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Volume xviii, Issue 20 ~ May 20 to May 26, 2010

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Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Identifying the Unidentified

Look low in the west after sunset for your own UFO

The great astronomer-novelist Arthur C. Clark once said, “If you’ve never seen a UFO, you’re not very observant. And if you’ve seen as many as I have, you won’t believe in them.” A few hours after sunset, you may very well spot your own unidentified flying object hovering above the horizon or perhaps zipping through a stand of trees.

While it may be breathtaking, fans of the X Files and Area 51 conspiracy theorists will likely be disappointed. UFO sightings are almost always debunked and attributed to astronomical phenomenon, and the number-one culprit for these claims is our neighboring planet Venus.

As the sun sets after 8:15 this week, Venus appears high in the west. In the deepening twilight, the planet stands out like an intense yellow beacon, and as it draws to the horizon, the planet only grows brighter, and its light begins to flicker and dance.

Typically planets shine steady, as opposed to stars, whose distant light is distorted over the millions of miles it travels before reaching our eyes. But as Venus edges toward the horizon, its intense light strikes earth’s atmosphere at such an angle that it is split into different spectrums like light hitting a prism or a diamond.

Anyone unaware that they are looking at Venus could easily be duped. In fact, a group in 1969 claimed to have seen a UFO low on the horizon, moving toward them and then away from them and then back again, all the while changing in brightness and color, at times rivaling the moon. Recounting this sighting in 1973 was a Naval Academy graduate and officer trained in celestial navigation, who just a few years later would become our president, Jimmy Carter.

Years later, however, astronomer Robert Sheaffer compared accounts from those present and deduced that the group had been staring straight at Venus.

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