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Close Encounters?

This post is about an actual event that happened to me on the night of Tuesday 4th Feb 2003, as I left work (Glasgow Science Centre). The following is entirely true, and changed my worldview in a big way. I hope you read the whole thing, and don’t dismiss any of it until you’ve read it all.

I worked late last night, leaving about 8pm. It was cold and crisp outside, and the sky was crystal clear. As I walked along the riverside to Bell’s Bridge I was busy looking up at the stars (Orion was up, and both Jupiter and Saturn we clearly visible). I passed a man with a dog and was temporarily distracted. When I looked back up I caught something moving in the sky, near Orion. I’ll explain my observations and thoughts in the order that they happened.

In the first split second that I saw something moving I realised that it was moving at the same speed a satellite would move; that was my first thought, that it was an artificial satellite. That was an initial reaction based on a split second observation, and was due entirely to the speed at which it was moving.

After I focussed on it, I saw that it was orange/red in colour, and realised that it wasn’t a satellite, as they only ever appear white as they reflect sunlight back to us on Earth. The next thing I noticed, just moments later, was that it had size; it wasn’t a point object. My reaction to that was that it was a trail from a shooting star, a puff of colour as a bit of space rock was vaporised in the upper atmosphere.

I continued to watch though, and it kept moving, at too slow a rate to be a shooting star – it was still moving at satellite-speed. In addition, there was no trail, ruling out shooting stars altogether.

All these observations and thoughts happened within the first second. As I stood craning my neck to watch it, it passed overhead, and I realised that I could make out a shape. It was almost too small to see, but I saw something like this:

It was still travelling at the same speed, roughly east to west, and I turned to watch it pass over the Science Centre. As I watched it I realised that it wasn’t quite travelling in a straight line, it was zigzagging erratically, very fast, back and forth, as it kept moving westward.

Eventually it faded from view, and I was left staring after it, my mouth hanging open. It was totally inexplicable. As an astronomer I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sky and I had never seen anything like this. I was at a total loss to explain it. At that instant I’d seen a UFO. It was totally Unidentified.

However, this lasted for only five seconds. As I stood watching the sky, dumbfounded, I saw another one, following the same path. It was the same colour, the same shape, was moving at the same speed, and zigzagging like before. But this one was bigger. It was bigger because it was lower; low enough in fact that I could see it clearly. It was a bird.

I laughed out loud (attracting a funny look from a passer-by) at how easily fooled I was. Here was me, someone who is used to looking at the night sky, and I saw something I couldn’t explain. I’m about as sceptical as they come, but in those few seconds I was in the same group as the multitude of UFOlogists who claim to have seen just such wing-shaped craft zigging and zagging through the sky in fantastic ways.

But it was just a bird! If I hadn’t seen the second bird, who knows what I’d be writing now. As it is I feel totally privileged. It was as if the Universe looked at me and said; “I’m going to show you something amazing, something that thousands of other people have seen, but that is totally inexplicable… and then, just for you, I’m going to explain.”

Ultimately it has given me a better understanding of people who claim to have seen UFOs. They might quite innocently report just such an observation and be told rudely: “It was just the planet Venus.”

“No,” they’d reply. “I know where Venus is; it wasn’t that.”

“Well, in that case, it was just a bird reflecting light from streetlights below.”

To which the upset reply would be something like: “I think I’d recognise a bird when I see one.”

I didn’t.

  1. Annie
    February 4, 2012 at 11:32

    Fascinating account,, Steve. I thought I saw one, in full sunlight, a dark oblong moving across my line of sight, higher than the trees, silently drifting. I watched in awe. It slowly disappeared into the distance. I realised, as I walked on, that I had actually glanced towards the sun and what I was seeing was its shadow on my retina. Easily done, to mistake an optical response to light for a solid object in vision.

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