Tuesday, December 26, 2017

California UFO Scare Shows More People Need To Bone Up On Sky Objects

The recent "UFO" sighting in southern California - which turned out to be an IFO (an extended contrail from a Space X rocket), shows more citizens need to become familiar with  different sky objects. They also need to pay more attention to news bulletins issued about sky phenomena, including rocket launches. This was illustrated with the recent mini panic that erupted where too many believed they were either seeing a UFO or an alien craft.

Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur who ultimately wants to put people on a space-bound Megabus, fanned the flames by saying on Twitter that the jellyfish-like shape in the sky was a “nuclear alien UFO from North Korea.” Southern Californians and other people out West promptly  freaked out. But they shouldn't have. Musk’s SpaceX had launched an Iridium-4 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – about 150 miles from L.A.  Further, officials had alerted people days earlier that they'd be able to see the launch across Southern California and elsewhere on the western half of the country. (There was even a live webcast for those with more than a passing interest in rockets.)

But who was paying attention? Evidently not too many.  My contention, as always, is if people had even a modicum of basic familiarity with sky objects they'd not misreport known objects as "UFOs". Or work themselves into a lather over "alien craft"  or whatnot.  The Angelenos were perhaps too enmeshed in their smart phones to notice, so there followed confusion, awe and maybe a little bit of panic.

According to one WaPo report:

"The people of Los Angeles can be forgiven if they were a little quick to jump to extraterrestrial conclusions. The government did, after all, just admit that it had spent $22 million to investigate unidentified flying objects."

But in fact there is no logical connection, not really.  The Angelenos (and others) were "quick to jump" to wrong conclusions because they didn't know enough, and were't able to distinguish different objects seen in the sky. In the 21st century, this deficiency is inexcusable. By contrast, the recent Pentagon admission and release of declassified footage, concerned actual UFOs encountered by military pilots, and which could not be buttonholed into any known sky object categories, see e.g.

 But the fact of the Pentagon release, i.e. of truly unknown sighting footage,  doesn't relieve citizens of having all their 'ducks in a row' when they report sky objects. Educated people at minimum should be able to: a) distinguish the major planets (e.g. Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn)from bright stars, b) be able to differentiate a man-made artifact (balloon, plane, satellite) from a natural sky object (planet, star, meteor, comet) and c) be able to estimate angular distances and angular speeds of sky objects - which can help to distinguish them.

For example, a competent person should be able to estimate the angular distance between the Moon and Saturn, say seen in the sky on a particular night and depicted in this star map:
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It is useless to use a linear measure such as meters, feet or inches because these have no meaning when referred to the sky, or celestial objects in it and distances between them. So we use degrees. The issue then is how to use degrees to measure the distances between sky objects.

For angular measures up to 15 degrees, and as low as one degree angular measure, one's extended hand - in addition to the stars in the Big Dipper  - provide a useful basis, e.g.
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Thus, your pinky finger extended at arm's length equals a one degree span. Half of that yields the angular diameter of the full Moon or 1/2 degree. Three fingers extended at arm's length yields a span of 5 degrees, which is also the angular separation between the two stars at the front end of the Big Dipper's 'bowl'.  A fist extended at arm's length yields 10 degrees. (Of course, there will be some  variations, generally + 1 degree due to natural disparity in the size of hands. For a small woman, then, the angular degrees measured as shown will be smaller.)

In Barbados, whenever people reported an unidentified sky object to me, they were presented with a comprehensive report form which included the following questions to be answered:

1) Describe the object in terms of (angular) size, color, brightness.

2) Estimate the time of duration of the sighting and any changes in the motion. What were these motion changes? (E.g. stopped, moved then halted, continuous, uniform speed etc.)

3) Estimate the apparent brightness of the object by reference to standard stars or other objects (e.g. planets) in the vicinity. (For example, if Mars was visible at magnitude +2.0 how would the object compare?)

4) Estimate the altitude of the object in angular degrees, above the horizon.

5) Estimate the angular speed of the object, e.g. in degrees covered per second or per minute.

6) Draw the shape of the object, assuming it was large enough to discern.

As can be ascertained from these few questions, a level of familiarity is already assumed, including how to measure angular distances in the sky and angular speeds.

When such reports are collected and collated, their analysis can then provide an insight into the nature of the object, and especially if it was a natural or man-made phenomenon.

What I've found is that generally, people's unfamiliarity with the sky, as well as the relative sizes and brightness  of sky objects, makes most single, first person accounts unreliable. This is why, in July of 1979, I conducted a 4-lecture course on the UFO at the Harry Bayley Observatory. This included the history of sightings, the nature of errors made by most observers, and one lecture devoted to angular measurement, and how angular speeds could be assessed. This was then followed by a final lecture that featured darkening the Observatory planetarium and simulating a UFO appearance. This was relative to a specific background sky (with constellations visible) for a period of five seconds. (The simulation was a one off, not repeated for anyone to "catch up" or note what they missed the first time.)

Afterward, the 30-odd participants then had to complete  a standard MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) report form of three full pages.  They had a full 45 minutes to do so, but alas only 20 % (6 people) were able to fulfill the task.  This shows there is a vast amount of education (and training) that needs to be done before the ordinary person is competent enough to recognize a novel cosmic object (say new comet or nova) or novel man-made artifact (say like the Space X contrail) far less a genuine UFO of the type reported by the military pilots in the link above.

This is also why I remain skeptical of most "UFO" reports made by ordinary people, i.e. those without a specialty background, say in astronomy, aeronautics or astrophysics..  I am more likely to place credibility in the reports of military or commercial aviation pilots, than ordinary folks. That's just the way it is. Not because I am necessarily prejudiced, but most do not have the experience or background necessary to make credible reports of unknown sky objects.

The recent L.A.- Space X  "UFO" fiasco is a perfect example of why a preponderance of folks can't be trusted to report sky phenomena reliably.  In the wake of the UFO scare, Musk puckishly tweeted:

"If you liked tonight's launch, you will really like Falcon Heavy next month: 3 rocket cores & 3x thrust. 2 cores return to base doing synchronized acrobatics, 3rd lands on drone ship."

Wow!  I can't wait to see if that event escapes any "UFO" panics, scares or sightings. But, I wouldn't make any bets on it!

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