Does 'Superior Mirage' Explain Texas UFO Reports?

Many listeners wrote in about Wade Goodwyn's story on UFO sightings in Texas, and one pointed out that we missed a teaching opportunity about superior mirage phenomenon. Robert Siegel talks with Christine Pulliam, a spokeswoman for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to find out more.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, that letter caught our attention. So we called up Christine Pulliam, who is a colleague of Dr. Paine's at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, to find out a little more about how scientists explain what people might be seeing when they think they're seeing a UFO.

Christine Pulliam, you have seen a superior mirage phenomenon?

Ms. CHRISTINE PULLIAM (Public Affairs Specialist, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): Actually, everybody has. Anyone who has seen a sunrise or a sunset. The same phenomenon occurs to the sun every day and makes it appear to be above the horizon when it's actually slightly below it.

SIEGEL: Well, the folks in Stephenville, Texas, whom Wade Goodwyn spoke with, described seeing a very large red light up in the sky 3,000 feet up, then lights like strobe lights. How would those all be created? How will that illusion be created if that's what it is?

Ms. PULLIAM: It's hard to say for sure since I haven't seen it. But there are a lot of natural phenomena that can make things look unusual in the sky. We get a lot of phone calls from people who see a bright light on the horizon that seems to be shimmering, dancing around and changing colors, and they think it might be an artificial object. But then we look it up on our planetarium software and find out that no, actually, the planet Venus was on the horizon at that time.

SIEGEL: How is it that on one night many people could see this, sort of, superior mirage but not see it on any other night? Why would it happen on one particular day as opposed to happening every week or every month? We do see the sunrise every day and every…

Ms. PULLIAM: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Yes. But not this.

Ms. PULLIAM: Something like this, it would have to be unusual weather conditions, something with cooler air close to the surface and much warmer air high up.

SIEGEL: So as for the explanation that some of our listeners prefer, which is that - just a courtesy call from Venus or something like that or some distant galaxy, no point to rush to any such inference from this, you're saying.

Ms. PULLIAM: Right. I would say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And if somebody really thinks it is alien visitors or hyperdimensional travelers, they need to come up with a better explanation than eye witness reports.

SIEGEL: Well, Christine Pulliam, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. PULLIAM: Oh, you're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Christine Pulliam of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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Dozens Claim They Spotted UFO in Texas

Faster than a speeding bullet — and bigger than a Wal-Mart.

That's how residents near the west Texas town of Stephenville described an object they spotted in the sky one night last week.

Dozens of people — including a pilot and a police officer — said a UFO hovered over the farming community for about five minutes last Tuesday before streaking away into the night sky.

Pilot Steve Allen saw the object when he was out clearing brush off a hilltop near the town of Selden. Allen described the unidentified object as being an enormous aircraft with flashing strobe lights — and it was totally silent.

He said the UFO sped away at more than 3,000 mph, followed by two fighter jets that were hopelessly outmaneuvered. Allen said it took the aircraft just a few seconds to cross a section of sky that it takes him 20 minutes to fly in his Cessna.

The veteran pilot said the UFO, an estimated half-mile wide and a mile long, was "bigger than a Wal-Mart."

Military Dismisses Sighting

The Stephenville Empire-Tribune, which has written about the mysterious object, said about 40 people saw the thing — though some were too sheepish to admit the sighting until others came forward.

Law enforcement officer Lee Roy Gaitan said he was walking to his car when he saw a red glow that reminded him of pictures he'd seen of an erupting volcano.

He said the object was suspended 3,000 feet in the air. Gaitan said he was so awestruck that he called his son to come and see — but he didn't talk much about the sighting until he saw a story about a UFO in the local paper.

Military officials, however, were skeptical. They said the residents are letting their imaginations run wild and passed it off as an optical illusion. They said it was likely nothing more than a reflection of sunlight on two airliners.

Officials at a nearby air force base also said their fighter pilots didn't chase down anything that night.

The incident was eerily similar to a UFO sighting a little more than a year ago at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

As many as 12 United Airlines employees spotted the object and filed reports with United.

Reported by Wade Goodwyn; written and edited by Deborah Tedford

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