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.