Strange Lights · by Sean B. Palmer
On the night of 15th June 2009 I went for a walk to a local conservation area to take some photos of horses and investigate a strange bird that had been reported there on the night before. There were also some foxes and magpies interacting with one another, and though the light was fading I managed to get some good high-ISO photos of these. It was just gone 9pm (BST) when I got there, and sunset was at 9:15pm.
The photostream that I took helps me to time the first odd light that I saw that evening to about 9:35pm. It appeared to be a firework, bright white with a hint of maybe green or turquoise, rising above the treeline towards the west in the south part of the field, and then immediately falling back down again. It rose and fell quickly, and it had the same kind of intensity as a traffic light firework, rather than the drifting smoky trail of a flare. It was much too quick for me to get a photo of. I assume it could very well have been a firework, but it's worth mentioning in the context of the light I saw not long thereafter.
After taking some more photos of the wildlife, I went home, and civil twilight was just ending, it being 10pm. I'd just reached my neighbour's garden when I saw in the west a bright deep-orange or almost red light, at an altitude of about 30° or so. We seem to be on a well used flightpath because we often have planes coming over, and they follow a very set pattern: first you can see their bright yellowish-white front light, then the flashing of their aviation beacons, and as they reach about 60-70° altitude the front light disappears and you can see the flashing very clearly and start to hear the plane too. This light was very different. It didn't seem to be as high as most planes, and it was more of a due west than the WNW that the planes seem to come from; but most of all it was much brighter, by perhaps one or two stellar magnitudes, and had a very much deeper and different colour.
So my initial reaction wasn't that it was a plane, but that it might be a firework, and perhaps part of the same display as the firework that I saw earlier. But then it became apparent that the light was heading towards me, and not going straight up and down as fireworks tend to do, so I observed it to see what it did. As it got closer, it got even more baffling: it seemed to be shimmering in some odd way, as though it were on fire, and I really thought then that it must be some kind of flammable substance due to the way it was flickering. The best way that I can describe it is as being a bit like a globular candle flame.
Another strange feature of the movement of the light was that it was extremely smooth. I'm not entirely sure what made me think so, but to me it looked much more like the path of a satellite than an aeroplane. Perhaps aeroplanes cross the sky much more slowly than a satellite, and this thing was just lower than an aeroplane, but it seemed to be going fast and yet extremely smoothly, not buffeted in any way. There was a slight breeze, but I hadn't really noticed it. At this point I was wondering if it was an Iridium flare, a very bright satellite, but then it did another unexpected thing and arced off towards the south, changing its course.
The entire duration of the sighting was probably about a minute or so. When it had reached the point where it was obviously not a plane, because the front light did not disappear at altitude 60-70° and nor were there any aviation beacons visible, I took a couple of photos (though I only recalled taking one until I transferred them the next day), and then went to a post in my neighbour's garden where I was still standing in order to give me something to lean on to get a stable video. I then took 21 seconds of video, in which the light is visible for about the first 12 seconds. Simultaneously, the person with me, who'd come to watch the wildlife too and seen the earlier light, was observing it through binoculars. She reported it still being visible even when I could no longer see it by the naked eye or on the camera LCD, so I kept taking the video for a little while longer just in case. When the object dipped behind the eaves of a building, she moved to try to find it again, but neither of us could see it after that.
She reported seeing more structure to the object than I had seen. The diagram that she drew showed the light to be a kind of rough oblong, though to me it had seemed more of a circle or flattened oval, and she said that at first it was a kind of pinkish orange, like the flame from a rocket's exhaust. Then as it went over, she said that the colour simply cut out, and then you could see a bit of red on the right hand side, but the object was now mainly black with a white dot on it. As it went away behind the eaves of the building, the white dot was still visible.
The sky had been mainly clear, even though there was a thunderstorm warning for the whole country and there were downpours expected. In fact I'd say it was about 1 okta, maybe 2 at the most. It was a pleasant summer's night, warm enough not to need a coat; Met Office records the next day gave it as 15°C. The Met Office also gave the wind as W 5mph, XCWeather as W 5-8mph, and a local weather station had a peak at 10pm of W 10mph with consistent W all around this period. We carried on observing for an hour, and meanwhile I was taking many notes too. I did manage to see a couple of planes thereafter, and they underlined just how unlike a plane the light we saw was.
We can rule out the light being a civil plane because of the lack of mandatory civil aviation beacons. We can rule out a military plane because if the deep orange light were a front light then it would have disappeared as it was going over, not when it was past overhead as actually happened. Moreover it was completely silent, though at one point I did think I heard a very far off rumble like that of a passenger jet, but it may have been a ground source too. The person with me heard nothing at all, and on the video that I took there's only the noise from the breeze, picked up by my unshielded camera microphone. The light to me also appeared to have a resolvable width even by the naked eye, rather than being a point source, and that was especially so through the binoculars.
A firework can be ruled out because it was going in a smooth horizontal manner and lasted about a minute. The EXIF data in my two photographs shows 22:01:51 and 22:02:03 as the times taken, giving a separation of twelve seconds. The video was started at 22:02:07, which meant I changed the mode on my camera and steadied myself on my neighbour's garden post rather exceptionally in under five seconds; possibly I started the video before reaching the post. Then there was another twelve seconds of visibility of the light on the video. So that's about thirty seconds from when it was just coming up to the overhead position (it passed a bit south of us, but got to about 80°). Note that according to a calibration against the USNO atomic clocks performed the next day, my camera clock was about 42 seconds slow. A flare can be ruled out because it was going so fast, because of the strange flickering, and because it didn't appear to be coming downwards at any point.
The only common explanation I can think of which even approaches plausibility is that of a Chinese lantern. This would explain the colour, and the strange flickering; and the fact that it suddenly stopped could be interpreted as the lantern going out, though that doesn't explain the slight red nor the white dot on the black object. But the main objection to this theory is simply that the object was going so fast on a calm night, and that it had turned from going eastwards to southeastwards, across the direction of what little breeze there was. For it to be going at that speed there should have been strong wind, and yet it would also have to have been a very smooth wind: the light seemed to be smoother than a plane, and even when it changed direction it did so in a very smooth arc rather than bobbling about. So this must be ruled out too.
There is also the possibility of a deliberate hoax. This can't be ruled out, and I've been through local media reports of strange lights and found that there was an odd flammable tube device which someone saw fall out of the sky near their home a year ago. But though this is definitely possible, it would have to be an interesting hoax. The main problem is that to go this fast the object must have had a motor, and yet the motor wasn't audible. If it was much higher than it seemed, so that the motor wasn't audible, then it must have been going at an astonishing speed. The combined characteristics of the light make it very difficult for me to reconcile against any common explanation.
Since I've been running a strange lights website for many years, it was exciting and frustrating to see a light with these characteristics. The exciting part and the frustrating part are the same thing, namely that it isn't possible to resolve what this light was. With my wide ranging experience of reports of strange lights, I am at least able to say with some certainty that it isn't a plane, a firework, a satellite, a flare, a meteor, or any of these common things. It could have been a hoax, however. Or it could be one of the anomalous light forms that I study, like an earth light, or something that I don't know of or haven't thought of. But it seems most likely that it'll simply remain a mystery, like the thousands of other interesting strange light reports in the records.
At least I did my best to record it as thoroughly and precisely as possible, and I've done here what I often encourage people who write to me with their own sightings to do: to publish it online. And I did enjoy seeing something strange, and even if it was a hoax or something even more mundane, it definitely attracted my attention in a way that dozens of other lights in the sky haven't done.