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UFOs revisited

In the wake of the O'Hare UFO incident, there's been a flurry of reports about unidentified flying objects - from Hawaii and North Carolina, for example. Is this an alien invasion? It's far more likely to be a clustering effect - stoked by public interest and perhaps this month's satellite shootdown as well.

Charlotte Observer via MSNBC
Eyewitness Charles Miller sent this
photo to the Charlotte Observer.
Click on the image to watch an
MSNBC-TV segment about UFOs.

Today's video roundup on MSNBC highlights the sighting in North Carolina on Jan. 24 as well as a streak seen in the skies over Hawaii on Jan. 26. These two incidents aren't as clear-cut as, say, this month's New Jersey meteorite strike or the Western space-junk fall, reported earlier in the month. But they're more amenable to explanation than November's sighting of an apparent disk-shaped object over Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Based on the Charlotte Observer's report, the North Carolina sighting fits the profile for a fireball - that is, a piece of space rock or dust, or even spacecraft debris, plunging through the atmosphere. Witnesses reported seeing a blue-green-glowing object with a bright tail, zooming through the sky and, according to some accounts, breaking apart toward the end of its arc.

The Hawaii streak, meanwhile, has been attributed to an aircraft contrail, although one witness said it looked like two "shooting stars" - which could also point to a meteor or space junk.

Hundreds of pieces of space junk were created back on Jan. 11 when the Chinese blasted one of their own satellites with a ground-launched missile. As some of that debris falls and burns up in the atmosphere, skywatchers are expecting an uptick in UFO sightings. A spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, speculated as much in an interview with the Observer - although he could not say whether a particular piece of debris was responsible for the North Carolina sighting.

One reason for the uncertainty is that it takes some time to track all the small bits created by the shootdown. In fact, NORAD updated its database on Monday to provide coordinates for 517 pieces of debris - a huge increase from last week's debris count of 33 objects. As a result, the Center for Space Standards and Innovation has updated its visualization of the debris tracks (which I wrote about last Thursday).

You really should check out the visualization, even though it might take a while to download all those megabytes of video data: The bunched-up bits of satellite debris look like a red cloud circling the globe. It's not hard to imagine that some of those bits would spark a wave of UFO reports as their orbits decayed.

Incidentally, there's not much new to report about the O'Hare incident, other than to say that some purported photos have popped up. Are they hoaxes? You'll have to judge for yourself. I'll just note that it would be relatively easy to fake such photos, particularly under cover of anonymity.

And in other UFO news, reports about a series of blasts in central Iran earlier this month have stirred up the international rumor mill. Was it a nuclear test? A sectarian attack? "Iran's Roswell"? Or will it turn out to be another flash in the pan?