Former NASA Scientist Debunks All UFO Sightings, Blames Many on Mundane Space Dandruff

An ESA scientist used this image to calculate how fast the meteor was moving. ESA/NASA

This week, again, UFO enthusiasts saw a phenomenon and an explanation they didn't believe matched up. The phenomenon was a bright, second-long streak across a time-lapse video filmed by astronaut Paolo Nespoli; the explanation, as provided by the European Space Agency, was that a meteor was burning up as it entered Earth's atmosphere.

They even identified its location over Earth, calculated the speed at which it was moving, and compared its brightness favorably to that of Venus. Judging by the angle it was falling, the agency said they thought it was a natural meteor rather than a piece of ubiquitous space junk, but they noted they couldn't be positive.

Then Secureteam, which dubs itself "the fastest-growing research outlet and source for data on the alien phenomenon, UFOs and the exposure of those covering them up," decided it was a cover-up, in part arguing that the ESA's speed calculation was incorrect since the video was a time-lapse.

James Oberg, who used to work in mission control at NASA, is used to this sort of approach to UFO sightings, and in a fascinating interview with Atlas Obscura, he explains why space phenomena trip people up. As a hobby, he has traced back decades'-worth of UFO sightings to more mundane explanations, drawing on his professional expertise in space missions.

His time at mission control, he says, not only means he has the skills to cross-reference sightings with agency documents that point to straightforward explanations, but he also has a mindset that's really difficult for Earthlings to develop. After all, everything in space is based on different perceptual cues: There's no gravity, for example, and some reports deal with images taken from the International Space Station, which is hurtling through space at five miles per second. "Our sensory system is functioning absolutely perfectly for Earth conditions," Oberg told Atlas Obscura. "But we're still a local civilization. Moving beyond our neighborhood has been visually confusing."

One example is the dancing lights seen about three minutes into this video filmed from a space shuttle flight. Oberg here points out that given the spacecraft's speed, these spots aren't dancing at all, they're traveling more or less at pace with the shuttle. Oberg writes them off as small pieces of ice or insulation that have detached from the shuttle but are still keeping pace with it.

In the interview, Oberg also highlights two other commonly misinterpreted phenomena: super high plumes from rocket launches and twilight shadowing, both of which are exacerbated by the fuzzy boundary between night and day as the Earth spins on its axis. To understand how they work (and how they can be confusing to Earthlings), check out the full interview.