ufo debunking with a grain of salt

When explaining a UFO sighting, it's probably a good idea to make sure that your explanation makes sense...

snapping ufo pic
Illustration by Evgenij Kungur

UFOs. We know them, we love them, we made them an enduring part of pop culture over the last 60 years. Unfortunately, it seems like that’s all UFOs are. A pop culture phenomenon with seemingly countless reasonable explanations which range from mistaken identity, to black aircraft to natural phenomena that casts unusual lights. However, a recent explanation offered for the phenomena doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Space.com says that sprites, electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere, may be the culprit of some unusual, high altitude UFO reports.

Sprites and their relatives, blue jets, are short lived atmospheric bursts of plasma which tend to be associated with an unusual form of lightning. Some 95% of all lightning bolts during a storm have a negative charge in which the electrons run from the ground to the air. In the other 5% of lightning strikes, the charge runs the opposite way to create positive lightning. And that’s not the only difference. Because positive lightning starts at the top of the thunderstorm, the charge it carries is usually a good deal higher and the burst lasts longer. When there’s a high number of positive strikes coming from a storm, the electrified mesosphere above creates a very brief and very powerful network of plasma tendrils (called candles) up to 15 miles high and 45 miles across. That burst of energy is known as a sprite. A much more concentrated column of these tendrils originating in the stratosphere is known as a blue jet.

Considering that we know what sprites are and the fact that they’re very short lived (only a few seconds), I wonder how they would explain a UFO sighting. The typical UFO encounter involves an object that’s moving across the sky slowly enough to be tracked by eyewitnesses but with a guesstimated velocity that places it in the realm of advanced alien machinery. Since the sprites are there and gone, how would anyone mistake them for an alien spacecraft? If anything, they’d look like enormous explosions overhead, each easily the size of a mountain, or flashes of light in the distance that disappear as soon as they’re spotted. Extremely few UFO reports talk about flashes of light but rather about triangular objects, the new trend in sightings which indicates a black aircraft or a test of an existing stealth jet is the culprit rather than lighting or an everyday airplane being seen at an odd angle during a maneuver.

Trying to explain the unknown that’s usually reported by passionate eyewitnesses with enough exposure to pop culture to make up their minds as to what happened just seconds after their encounter is a serious problem for skeptical investigators. It’s not enough to just throw out an explanation that sounds ordinary and innocuous. When dealing with the subject of UFOs or an occasionally mind boggling claim that just can’t be explained by someone who wasn’t there to see it firsthand, you have to offer explanations that are plausible and actually fit with the typical scenario of the event you’re trying to explain.

# astrobiology // debunking / jetblue / sprite / ufology


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