[UPDATE (Apr. 11, 2014 at 16:00 UTC): The following post contains some corrections that I have clarified in a follow-up article. Please read that when you're done here. Thanks! -PP]
BA Tweep owlice sent me a link to a video that had me chuckling. It’s from the local Oklahoma City Fox station, KOKH, showing a Mississippi couple talking about some footage from a camera they set up outside their house. They were hoping to get a deer or two, but what they got was (cue creepy music) a UFO.
Well, kinda. Watch:
So what is it? Happily, the timeline is dramatically read by the newscaster: At 7:29 a dim light appears, at 7:35 it gets brighter, at 7:53 a weird shape appears, and then at 7:56 another sharper light appears … then it gets much closer, and finally “flies away”.
He asks, “The deer are lit up brightly. But how? The cameras are infrared and don’t emit light.”
Oh, I know how. I was literally 22 seconds into the video when I fired up my sky mapping software (Sky Safari), knowing what I’d find. Sure enough, on that date (Feb. 16, 2014) the nearly full Moon rose at the exact local time the lights were getting brighter. Being so close to full, the Moon would have been quite bright, lighting up the sky just before it rose. Once it was up it shone into the cameras, creating various lens flares, internal reflections caused by the optics. The part where it “flies away” (at 0:46 seconds into the video) is clearly a lens flare.
[UPDATE (Apr. 10 at 16:30 UTC): The plot thickens! Well, thins. Astronomer Alex Parker noted the camera does in fact give off light; it has a bank of infrared LEDs right above the lens. He's right, I totally missed that! You can see them at 1:22 into the video. These are very bright in the infrared, and are almost certainly what are illuminating the deer in the still picture I used at the top of the post—the ghostly reflection is the deer itself (though Parker notes it looks like it could be vapor from the deer's breath) and the "eyes" in the ghost are a reflection of the deer's eyes. I had assumed the Moon was doing this. I'll note the timing with the Moon rise is too much of a coincidence, though, so now I think both are at fault. The glow seen is due to the Moon, while the bright reflections are due to the infrared LEDs.
it goes to show: No good debunking goes unpunished.]
I can forgive people not familiar with the sky thinking something creepy was happening on their camera—in other words, the couple's reaction was not surprising and fairly typical, I'd wager—but it irks me to no end when newscasters run with stories like this without any skepticism about them. He (or his editor) could’ve called any number of astronomers (it was taken at night, after all), or just poked around on the Web looking for other explanations. Instead? We get a UFO.
I wonder though if the advent of the ‘Net has lessened the number of these kinds of breathless reports, even as individual stories may get spread wider and more quickly. I’m not sure there’s any way to tell. But as long as they keep happening, I’ll keep debunking them.
I have an odd sort of job security.