Sky junk, not flying saucers

Looks like most UFOs are wayward balloons, drones, and illusions

Scott Bray explains a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena.
(Image credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Air-traffic controllers and a commercial pilot were the first to see the unexplained radar blips and bright lights over Washington, D.C. Days later, an Air Force pilot reported chasing a UFO — which sped away. Newspaper headlines blared "Jets Chase D.C. Sky Ghosts" and "Aerial Whatzits Buzz D.C. Again!" This episode (recounted in The Atlantic) took place in the summer of 1952, during the height of the "flying saucer" craze that excited the public's imagination. In various guises, the prospect of alien visitation has continued to thrill earthlings ever since. In recent weeks, the U.S. shot down four UFOs, or Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) as the Pentagon now prefers to call them. These close encounters have produced a lot of collateral damage — to China-U.S. relations, to the Pentagon, and to the belief that "aerial whatzits" are spaceships from a star system light-years away. Though three of the UAPs shot down over the past week have not been fully identified, officials say they appear to be sky junk, not alien spacecraft spying on human civilization.

Sky junk? When the U.S. turned up the sensitivity of its radar detection systems last week, it found a bevy of balloons and drones lolling around in the atmosphere. Some may have been launched by a geopolitical rival or weather stations, or drifted away from used car lots. That does not, of course, prove that all previous UFO sightings were illusory. But a recent intelligence report delivered to Congress concluded that most past UAP sightings did involve balloons and drones, with optical illusions and sensor errors making some appear to be defying the laws of physics. It's not hard to be fooled. Just imagine looking up and seeing that perfectly round, bright white orb hovering over Montana. "It's a UFO!" anyone would have thought. Alas, we now know otherwise. "Made in China" is so much less exciting than "Made in Alpha Centauri."

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.