No UFO — But Maybe Sprites

My “infamous UFO” photograph is history. Now I know it shows an IFO, an identified flying object. But it could be a strange kind of IFO.

In my last posting, I shared this picture —

— which I took at the Wedge Overlook, Emery County, about 3 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2001. I used my old Nikon camera with a short telephoto lens, mounted piggy-back on my telescope. The telescope was tracking the stars, and the exposure was probably a bit less than nine minutes. The view is drastically cropped, and I tilted it to correspond to the correct orientation.

I had seen flashing in the distance, and I took several views; this is one, cropped to the object and corrected for tilt. (The sky looks green because of a failure of the color film in a long exposure.) I do not remember thunder and I didn’t mention thunder in the journal entry I wrote later that day.

Stephen Peterson, commenting on the UtahAstronomy newsgroup, noted, “Perusal of archived weather data for 15 Sept 2001 0700Z show rain on the W. Colorado/ E. Utah border about the latitude of Moab.”

He wrote, “From the ‘strobing’ it would appear that the lighting was fairly regular and/or the storm didn’t move much during the photo. Joe was on track by calling it thunder storm, I would agree that a T-storm is the most likely explanation.”

Patrick Wiggins, my astronomy guru, passed the blog along to KSL-TV meteorologist Dan Pope, who provided some fascinating insight into storm phenomena, as well as his personal conjecture about the photo. We should remember this is only his subjective (though educated) guess, “but it might explain why there was light coming onto the cloud(s) rather than emanating from within,” he wrote.

“The object appears to me to be a cloud…possibly ‘blow off’ from a distant thunderstorm,” Pope said.

“Remember that thunder usually doesn’t travel more than 10 miles…maybe 15 miles under perfect conditions…so Joe wouldn’t have necessarily heard thunder. In fact, I doubt he heard any thunder because this object is many, many miles from his location near Moab. If it is more the ‘blow off’ or the ‘mushroom’ part of a thunderstorm, the parent thunderstorm would probably have been over the Book Cliffs or maybe Wasatch Plateau.

“The cloud itself probably did not contain any of the lightning, because it was distant from the parent thunderstorm (I think anyway, but give me latitude for error). Also, we know that lightning not only hits the ground, but it flashes within the cloud and also goes cloud to cloud; but it also rises many miles up into the atmosphere in what has been dubbed ‘sprites’. The Shuttle astronauts took pictures of this type lightning, and it has been heavily studied since they first saw it from space.”

He forwarded a link to a scientific article with photographs of sprites, which are associated with thunderstorms. They are extremely short-lived flashes that streak upward from the tops of thunderclouds, reaching into the ionosphere, according to NASA. They look a little like eerie chicken feet made of stringy material, growing more complex as they develop.

According to Pope, sprites are among the most common of what are called mesospheric transient luminous events. They last only 200 or 300 milliseconds and are best seen from 100 to 300 miles away. That “might explain why the photograph in question has light emanating onto rather than within the object,” he said.

Pope kindly added, “Just my observation from more of a meteorological sense. Still, a very interesting article and picture!”

HERE is the scientific report he indicated.

Searching the Internet, I found a 1999 NASA press release about sprites. CLICK HERE.

Interestingly, the sidebar with the release, “How to Look for Sprites,” has a set of photos that were assembled into a brief movie. Should someone take a long exposure of a series of flashes like that, while a camera tracked the stars, the result might look a lot like my photo.
If I could find my negatives I would study this further, because I took other pictures of the flashing object. But I think the men in black stole them.

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