the same image [below] to manipulate the contrast and brightness to reveal additional, fainter stars. While the operation washed out the brighter stars, it revealed the streaking was uniform for "normal" stars.

Orion's Sword - Adobe Photoshop auto-adjust with shadow darkening.
Orion’s Sword – Adobe Photoshop inversion for a contrasted perspective.

Onto the object of mystery [below], which happens to be the star Sirius. With a brightness magnitude of -1.42, Sirius shines as the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is also known as the "Dog Star," for its location in the constellation Canis Major. The first explanation for the jitter could be that what appears to be Sirius is not just one star. In fact, Sirius B is a white dwarf, an object with the mass of our sun, densely packed as small as Earth. However, it takes a powerful telescope to differentiate the lesser magnitude 8.5 Sirius B from Sirius A.

Sirius - Nikon D70 ISO 200, f/5.6, 30 seconds, 200mm.

I aligned the camera and exposed several images, each lasting 30 seconds. In order to mitigate potential camera vibrations, the shots were made from a timer to ensure mirror bounce was the only source of camera shake. The resultant image reveals a streak equivalent to those captured in the refrence photo with additional elements. Note how the additional streaks bear the indications of blinking. Furthermore, the additional streak left a curved path along the star's path which is evidence of an object moving perpendicular to Sirius. As there is a notable gap between the objects, it is intuitively obvious that my 200mm lens did not capture Sirius B.

Again, I processed the image with Adobe Photoshop's tools to enhance faint stars and increase the overall contrast. This revealed the expected star streaks from fainter objects. What is important to take away from this image is that only Sirius bears the additional object. Thus, the image is not a result of camera shake or every star would have exhibited an equal marking. Also, the object bore an equivalent brightness to Sirius and maintained a relatively equal course through space.

Sirius - Adobe Photoshop auto-adjust.
Sirius – Adobe Photoshop inversion for a contrasted perspective.

One last peculiar point of behavior from Sirius that night. While we drove back towards US-10, my wife looked out the window at Sirius again. When she told me, "it was gone," I naturally couldn't believe it. The brightest star in the sky does not just "go out." We stopped the car and observed it again. While we both disagreed on which direction it appeared to be moving, there was no doubt in my mind that I watched the star fade from brilliant intensity to a weak gray and then ... nothing. Only to have it reappear moments later before recycling the procedure. Now, the natural explanation for this would be cloud cover. However, that portion of the sky was quite visible, as were the stars around Sirius. Unless a cloud developed some supernatural ability to carefully slither between the other stars in my field of vision, it was not cloud masking.


Conclusions

What did I see? I have absolutely no idea. I am 99.99% positive that I did not take a picture of a UFO armada leading the alien invasion to Earth for the enslavement of mankind. Although, now that I think about it, hiding in the sidereal track of the constellations would be a good trick to hide your approach. All my photo proves (to me) is that I was not imagining the star's jitter and that my eyes were not deceiving me. Unfortunately, I have no "proof" of the strange, moving object on the horizon. Even if I had captured the flight path, I have no explanation for it. Plus, if there really was a UFO flying over the New Mexico desert, the odds are quite high that some other person would look up and say, "Huh, isn't that weird." A cursory search against the Internet reveals that nobody else found anything peculiar to report over the New Mexico or Texas skies that night.

Following this strange event, we were not visited by the Men In Black either. Just to be safe though, I for one, will welcome my alien overlords.


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