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Wind turbine whips up UFO buzz

Nightly News
Click for video: The broken wind turbine at right, coupled with sightings of lights
in the night sky, prompted a flurry of UFO claims in the British press this week.
Click on the image to watch a report from Jenny Wivell for Britain's Channel 4 News.

What do you get when you take one wrecked wind turbine, and then add an ample serving of eyewitness reports about mysterious lights in the sky? Those ingredients were blended this week in Britain to whip up a rip-roaring UFO sensation.

The Sun newspaper splashed the story today under the headline "UFO HITS WIND TURBINE." It was just one of the many reports appearing in the British press about Sunday's incident in North Lincolnshire.

Authorities at a power-generating wind farm found that a massive 65-foot-long blade had broken off one of the facility's 213-foot-high turbines. Another blade was damaged, and the turbine itself was wrecked, they said.

"We don't know what caused the problem," a spokesman for the wind farm's operator, Ecotricity, told The Sun. The mystery was compounded by reports about spheres of orange-yellow light that were seen up above at around the same time that the damage occurred.

One witness, John Harrison, told The Sun that he saw a "massive ball of light with tentacles going right down to the ground" over the wind farm.

"It was huge. With the tentacles it looked just like an octopus," he said.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said it didn't plan to investigate the incident because there was no "evidence of a potential threat" in British airspace. And The Guardian reported that the balls of light were likely fireworks set off by an 80th-birthday party. The source for that report? The Guardian's director of digital content, Emily Bell, whose father was the honoree.

"It was a medium-sized fireworks display with absolutely no ballistics, and the fireworks were mostly dropping over my parents' house. But we were laughing that we could have broken the wind turbine," The Guardian quoted Bell as saying.

So what did break the turbine? It could well have been a mechanical failure, The Telegraph quoted an insurance company executive as saying. Such incidents occur five or six times a year, said Fraser McLachlan, chief executive of GCube, which insures more than 25,000 wind turbines.

"Water could have got into hairline cracks in the blade, weakening the structure when it turned into ice, or it's possible that the blades were just poorly attached to the hub," he said. "Sometimes machines just break."

Repairs are due to be finished by next week, Ecotricity said.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg, who has delved into UFO mysteries for decades, weighed in on the latest buzz in an e-mail:

"Coincidences often create their own new reality, for sure. The BBC, which pointed out that the blade that broke off is lying right at the base of the tower (it isn't missing, as the Sun claimed), quoted an engineer who said such damage could be caused by ice flung off one turbine into another - and the weather was creating exactly such icing conditions.

"The big 'clunk' heard a few hours before the apparent failure (it's not sure at what time the failure actually occurred) could have been initial impact, followed by some amount of time of growing metal failure leading to catastrophic separation (and impact with the second blade). A pretty quick examination of impact streaks should be able to settle it.

"The UFO freak-out was more fun - as if alien spaceships navigate between the stars, asteroids and space debris, but can't avoid windmills. What kind of hypothesis is that?"

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