Glowing rings in the night sky Sunday's UFO
On Sunday evening, 2009 October 18, mysterious glowing rings were seen in the night sky and were widely reported.
Oleg Toumilovitch (ASSA Imaging Section Director and publisher of the popular ANFO "Astro News from Oleg") received reports and images of the event, which he posted on his website.
Dr Claire Flanagan (Johannesburg Planetarium) and Mellony Spark (a Ph D student at the SAAO) received phone calls and e-mails from amazed (and sometimes worried) onlookers describing what they had seen.
I was in Sutherland at the time, preparing for a long night's observing, and was still indoors when the event took place. Can you fracking believe it??! The first I heard of the event was the next morning, per sms from Kos Coronaios (Limpopo Astronomy Outreach), who also missed the event! He writes:
"Although Sarah, the kids and I were outside (19:30 to 21:00) the sky was mostly overcast and the few times that I looked up Jupiter was not even visible," Kos writes.
"Pity this did not happen on Saturday evening as I was outdoors till around midnight during the club's astronomy evening and after everyone went home I stayed out taking images of M31 and M77."
Later the morning I was contacted by Douw Cloete, of Xaus Lodge. Douw and Linda were presenting a star show to 11 guests of the lodge when the event took place, at around 20:55 per Douw's reckoning.
"Afterwards I spoke to most of the other people to hear what they saw," Douw writes.
"Everyone agreed that from a central point a pulse of light appeared, which increased in intensity. In approximately three seconds it formed two small half-moons or sickles [like two brown beans touching; see attached sketch] with an apparent magnitude of 0 and a diameter of about 1°. The diameter then increased at a constant rate (like the wave motion a dripping tap creates on a smooth surface of water). The central point was near alpha Hydri. After 20 to 30 seconds, the next pulse began, sending out the next wave.
"When we began watching there were already some four wave rings and we saw another four pulses happen. As the waves expanded they became broader and more hazy. The sequence of pulses was regular, and the rings were at equal distances from each other.
"After the last pulse (8th? could also have been the 10th) the central point began to move. This points magnitude was around 2.5. A smaller point of light of 5th magnitude, some 1° away, followed it. Their speed was constant and their relative separation remained the same.
"In about 10 seconds it moved from alpha Hydri to a point almost halfway between Jupiter and Altair, after which we couldn't see it anymore.
"It was very interesting, and we have no idea what it could have been. Speculations ranged from the ISS exploding to ET that finally went home."
Via e-mail, Natasha Calenborne of Fourways, Johannesburg, shares her report of the event.
"Last night around 8:30pm we were on our way to bed when my daughter noticed a round object in the night sky! I'm so blind and didn't have my glasses on I called my husband to see and he was amazed
"We opened the front door of our house and this round circle had another halo type effect so it was two circles with a dot in the middle. It was small then moved towards us getting larger then got very faint then stronger and the dot disappeared then appeared. It moved over our house and then disappeared!
"We could see it so clear with our binoculars. We could not believe what we just saw! I tried calling my mother to look outside but it was too late!
"We could see this object with the naked eye and at first we thought no it had to been a satellite but this was too round and weird!
"There were airplanes flying at that very moment but not sure if they noticed anything."
Con Keyser was in Sharon Park on the East Rand, observing the deep sky with his daughter, sister and brother-in-law. While enjoying the beautiful globular cluster NGC 6752 in Pavo, Con's daughter noticed the strange sight in the south-western sky, about 20° above the horizon. He reported the sighting to Lerika Cross (ASSA Johannesburg) and a fuller version will appear in Canopus in due course.
Per Con's reckoning, the time of the event was 20:49.
"It appeared to be moving directly toward where we were, and when first observed the rings were small, and the outer rings would fit within the circle formed between your thumb and forefinger. As it appeared to come closer, the diameter of the outer rings increased until they exceeded the width of your outstretched hand held at arms length. As the rings moved from the centre to the extreme, the blue intensity diminished gradually."
A series of these expanding rings were seen.
"Once the object passed us, the bright centre object became less visible and finally disappeared. The object passed where we were, moving Northward at approximately 45 deg from the horizon."
"What was very interesting, is that when the apparent explosions occurred, the [central source] appeared to split in two vertically, and then immediately became obscured. The total time that the object was visible to us was approximately 2.5 minutes."
Anet Sears of Randjesfontein, Midrand, reported her sighting to Dr Claire Flanagan (Johannesburg Planetarium) and Kos Coronaios (Limpopo Astronomy Outreach). Anet writes:
"Last night, Sunday evening at about 2045 2100hr my family and I saw a phenomenon in the sky which we need clarity on!
"We live in Midrand, and from the south of Jo'burg a faint circle appeared on the horizon like an invisible bubble, only the edge visible, clear but delicate. It was as big as the moon would appear at its largest on the horizon."
The bubble appeared to wobble, "as if it cannot stabilize, hence I thought it was an unstable/lack of air weather balloon moving along in the sky," Anet writes.
"The bubble [then] expanded and from the centre a point started to manifest and 'grow' bigger, separating into two halves like slices of light, similar to two waning moon shapes, very shiny and bright."
"This started to expand and formed another circle or halo around the centre. The first bubble/halo expanded further and now there were two halo's getting larger and larger, moving further away from the centre. As these circles moved across the sky towards the west, this 'point' began to emit the same half slices which expanded 4 times in total, before it faded out right above us in the western sky.
"I quickly went into the house to get the Swarofski binoculars and was in time to see a moving satellite type light point with a red light attached to it."
"Our children are 8 and 10 years old, Anet writes, "and for them it was a seriously frightening sight.... for us too!
Anet later gave a more complete account of what they saw, writing in part that, once the bubble began to move at a constant rate,
the centre appears and begins to expand from the centre light speck which looks like a satellite moving with its halo. The centre opens up to reveal two halves, bright crispy clear white light, like quarter moons (but unnaturally oval, not round) about 1 degree in diameter. (I will refer to this as 'the flowering').
"These two slices move away from each other into opposite directions, getting bigger and bigger and thinner and thinner one going 6 degrees on compass, the other going 24 degrees. This is a consistent movement, no delays or jerks. The two slices thin out and the two points on each, meet each other to form a halo, similar to the first circle, but firm (not wobbly). The first halo is consistently moving outward as if the second one's expansion out is moving the first one away like a pebble causing ripples"
"Then the process above repeated itself, each time pushing the outer ring further out. This sequence happened definitely 3, but I think 4 times exactly as explained above. I do not remember if the centre stayed fixed as the light speck satellite, moving with the haloes or if it vanished in between the 'flowering'. The 'system' of rings steadily moved across the sky from 20 degrees on the compass, to finally 27 degrees. The 'flowering' stopped at about 26 degrees on compass and 60 degrees from the horizon. At this point there was a very very large outer-ring misty and faint the size of 3x stretched out hands from thumb to pinky, thumb to pinky, thumb to pinky (sorry!!) The second ring two times outstretched hands, the third ring one and half hands and a centre being a 'satellite light speck'. (My outstretched hand measures 190mm)"
"Possibly due to the light of the N1 highway going through Midrand which is about 4 km from our house, the rings faded at 27 degrees on compass, 70 degrees from horizon.
"I was looking through the binos (which is strong enough to see the craters on the moon Swarofski 10x50 'Habicht SL') and tracked the satellite light speck from 26 degrees to 27 degrees on the compass. All the while as this satellite moved across the sky, the halos/rings followed in consistent formation, expanding ever bigger.
"The satellite speck had a red light speck on it (at the rear) seen through the binoculars. It moved deeper into space, rather than across the sky, with haloes now at its maximum of 3 x outstretched hands, because I would have been able to track it OR the light from the highway made it vanish from sight. It was not an aeroplane it moved to fast and there was no sound."
"My husband Michael is witness to this unfolding process, as well as my son 8 years and daughter 10 years, who screamed their way through this 90 second to 2 minute spectacle. My daughter said she felt it was coming straight at our house, but it went over our house.
Michael's impression was: "It was a perfectly symmetrical body of light, moving closer and closer to the viewer. It was awe-inspiring and intimidating. I was concerned. I have never experienced or seen or imagined anything like this before it was completely new, like nothing I have ever seen before".
Anet sums up her impression:
"I thought something had gone wrong with the moon bombings and a damaged satellite/space station is moving close to earth out of its orbit, and the bright light of the "flowering" may be the mirrors reflected by the sun. The repeat of the 'flowering' being the slow turning of the mirrors as it rotates/spins in its journey. This was the 'story' I told my frightened kids, but deep inside of me, I was worried. It was not natural. Having seen Halley's comet years ago through a telescope, also a meteorite 10 years ago up close, with its burning fizzling tail diving behind the horizon (a good 3 to 4 hand spans!) .... this was nothing like that.
"The wobbling halo initially was truly strange. The repeat performance of the 'flowering' was other-worldly and frightening. The red light on the satellite 'shouldn't be there'.
"The expanding halo's made me think of a hydrogen bomb blast the 'flowering' being the explosion and the haloes being the shock waves. In fact, I would go with that one!!! Aliens? A bit cute, but hey, fact is stranger than fiction!!"
In a later e-mail, she writes:
"I forgot to include the most alarming detail of all this is what makes the whole process 'strange'. When the 'flowering' started it was like the two halves moved away from the centre point, but before it totally separated, it twirled like the blades of the Jodie Foster movie [Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan] like circling on its own axis, about 2 to 3 times. The brightness of the light emitted from the halves made it significant. I thought, now if the sky is going to give me this info, why does it 'spoil' it all with this weird movement it completely discredited a phenomenon that could be explained scientifically! I explained this piece of info to my kids as the mirrors tumbling in space because its unstable.... but really, it was actually distinct and purposeful. It was like a specific movement which repeated itself 4 times, exactly the same, creating ever expanding and new haloes."
Meanwhile, just a stone's throw from me up on the SAAO koppie in Sutherland, Mellony Spark (Ph.D. student, SAAO Instrumentation Division) was on the job. She posted a note on Astronet:
"I'm holed up here at Sutherland observatory, trying to get on with my thesis in peace and quiet, but since 9 o'clock this evening I've been arrested by phone calls from across the country reporting the sighting of a UFO ('U' because I'm darned if I know what it is), apparently making its way across the sub-continent and unsettling the general populace. I was just curious to know if anyone else has had similar reports or indeed even spotted the thing so I can get back to the conscientious callers. Here are the details (identical in all reports):
"Direction: South to North, moving at moderate pace, taking ~10min to cross the sky.
"Times: At ~8:30 it was spotted over Hermanus, just before 9pm over Ceres and by ~9:30 it was passing over Jo'burg.
"Description: Apparently two sources of light visible, a simple point of light being the trailing source closely following the more curious leading source. The leading source (also a small, bright point of light) was emitting circular pulses or spirals of light that 'looked like the kind of ripples you get when you throw a stone into a pond' (the exact words of 2 unrelated callers). It 'gave out bright spiralling pulses of light, almost like a firework, which would turn into haloes, like the kind you see around the moon, and then fade' and then repeat in cycles lasting ~ 4 seconds according to the Ceres caller who timed it."
In a follow-up e-mail, Mellony noted that:
" the object was travelling SE to NW. I just had a call from the South of the Nambia reporting that it passed over them at ~9:45."
Meanwhile, in Pinelands, Cape Town, indefatigable satellite veteran Greg Roberts was on sky patrol. He was geared up to observe the launch of an American satellite, USAF DMSP F18, which was the payload of a Centaur rocket booster that lifted off at around 18:00 on Sunday evening from Vandebergh, Air Force Base in California, USA. Greg writes:
"I was set up to get positional observations so the venting [of propellant from the Centaur second-stage rocket] took me by surprise as the real action was scheduled to take place about 20 minutes later when the satellite was over Europe and the Centaur rocket engine was to be re-ignited to send the craft into heliocentric orbit."
Greg captured images that show the venting of this propellant, and it was this spectacular e-vent that caused the stir.
The rocket is now in a heliocentric orbit, while the satellite, DMSP-F18, is in Earth-orbit.
Greg notes that the "rocket was about a magnitude brighter than the primary payload. At its best I would estimate the venting envelope around the rocket as a negative magnitude."
The light rings widely reported are unusual; Greg comments: "I have never seen anything like this before on any bright satellites on the video images one can detect about 4-5 concentric light rings around the rocket, getting brighter as one closes in on the rocket. Since there are reports of the rocket 'puffing' I suspect these rings may be real and corresponding to 'puffs' rapidly expanding as the rocket moved. The rings etc. only encased the rocket the DMSP satellite looked a 'normal' satellite."
DMSP satellites circle around the planet pole-to-pole to collect global weather data for the U.S. military to use in planning operations across the world. The satellites are built by Lockheed Martin with an expectation to last four years but normally operate much longer.
To my delight, accomplished astrophotographer Mitchell Krog happened to be out under the stars with his equipment set up.
Mitchell reported to Oleg:
"I was out shooting some lightning storms last night but as I am always checking my back for storms that sneak up on me I turned around and saw a strange shape in the sky. I immediately starting capturing some images of it this craft, whatever it may be, moved quite fast, first appearing in the South and Moving North West. From the time I first saw it until I could no longer see it was just under 4 minutes. Every so often a bright light would be emitted from the centre point of the concentric circles."
Prof Matie Hoffman (UFS) also forwarded an image taken by Albert van Biljon from Bloemfontein at 20:52:56. Albert "had to run for his camera when [he] unexpectedly saw the strange sight," Matie writes.
Further details of this event can be found in the SAAO press release (link below) written by Mellony Spark, in which she says:
"The spectacular sight which keen South African sky-watchers were privileged enough to witness during the evening of Sunday the 18th of October, from approximately 8:45 to 9:30pm, a spectacle resembling something out of a big budget UFO movie turned out to be a great visual demonstration of experimental rocket science in action."
nothing more to see. please move along.