July 23, 2001 -- -- Was it a bird, a plane or just a streetlight reflecting off a roof?
When citizens see strange lights or objects in the sky, some report them to authorities or their local UFO enthusiasts for investigation. Last week, more than a dozen people, including two police officers, say they saw a V-shaped formation of gold-colored orbs in the New Jersey sky. That sighting has so far not been explained.
But often, these celestial bodies have very earthly explanations, many UFO experts say.
"In the last few months, I've had three sightings reported to us," says Charlie Tolbert, president of the 800-member Society of Scientific Exploration in Charlottesville, Va,. which looks into reports of UFOs. "They've all been explainable. Easily explainable."
Planets, Roofs and Screened-In Porches
In one case, the purported UFO was just the planet Venus near the horizon, Tolbert says.
"The lady was absolutely sure it was a UFO," he says. "And she wouldn't let us have the videotape because she was convinced we were a part of a government conspiracy."
The second sighting turned out to be a street light reflected off a roof. The third was caused by a screened-in porch, which caused one light to appear as four when viewed through a video camera, Tolbert says.
Even more common, say UFO investigators, is mistaking aircraft as unidentified flying objects.
"One of the things we try to check on are these advertising blimps," says George Filer, director of MUFON New Jersey, the state chapter of Mutual UFO Network, one of the largest U.S. organizations that studies UFO reports. In darkness, the lighted blimps can look like discs within a circle of lights, he says.
Each month, Filer says MUFON receives between 200 to 400 reports nationwide of flying objects, of which he believes a small portion might be credible sightings.
"I would say roughly 10 percent of what we get are real reports," he says. Filer believes many of the sightings are visits from alien life and he thinks the government knows about it.
Surprisingly, commercial aircraft can also appear mysterious in the night sky, Filer says. From far away, the lights of a jet landing or taking off can play tricks on the eyes. So, too, can birds flying over flood lights or flares from military exercises, Filer says.
Tolbert says the best thing the public can do when they see strange things in the sky is to write down as much information as possible, especially the direction the object was headed and how high it appears in the sky.
Although it may be more exciting to think Earth has extraterrestrial visitors, the truth may be more mundane, he cautions.
"The fact that we can't explain a sighting doesn't mean it's a bunch of UFOs," he says.