NASA UFOs explained

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 2 2009 7:00 AM

NASA UFOs explained

Some UFO stories are sillier than others. Among the very silliest are claims that NASA not only has evidence that the Space Shuttle is buzzed by flying saucers, but that they have video of it and this video is commonly released by NASA.

OK, can we first screw our heads on straight here? If you're claiming that astronauts routinely take video of alien spacecraft, and that NASA is desperately trying to cover them up, why in the frak would they release the video?

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Hello, McFly? I mean, seriously?

Anyway, the videos usually makes me laugh, because the "UFOs" in question are just ice particles on the Shuttle dislodged when they fire the maneuvering jets. And when they fire the jets again, the expanding plume of gas makes the particles change direction and accelerate away. It's really that simple, yet there are elaborate conspiracy theories created to say these are alien spacecraft, and lots of people buy into it.

I saw a presentation by an astronaut a few years ago debunking the claims of a UFO guy who swore up and down that these particles were spaceships. The astronaut -- my friend the late Ron Parise -- showed that the "UFOs" also seemed to change directions right after the vernier jets fired. The UFO guy said that Shuttle rockets are hugely powerful and it's silly to think that was the cause; they'd move the Shuttle around! But as Ron points out, the jets are very gentle, designed to slowly and carefully change the Shuttle's attitude -- its pitch, yaw, and roll relative to Earth. Those generate only a few pounds of thrust, enough to slow the Shuttle's attitude drift, for example.

This was a clear case of some guy not doing any research at all, and then reaching for the most ridiculous and elaborate explanation he could think of. That's typical for conspiracy theories.

But it's almost always the wrong thing to do in, y'know, real life.

Isn't it cool enough that we put people into orbit in multiton winged spacecraft so that they can do science and exploration and extend our knowledge of the Universe? Why do people insist on making up nonsense about this?

Tip o' the tin foil beanie to Jim Oberg.