Spiral “UFO” reports from the east coast of Australia

It was all over our local news yesterday: the reports of a beautiful spiral seen in the predawn light from most of the east coast of Australia.  Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and the Gold Coast were all reportedly excellent viewing locations.

On-line, there are some excellent photos and videos of this event.

Although the weather was cold and cloudy in Melbourne yesterday, there are reports of some people having seen the same light in the sky from here.

So what was it?

As it happens, there was an event remarkably similar to this in Norway back in November 2009.  That event was down to an out-of-control Russian missile, which created a beautiful spiral in the sky.

The most reasonable way to think about what occurred here in Australia yesterday would be to go looking for reasonable explanations, perhaps asking first: were there any rockets in our sky yesterday morning?

As it happens, yes there were.  SpaceX is a private American space consortium. In the early hours of yesterday morning (Australian east coast time) SpaceX launched their Falcon 9 rocket.  The payload reached orbit and the orbital path went in a west-to-east line high above Sydney and Brisbane.

This is actually an important story in its own right. The US are phasing out the shuttle program and looking to private enterprise, like SpaceX and the Russians, to get payloads to the International Space Station.

The recent launch by SpaceX would be the “reasonable” explanation. The time and place all check out against the observed spiral in the sky.  Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, has done an excellent job of putting the facts together on his blog.

Now that the media storm has died down somewhat, I think it’s worthwhile reviewing our local media for accuracy of reporting and critical thinking.

I agree with Phil Plait that the ABC gave too much space to wild speculation from Doug Moffett. Doug Moffett is the media spokesperson for UFO Reseach, a UFO conspiracy theory organisation based in Sydney.  Phil Plait took Doug’s speculation apart beautifully.

Is it really necessary that the ABC contact people like Doug when people see something in the sky that isn’t often seen and probably not immediately identifiable?

Thankfully the ABC also contacted Geoffrey Wyatt from the Sydney Observatory, whose early prediction as to what it might have been turned out to be quite accurate.  I imagine it helped that the Norway event wasn’t all that long ago.

I’ve also seen the ABC TV’s news report for Sydney on iView [Sorry, no link, the 5th of June vision is no longer available]. It’s a little better, with the wild speculation toned down, and it does indirectly mention the launch by SpaceX from “Cape Canaveral”.

Channel Seven

The report started with a hook to get UFO conspiracy theorists in.  The report thankfully ends with the more reasonable explanation, and the vision even includes the on-board camera from the Falcon 9 rocket showing it spinning.  Well done for including that piece of vision, which explains a lot, and also for showing at least some degree of critical thinking by going through some possible explanations and ruling them out.

Channel Ten

I’d give Channel Ten a big fail for their report.

The report starts:

Well, a strange light in the night sky has again sparked frenzied speculation about whether we are alone in the universe…

Well… where is this “frenzied speculation”?

I did some internet searching for recent updates linking this event to some of the stranger ideas about alien space visitations and conspiracy theories, but I just didn’t find any.  Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places, or perhaps this is just in the minds of the people behind the Channel Ten news desk.

And what’s with the background behind the news reader at the start of the story showing fuzzy saucer-like objects?  It’s certainly not an image from the news story at hand.  It looks… well, just silly.

Then:

“Early risers were treated to a real life scene from The X-Files”.

I vote this to be one of the saddest examples you’ll ever find of reputable “news” trying to spook people into thinking fictional stories might be true.

Zig-zagging, speeding up and slowing down……

– only reporter says that, not credible people who actually saw it.

Even the experts are struggling to explain the light.

Oh please…. it’s just another  way of saying that “scientists are baffled”.  This happens whenever any reasonable expert is confronted with an event that’s difficult or impossible to repeat.

There is however a possible logical explanation.

This section of the report was very brief.  There was no serious attempt at reasoned explanation or critical thinking.  Why did Channel Ten fail to mention the almost identical event in November last year, the Russian missile over Norway?

Whether its a piece of space junk or indeed a UFO, it’s clear the age old debate as to whether we are alone, is alive and well.  Simon Hooper, Ten News.

Lets look at some of the logical fallacies that might be attributed to this last statement and the whole story as it’s presented by Ten.

I’d say the following fallacies apply, for details, go here.

Argument by artifice

Argument from cultural origins

Argument from exaggerated conflict

Argument by observational selection

Argument by popular opinion

Argument from single cause

To simplify the argument in this story, I’d say it boils down to this: some people saw something in the sky that wasn’t immediately identifiable to them – therefore, an alien visitation may be occurring.

The fact that some people saw something and took videos and photos, it doesn’t follow that we are therefore possibly being visited by aliens.

As I said earlier, I think it’s a fail for Ten news.

I’ve actually looked quite hard to find some loony theories that relate to this event, but I can find very little.  Perhaps it is just the news media’s idea of having some fun with a credulous public.  I can imagine the conversation behind some news desks – Oh this will be great, the fruit cakes will be coming out of the woodwork with this one, make sure this story goes in!

I did find this comment posted here:

http://www.dailyexaminer.com.au/story/2010/06/05/ufo-sightings-three-states/

Read the Bible people. God says clearly there will be signs in the heavens in the last days before Christs return……

Hmmm….  right, right. There’s obviously more people involved in rocketry than I had previously imagined.

Mal.

3 Responses to Spiral “UFO” reports from the east coast of Australia

  1. Ross says:

    I was enjoying reading this post until I came to the last paragraph. Oh well. Never mind.

  2. Gareth says:

    Don’t rockets get launched in an easterly direction to capitalise on the earth’s spin to more easily reach escape velocity? Even kids know this: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/ds1_mgr.shtml
    I doubt NASA can afford to launch large rockets in anything other than the most economical way. So why was I standing in Brisbane watching the spiral clearly going dead north? I’m a skeptic, but none of the explanations for what I saw convince me that it wasn’t something else entirely, I cannot imagine what though. Explanations aside, what I saw that morning was one of the most stunningly beautiful and astonishing things I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m just glad I was there to see it.

  3. malvickers says:

    I hope you don’t mind Gareth, you say you’re a skeptic, so I don’t think you will mind. I’d like to question some of the things you say in your comment.

    Rockets do generally get launched in an easterly direction. I agree with that, the site you referenced agrees with that, what was said in the post agrees with that “went in a west-to-east line” = easterly. More importantly the video of the same event you claim to have witnessed, shows the spiral disappearing into the twilight of the rising sun, which as we all know, rises in the east. Also, the chap who took the video, posted to you-tube and linked in the post (have you played it?) says twice in the audio, that the spiral is moving to the east. The spiral disappearing into the twilight of the rising sun can be seen in every other video of this event.

    Are you sure you where facing north?

    Minor point, NASA didn’t launch the rocket, Space X did.

    You say you don’t know what it was, you say you’re a skeptic. Why don’t you think the Space X Falcon 9 rocket, which was in the right place, at the right time, producing exactly the effect that we know other spinning rockets have produced, is not the most reasonable explanation?

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