Image: Missile display
Liu Jin  /  AFP - Getty Images
Visitors pass by a Chinese missile on display at a military museum in Beijing. China has said it successfully tested a missile intercept system, in what analysts said was a show of its advanced air defense capabilities.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 1/15/2010 9:06:54 PM ET 2010-01-16T02:06:54

In an ironic encore, yet another secret military missile test has sparked widespread UFO reports from surprised ground witnesses.

On Dec. 9, a Russian Bulava missile was launched from a submarine within sight of northern Norway, resulting in a spectacular spiral display and a spate of UFO sightings.

This week's UFO reports apparently were sparked by a Chinese missile that was fired to intercept another missile in flight, for the first time in the nation's history.

Witnesses in China's inland provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu weren’t as well equipped with cameras as last month's Norwegian witnesses were, so the only images reaching the West merely show fuzzy-colored clouds and streaks. The military secrecy surrounding China's missile test is so tight that Beijing officials seem to be at a loss as to how to respond to the reports.

As with December's Russian missile test, cases such as these underscore how important it is for intelligence agencies to seek out and evaluate reports of unidentified flying objects from countries of interest. For decades, such reports from the Soviet Union and China might have provided hints about top-secret military missiles and space weapons. The stories would be most valuable precisely because the unidentified flying objects were not true “UFOs” at all.

Great leap for China's missile shield
China’s latest military space maneuver came to light on Monday when a single-sentence news item was released by the Xinhua news agency. “China conducted a test on ground-based midcourse missile interception within its territory on Monday,” Xinhua reported. An hour later, two sentences were added: “The test has achieved the expected objective. The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.”

No other details have been released. The names, or even the generic types, of missiles weren’t given. The locations of the two missile launches — for the target and the interceptor — were never specified, nor was the time of their launches. In contrast, Moscow quickly provided such data for last month's missile test.

Speculation in the Western press went on for days without converging on any consensus, except that the warhead had been a ‘hit-to-kill’ guided missile, probably closely related to the anti-satellite warhead used three years earlier to smash a derelict Chinese satellite. The altitude of the intercept and the maximum speed of any target missile was not clear.

Hints from the hinterland
Chinese military officials are well aware of the extent to which the U.S. military officials (and to a lesser degree the Russians) keep a close watch on their activities. China has an active program of camouflage and misdirection to hide their secrets.

Civilian UFO reports, however, don't always follow the program. UFO Web sites in China and overseas began picking up detailed reports from ground observers, telling of an amazing celestial light show that occurred about an hour before Beijing's first official announcement.

Six real-life 'X-Files'At a coal mine in eastern Xinjiang, an engineer named Ma reported: “I and my 45 colleagues from the mine came out. I suddenly sensed the color of the sky becoming ever brighter. In the southwest there were clusters of green, moving toward the east slowly. …  Blue light issued waves that rotated for several minutes, and then came down on a nearby mountain.” 

A man named Daw who lives in Mori county, on the Mongolian border, said: "My friends and I  were walking home. Suddenly we saw the sky had a bright spot in the west, it was spinning in clockwise movement toward the south. It was surrounded by a white fog that constantly expanded. In the center there also appeared a blue iris that expanded, then gradually faded and finally disappeared. "

A man named Shi who worked in the Grand Canyon Park in Xinjiang's Tian Shan Mountains said "there was a light in the sky, a light blue ball, a horizontally fast-moving ball of light. Then it collided with an unknown object, resulting in an explosion, and this produced two white circular light waves."

A worker at the Jiuquan space center in Gansu province provided a detailed report about a "white circular structure about the size of dozens of moons." The worker said the display "quickly expanded to half of the sky, and then gradually faded."

After wondering whether the flash was a nuclear explosion, the worker said "my colleagues and I then guessed that it may be an alien voyager from another planet." The display lasted just two or three minutes, the worker said.

Decoding the narratives
Space and missile experts will now be working with these and other stories, and with whatever photographs manage to slip out of China. The information may help supplement much more detailed measurements from U.S. military assets. The result could provide significant insights into the nature of the interceptor’s kill mechanism and the range of its potential target missiles.

Some caution is still prudent. So far there's no confirmation from U.S. military intelligence sources that the Chinese missile test did in fact occur at about 8 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) on Monday, when the UFO sightings were made. However, the timing is consistent with the way Beijing released information about the test.

It might turn out to be a complete coincidence, and the reports might be due to something else entirely — even a real flying saucer. But the Chinese have a long history of reporting space and missile events as UFOs, and with the Norway experience so fresh in our minds, reaching a similar conclusion is reasonable.

The eyewitnesses got quite a thrill, as have UFO buffs who are welcoming this latest news as further proof of the imminence of alien arrivals on Earth. The Chinese military teams who pulled off the intercept have every reason to feel proud of the successful mission.

If the UFO reports and the missile test reports indeed refer to the same event, the people least happy about the whole affair could well be China's security forces — who may have seriously underestimated how well their own people are watching the skies, and how quickly they can report their observations.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of nine books on space policy and phenomena, including "Space Power Theory" and "UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries."

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