When you see a light in the sky, do you automatically assume it's a plane, satellite, meteor, star, planet or... an alien? If in doubt, would you go so far to say it's a "UFO"? A UFO, by definition, is an "unidentified flying object," not necessarily a vehicle piloted by otherworldly beings. It's unidentified, it's flying, it's an object. It's a UFO!
But really, though you're not saying it's aliens, it's aliens. I know how this works.
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In fairness, in this most recent viral UFO sighting, a Youtube conspiracy theorist points out that a slowly-moving light over the limb of the Earth as seen from the International Space Station could be a meteor. The UK's Mirror.co.uk went one step further to quote another un-credited theorist saying it could also be a Chinese space station. A FOX affiliate reinforced the idea that NASA was covering something up. And as the eerie soundtrack that's been edited over the video suggests, the viewer is left to his or her imagination as to what it could really be.
Though the tabloid press is obviously very impressed with this latest conspiracy, it's fairly obvious what the UFO is. It's not a meteor. Nor is it a Chinese space vehicle (Tiangong-1's orbit is wildly different from the space station's and Tiangong-2 hasn't even been launched yet). And guess what? It's not even a UFO. The blatant obviousness of what the object is makes me wonder why an apparently seasoned ufologist bothered to edit a pixelated zoomed-in video of the orbital oddity.
So what is it?
On July 9, while watching the live feed from the ISS HD Earth Viewing Experiment, Youtube user Streetcap1 saw a bright dot slowly descend toward the Earth's limb apparently just after sunset. As the object appears to touch the top of the atmosphere, it stops and the transmission is cut.
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Firstly, the slow descent quickly told me that this bright object wasn't a meteor.
Sure, meteors have been spotted by astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS before -- there's even research programs focused on the detection of meteors hitting the Earth's atmosphere from space. But most meteors are no bigger than a grain of sand and burn up in the atmosphere in a fraction of a second. The light they produce is caused when a meteoroid slams into the atmosphere at high speed, generating a shock wave through ram pressure. This creates intense heating in front of the meteor, causing it to burn up on entry. Most meteors burn up harmlessly at high altitude, but larger ones my travel further and break apart as the atmosphere gets thicker, erupting as a fireball or bolide. Any fragments that make it to the ground are called meteorites.
Astronauts have to be crazy lucky to photograph meteors from the space station, but it has been done, as seen here: