Astronomy is one of the oldest disciplines of science. Many prehistoric monuments are aligned with stars and planets, giving us clues as to the importance of ancient forms of astronomy. As a result, astronomers remain one of the leading groups responsible for the serious investigation of the UFO phenomenon.
Astronomer UFO Sightings During the Renaissance
Hundreds of years ago astronomers were observing objects which can still not be definitively identified. Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck chronicle many reports of anomalous aerial objects throughout history in their book, Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. One of these mysterious observations was by the famous astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini.
In 1672, Cassini spotted a small object close to Venus. At first he only took note, but did not share the discovery. He then saw it again in 1686 and decided to announce it as a possible discovery of a new moon of Venus. His sightings continued over the next few decades but were sporadic. In 1884, a former director for the Royal Observatory in Brussels, Jean-Charles Houzeau, proposed the idea that the object observed by Cassini may be another planet. He also named the object Neith, after an Egyptian Goddess. In 1887, the Belgian Academy of Sciences suggested that Neith was just a group of stars near Venus.
In 1686, a much more mysterious sighting was reported by astronomer Gottfried Kirch, the director of the Berlin Observatory. His sighting took place in Leipzig, Germany on July 9 at approximately 1:20 a.m. Kirch said that he saw an extremely bright fireball with a tail that was a quarter the size of the Moon, hovering in the sky for fifteen minutes. He said that people in towns as far as eleven miles away also reported seeing the object. Kirsh explained that eventually the object darted off to the right and left two “globules” that could only be seen by telescope.
Astronomers and Modern UFO research
UFO sightings by astronomers are often taken more serious than those by the general public, due in part because astronomers are trained to observe and identify astronomical objects and spend a lot of time looking up into Space. Understandably, UFO reports from renowned astronomers helped boost the public’s fascination at the inception of the modern UFO era.
Prior to World War II, UFOs were not as prevalent a topic as they are now. In fact, the term “UFO” was not even coined until the early 1950s during the U.S. Air Force investigation of the phenomenon. Sightings were abundant in the 1950s, and they often made media headlines. It was at this time that Life magazine put together a compelling story that included the accounts of two well-known astronomers. The Life article described the first of these men as “one of the U.S.’s top astronomers.” He wanted to remain anonymous for the magazine story, but it was later discovered that this was Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, a leading scientist in the study of meteors.
In the article, Dr. LaPaz described a sighting that he and his family had on July 10, 1947 at 4:47 p.m. He, his wife, and their two teenage daughters were driving from Clovis, New Mexico to Clines Corners, New Mexico, when they all noticed a strange luminous object that hovered in the sky. Instinctively, Dr. LaPaz began estimating distances in order to make calculations about the object, and his entire family followed suit.
Dr. LaPaz described the object as follows:
[It] showed a sharp and firm regular outline, namely one of a smooth elliptical character much harder and sharper than the edges of the cloudlets . . . The hue of the luminous object was somewhat less white than the light of Jupiter in a dark sky, not aluminum or silver-colored . . . The object clearly exhibited a sort of wobbling motion . . . This wobbling motion served to set off the object as a rigid, if not solid body.
Dr. LaPaz’s family watched the object for thirty seconds before it moved behind a cloud. The object reappeared soon after, but they eventually lost sight of it as it moved behind the clouds again. Dr. LaPaz said, “This remarkably sudden ascent thoroughly convinced me that we were dealing with an absolutely novel airborne device.”
Dr. LaPaz estimated that the object was 20 to 30 miles away and that it was a solid elliptical object approximately 165 to 245 feet long and 65 to 100 feet from top to bottom. He also estimated that it moved at between 120 and 180 mph horizontally and 600 to 900 mph vertically. His family agreed with his calculations. He did not believe that the object was of an astronomical nature, an illusion, a rocket, or a missile.
Later in the article, Dr. LaPaz commented on the mysterious nature of hundreds of green fireballs seen throughout the Southwest, mostly in New Mexico, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. One green fireball incident referred to a sighting of a large fireball seen by over a hundred-fifty people in Arizona in November 1951.
The sightings of green fireballs became so frequent that the U.S. Air Force established Project Twinkle in order to investigate them. Dr. LaPaz was one of the experts that investigated the phenomenon, and he felt that whatever was being seen were not meteorites.
The Life article explained:
[Dr. LaPaz] points out that normal fireballs do not appear green, they fall in the trajectory forced on them by gravity, are generally noisy as a freight train, and leave meteorites where they hit. The green New Mexican species does none of these things. Neither do the green fireballs appear to be electrostatic phenomena—they move too regularly and too fast.
The second sighting by an astronomer covered in the Life article was that of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. At around 11:00 p.m., while sitting in his backyard in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his wife and mother-in-law, they all saw an object dart across the night sky. They agreed it appeared to be oval shaped and had a blue-green glow. Tombaugh said it “seemed to trail off at the rear into a shapeless luminescence.” Tombaugh alleged that he also saw what appeared to be half a dozen windows on the front and the side of the craft.
Project Blue Book Report on UFOs and Astronomers
The Life article popularized the UFO phenomenon at the time and exhibited the highly credible nature of some of the witnesses. Its effect on the U.S. Air Force’s official UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, was evident in a report put together by their consulting astronomer, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The report referenced the Life article and may have even inspired it altogether.
Hynek is often considered the father of modern UFO research. He was a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University when he began consulting for the air force on identifying UFOs. At the time he began working with the air force he said he thought the topic of UFOs was just a fad and referred to it as “utterly ridiculous.” However, his opinions eventually changed, and he began to take the topic very seriously.
Hynek is infamous for trying to explain away a famous rash of UFO sightings in Michigan in 1966 as an effect of swamp gas. However, he is more fondly remembered for coming up with the close encounters classification system for UFO reports.
In 1952, Hynek began to surmise that there was more to the UFO phenomenon than he had previously thought. In August, he submitted a report to the air force titled, “Special Report on Conferences with Astronomers on Unidentified Aerial Objects.” Hynek had decided it would be valuable to get the opinions of astronomers on UFOs and assist in the air force’s investigation into UFOs. In order to get the astronomers’ true opinions, Hynek did not tell them he was involved with the air force. He told them he was just a traveling astronomer visiting observatories to talk about scientific issues. He spoke to forty astronomers at various observatories.
For the most part, Hynek kept the names of the astronomers anonymous, except for those that had already revealed their names in the Life article or had done so to the media in some other fashion. The opinions among the astronomers he spoke to varied. Some thought the topic was a waste of time; others thought that government secrecy on the issue was “stupid.” One astronomer said that if he had seen something he would not tell anyone unless he could remain anonymous and he knew the information was going to a group of scientists for serious research.
Among those who shared their UFO sightings, one had said that he and another astronomer had sighted a group of five “ball-bearing-like” objects moving rapidly during the day. Two years later, he saw a singular similar object. Another astronomer reported that he had seen a light zoom across his field of view that went too fast to be a plane and too slow to be a meteorite. This astronomer pointed out that it is important that scientists do not “fall into the error of believing we understand all physical phenomena.”
Tombaugh and LaPaz were also part of Hynek’s report. Hynek reported that besides the sighting Tombaugh reported to Life, he also shared another sighting that took place at White Sands Proving Grounds just outside of Las Cruces. Tombaugh said that while he was looking through his telescope he saw a luminous object traveling from the “zenith to the southern horizon in about three seconds.”
Tombaugh also offered up the use of his telescope at White Sands to help the U.S. Air Force investigate UFOs. He told Hynek that he would just have to ask the general in charge, but Hynek never divulged whether that request was made.
Hynek wrote that he also asked the astronomers about LaPaz’s findings in regards to the green fireballs seen in the Southwest. Many thought the objects were most likely natural objects, but Hynek said questioning revealed that many of them had little knowledge of the details of the sightings. Hynek agreed with LaPaz that given the descriptions and frequency, the green fireball phenomenon did not exhibit characteristics of astronomical objects.
In conclusion, Hynek found that of the forty astronomers he interviewed, five had reported sightings. Hynek noted that this is a higher percentage than the rest of the population. He speculated that this is perhaps because astronomers watch the sky more often, but also noted that astronomers are less likely to misidentify aerial objects.
Hynek observed that the astronomers he spoke to weren’t particularly hostile towards the idea of UFO investigations. He said that when he described the details of the more mysterious reports, they seemed genuinely interested. He felt their “lethargy” toward the subject was mostly due to a lack of good information. Hynek said their biggest fear seemed to be getting branded as questionable scientists as a result of any association with the UFO topic.
Hynek recommended that the U.S. Air Force officially give UFOs the status of a scientific problem and that a group of reputable scientists be allowed to examine sightings. He felt that such an effort would not only lead towards more answers, but also lend dignity to the issue. He continued to push for serious scientific investigation into UFOs.
Three years after the air force closed down official UFO investigations in 1969, he published his first book on UFOs, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry. In his book, he released his close encounters scale and shared another story on astronomers’ opinions on UFOs. He recounted the story of a reception at which “several hundred” astronomers were in attendance, and where it was reported that there was a UFO being seen outside making strange maneuvers. He said people laughed and made some jokes as usual, but not a single astronomer went outside to investigate. His problem with this was that the lack of investigation didn’t exhibit a true scientific inquisitiveness. He quoted physicist and philosopher Erwin Schrödinger who wrote, “The first requirement of a scientist is that he is curious. He should be capable of being astonished and eager to find out.”
In 1973, Hynek founded the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), an organization of scientists and technical experts. In 1980, they conducted a poll (which included eighteen hundred members of various amateur astronomer associations) and found that 24% responded that they had “observed an object which resisted [their] most exhaustive efforts at identification.”
The Sturrock Report
The U.S. Air Force stopped investigating UFOs based in large part on a study by the University of Colorado in Boulder which was issued in 1969. The study concluded that there was no scientific value in the investigation of UFOs. This report has been dubbed the “Condon Report” in reference to the lead scientist of the investigation, Dr. Edward Condon. In 1970, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) released its own report that was the result of a multi-year study by one of the organization’s subcommittees. The AIAA disagreed with Condon stating, “[we] did not find a basis in the report for his prediction that nothing of scientific value will come of further studies.” In fact, they suggested further study was warranted.
In his book, The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence, Dr. Peter Sturrock, a professor of applied physics at Stanford University, noted that the AIAA report made him wonder if perhaps scientists would be more interested in reports by other scientists. He conducted a small survey amongst the members of the San Francisco chapter of the AIAA, and the results were published in their monthly journal in 1974. Of the twelve hundred members responding, 5% said they had UFO sightings.
Encouraged by the results, Dr. Sturrock sought to perform a larger survey and was given permission by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to poll their membership. Dr. Sturrock wrote that he was pleased to receive a 52% response rate, with only a few rude remarks. In fact, the responses were overwhelmingly supportive. Similarly to his previous study, 5% of AAS members admitted having unexplainable sightings. However, Dr. Sturrock was even more satisfied with the results of this study because they indicated that there was significant interest among astronomers in continued research into the UFO phenomenon. Sturrock summarized: “Each respondent was asked to state his opinion on whether the UFO problem deserves scientific study: 23% replied ‘certainly,’ 30% ‘probably,’ 27% ‘possibly,’ 17% ‘probably not,’ and 3% ‘certainly not,’ which represents a positive attitude among 53% of the respondents, as against a negative attitude among 20%.”
The high number of positive responses surprised Sturrock, as he was expecting the opposite. He had also asked how the AAS members would like to receive information on this subject, and the response was overwhelmingly through scientific journals. However, Dr. Sturrock and his colleagues always had problems getting their papers regarding UFOs printed in mainstream journals. This contradiction prompted Sturrock to help start a new organization called the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE), which publishes a peer-reviewed journal. Of the dozen or so professors that helped found the SSE, seven were astronomers. The SSE is still going strong with a large membership of doctorates. The organization’s website defines it as “a professional organization of scientists and scholars who study unusual and unexplained phenomena. Subjects often cross mainstream boundaries, such as consciousness, unidentified aerial phenomena, and alternative medicine, yet often have profound implications for human knowledge and technology.”
Astronomers and UFOs Today
Interest in the UFO phenomenon hasn’t been a passing fad, and astronomers continue to show interest in UFO research today. In 2011, Irish astronomer Eamonn Ansbro made news when he claimed that he was tracking UFOs. Ansbro said that he is convinced that what he is tracking are extraterrestrial spacecraft. He has even given lectures on the topic to the French government, and his studies have been published by the European Space Agency. He has named his project the Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (OSETI).
He told his local paper, the Roscommon Herald, “We haven’t proven our discovery to the scientific community yet and don’t have the resources but we can show that extraterrestrial space craft are on specific orbital tracks around the earth.”
Interest in the phenomenon also continues in other parts of the world. Astronomers at Canada’s David Dunlop Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario, have been holding lectures on UFOs. The lecturers include astronomers Dr. Ian Shelton and Dr. Tuba Koktay, a husband and wife team, who both worked at the observatory in the past. Dr. Koktay is now a researcher, and Dr. Shelton teaches astronomy at the University of Toronto. Shelton told www.yorkregion.com, “We try to be open-mined and honest, we don’t just dismiss, because we [scientists] don’t know everything.”
Closer to home, Dr. Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer and planetarium director for the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and a nationally renowned astronomer, recently told Lee Speigel of the Huffington Post that he was supportive of serious research on the nature of the UFO phenomenon.
I can speculate about what many astronomers would say if you ask them that question. Many of them would say, “I haven’t seen anything, so I can’t say that they exist. I can’t say that this five percent are alien spacecraft.” But if you ask them in the same breath, “Would you be willing to engage in a research project to figure out what these things are,” I don’t know what that answer would be. I’d say, yeah, let’s find out, let’s take a look at it, because here we have a phenomenon that causes a tremendous amount of interest. Why not try to understand what it is?
The notion that astronomers are not interested in UFOs is false. Hynek, the U.S. Air Force’s own astronomer, who eventually became a pioneer in civilian UFO research, probably had it right when he observed that often scientists are just not informed of the important details. Even Dr. Pitts said his interests were piqued when he read the credible and mysterious UFO cases presented in Leslie Kean’s book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.
Historically, astronomers were the leading force behind investigating and reporting on the UFO phenomenon, and they continue to be the driving force into the research into the UFO phenomenon. Their interest adds credibility to the field and demonstrates that there is at least a sliver of interest in UFOs in mainstream science.
A version of this article originally appeared in Open Minds Magazine Issue 26 June/July 2014.