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Thanks for the Moments…

by Brian Dunning, Nov 22 2012

What more could a good skeptic ask for on Thanksgiving, but a private little mysterious sighting?

Like every year, I’m currently spending the holiday week camped out in a remote part of Death Valley with the family. We haul an offroad popup trailer to the middle of nowhere with the Jeep. The nights are clear and still and very beautiful, and last night after midnight I was standing outside after everyone else had gone to bed. I happened to catch a brilliant meteor zing past.

Very satisfying, I thought, and kept my eyes peeled hoping for more of the show. I got it. Low in the sky, just above a ridge about 20 miles west, I saw what looked like a bright, reddish star. Except it was moving. At first I thought it was a satellite, but then it circled around on itself. It passed the threshold between sky and ridge, so apparently it was between me and the mountain. Its circles were tight, fast, and irregular. Of course I had the usual thought about “No aircraft can maneuver like that.” And that’s when it first struck me that I was having a genuine mysterious sighting.

At first I thought of the F-18s we’d seen two days before, flying out of nearby China Lake, dogfighting and dropping countermeasure flares. A very dramatic and exciting sight. But the flares fall, they don’t zip around in circles; and if what I was seeing was an afterburning engine, I’d have heard it, plenty loud.

Then I remembered Oriflamme Mountain, a few hundred miles south, where golden fireballs are said to dance along its slopes, sometimes flaming out impressively. Still my red star just twisted and spiraled and pretzeled on itself, sometimes above the ridge, sometimes below it.

What could it be?

I looked at another star, up a bit and to the right. A proper, steady, bluish whitish star, clear of the ridge. And when I did, my red mystery star froze in its tracks. Absolutely froze. When I looked straight at it again, its antics were back. Move the eye just off to the side and it settled down.

I was not looking at flares or a golden ball of flame or anything on my side of the ridge. It was simply a star, flickering in the dust storms along the dark ridge, dim to my night vision, and hard to keep an eye on. But once I locked my gaze on a stable target, my red star stopped all movement and behaved itself. It had all been merely the artifact of my own unconscious eye movements.

And that’s where the real moment of excitement lives, right on the border of explained and not-quite-explained-yet. A wonderful place to play.

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14 Responses to “Thanks for the Moments…”

  1. Max says:

    So how did it pass the threshold between sky and ridge?

  2. TexasSkeptic says:

    persistence of vision, maybe?

  3. d brown says:

    Be happy. You could have had to drive Karl Rowe home.

  4. Willy says:

    A great illustration of what someone with a scientific outlook will see when all too many would just see alien craft.

    So I assume what you are describing is a form of visual autokinesis?

  5. Max says:

    The funny thing is that had you videotaped it with a handheld camera on high zoom, it would’ve still bounced around in the video.

    Pilots ought to be aware of optical illusions.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZOhH07h4Iw

  6. Janet Camp says:

    Nice option to the overeating craze that seizes most of the country. I hope you shared the teachable moment with the kids. I have a Jeep and a trailer as well, though mine take me to the rain forest instead–no bigfoot yet! :-)

  7. Arthur Maruyama says:

    I had a similar thing happen to me while in my backyard one very windy night. I was looking up at the sky when out of the corner of my eye I saw something seemingly move around very quickly: it was Jupiter amidst some leafless tree branches moving in the wind. I found that it was only among those moving branches did Jupiter appear to jump around. By moving myself a few feet to the side to a point without those intervening branches Jupiter “stabilized”. I’ve found that even on windless nights I could replicate the visual phenomenon to a lesser degree by moving myself from side-to-side. As it happened there were no nearby bright stars those nights so I cannot say if a nearby star without the intervening moving branches would have erased my observation.

    TexasSkeptic: not as much persistence of vision as our brains trying to construct reality based on what is observed. I think given moving foreground objects (Brian’s dust storm, my wind-blown tree branches) our brains try to coordinate them with relatively unmoving distant objects (Brian’s star, my Jupiter), giving the latter the appearance of movement.

  8. Nyar says:

    Said the night wind to the little lamb,
    do you see what I see
    Way up in the sky, little lamb,
    do you see what I see
    A star, a star, dancing in the night
    With a tail as big as a kite
    With a tail as big as a kite

  9. d brown says:

    In an old Arthur C. Clarke fact book he wrote a little about UFO’s. He said that based on his own life, anyone will see things in the open air that can not be known. Not for sure. And I say, the mind hates to be unsure. It will tell itself anything, right or not.

  10. Ron Hudson says:

    When I was in grade school, I saw a metallic sphere pass overhead in a straight line and at a constant velocity. It appears over a line of trees to the west and disappeared over a line of trees in the east. It was impossible to determine how high or fast it travelled. But an honest estimate would be 500 feet and perhaps 15-20 mph. I remember it appearing to be about the size of a pea, held at arms length. The time of day was at lunchtime and the sky was uniformly overcast. The year would have ’64 or ’65 and the place was Montreal Quebec Canada. The only thing I know about it after all these years, is that it happened. It remains a classic UFO.

  11. Ron Hudson says:

    When I was in grade school, I saw a metallic sphere pass overhead in a straight line and at a constant velocity. It appeared over a line of trees to the west and disappeared over a line of trees in the east. It was impossible to determine how high or fast it travelled. But an honest estimate would be 500 feet and perhaps 15-20 mph. I remember it appearing to be about the size of a pea, held at arms length. The time of day was at lunchtime and the sky was uniformly overcast. The year would have ’64 or ’65 and the place was Montreal Quebec Canada. The only thing I know about it after all these years, is that it happened. It remains a classic UFO.