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A promotional poster for the 1950 film "The Flying Saucer."
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updated 9/16/2011 6:04:40 PM ET 2011-09-16T22:04:40

According to an organization that tracks UFO reports, this summer has been an especially busy period for UFO sightings. The Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) noted that sightings increased over the past six weeks, with some states more than doubling their normal numbers.

Are we on the cusp of an alien invasion? Or maybe people just have more time on their hands to spot — and report — strange things in the sky?

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MUFON International Director Clifford Clift told Life's Little Mysteries that he's not sure what to make of the data at this point. It could be the start of something big, or it could merely be a computer glitch that accidentally counted some reports twice. Another possibility is that we're simply in the midst of a "UFO flap," one of many periodic increases in sightings over the years.

There are several reasons UFOs might appear in flaps, or clusters. One is that objects in the sky are usually seen by many people, especially when they appear over urban areas. UFOs typically don't hover close to Earth or in someone's back yard; instead, they are often sighted high in the sky — just far enough away so that we can't see details or get sharp photos.

Thus, whatever a particular UFO really is — a plane, a comet, an extraterrestrial spacecraft or something else — that one object or strange light in the sky could trigger hundreds, or even thousands, of reports. And even reports of the same object will probably differ depending on the reporter's perspective.

So if there were hundreds of UFO reports in a state during a given period, it's important to know how those reports were categorized because it might mean hundreds of different UFOs were sighted by single individuals, or that one UFO was sighted by hundreds of people.

There are also psychological and social explanations. Sightings are often fueled by the mass media; people read about mysterious things or see TV shows about them, and interest or concern about them spreads from person to person. It's not that anyone is hoaxing or making up  sightings: Research has shown that if you tell people what to look for (a phenomenon called "priming"), people will often see what they are looking for — whether those things exist or not.

As Clift noted, "It's likely that the media and (alien-themed) movies that are coming out, like 'Apollo 18 ' and 'Paul,' are piquing people's interest in UFOs." People hear about UFOs, and for a while they tend to look at the sky more often, wondering if they might have their own sighting. And precisely because people are spending more time looking at the sky, they will for the first time notice (normal) lights and objects that have always been there.

So it may not be that UFOs are actually appearing more often, but instead we're noticing them more. An identical process can be found in the medical field, where an increase in reports of a disease may not represent an increase in the actual number of cases, but instead reflects more public awareness of the disease or better screening techniques. In other words, scientists know that just because more people report a phenomenon does not necessarily mean the phenomenon is occurring more often.

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Why might UFOs be seen more often in the summer months? One possibility is that people spend more time outdoors; we spend warm nights outside at parties and barbecues, thus we have more opportunity to notice things in the sky than in the winter when we're inside watching television. That said, Clift pointed out that his organization doesn't normally see such dramatic seasonal increases in reports.

Whether the increase in sightings is rooted in reality, a computer glitch or psychological and social influences remains to be seen. One thing is certain: This is not the first time that UFO reports have increased, and it won't be the last.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

© 2013 LifesLittleMysteries.com. All rights reserved. More from LifesLittleMysteries.com.

Explainer: UFO cases that generate buzz

  • Image: Spiral
    Dagfinn Rapp via Space.com

    UFO investigators see references to rocket ships, aliens and astronauts that go back to the days when humans first put chisel and paintbrush to rock. More than 6,000 years later, objects that are unidentified — at least at first — continue to appear in the skies and generate buzz.

    Take, for example, the blazing pinwheel that appeared in Norwegian skies in December 2009, shown here. The sight sparked speculation that aliens were sending earthlings a signal. Other researchers speculated — and the Russian military later confirmed — that a missile failed.

    NBC space analyst James Oberg says the incident fits into a long tradition of UFO sightings over Russia that are caused by secret military and space activities. Even when there's a prosaic explanation for the sightings, they can provide useful information about covert activities.

    Click onward to learn about seven more UFO cases through time that generated buzz.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • 1897: Did an airship crash in Aurora, Texas?

    MUFON

    In the 1800s, sightings of UFOs, called airships, streamed in from across the United States, according to Mark Easter, a field researcher and international director of public relations for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON. Many of these sightings were explained as hot-air balloons, which were becoming a fad then. A reported UFO crash in Aurora, Texas, however, remains inadequately explained, according to a report by the group.

    Among the evidence recovered during MUFON's investigation is an unusual piece of metal with properties consistent with a crash landing, shown here in a black-and-white view from the report. What's more, remains of the alien pilot are said to be interred at the local cemetery. Requests to excavate the grave, however, have been denied. Why?

    A local historian concluded that the sighting was a hoax meant to drum up interest in the town at a time it was being bypassed by the railroad. Excavating the grave might expose the hoax. Oberg, however, says that cases such as the Aurora crash are immune to disproof — too much time has passed to rely on stories that could would have mutated and been embellished over the years, and there's no remaining physical evidence to study.

  • 1947: The 'flying saucer' sighting

    On June 24, 1947, former World War II pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier in Washington state when he spotted a chain of nine crescent-shaped objects that he said skipped across the air like saucers. Newspaper reporters, erroneously, called them "flying saucers."

    "The phrase 'flying saucers,' which are assumed to be round like a saucer, spread so quickly that people began seeing not what he saw but what the reporters had misdescribed," Oberg said. The technical description of whatever Arnold saw has rarely been reported again, the space analyst added.

    Other researchers, according to MUFON's Easter, put the sighting in the historical context of the post-World War II atomic weapons program. This activity, he notes, could in theory attract extraterrestrial attention. Plutonium for the bombs was processed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation east of Mount Rainier.

    "If there's some surveillance going on, these things, whatever they were, it just makes sense they would be hugging the east side of that mountain when Arnold saw them," Easter said. Doing so, he noted, would have helped shield them from detection by radar.

  • 1947: The Roswell incident

    Justin Norton  /  AP

    Did UFOs crash-land in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947? According to the official line from the U.S. military, the answer is no. At the time, fragments of strange debris collected by a local rancher were explained away as an experimental weather balloon gone awry. In 1994, the military changed its story, saying that the balloon was actually part of Project Mogul, a covert operation to monitor Soviet nuclear blasts.

    Oberg is satisfied with that explanation, but some members of the UFO community view the military's explanation as a cover-up of another kind. MUFON's Easter, for example, lends credence to a theory that the military shot down two spaceships that were checking out nuclear weapons being developed and tested in New Mexico. One crash site was cleaned up before it leaked to the press; the other became known as the Roswell Incident.

    Amid the buzz, one thing is certain: The mystery has generated income for merchants in Roswell who play up the incident, including this unquestionably fake alien on display at a local museum.

  • 1952: UFO buzz hits Washington

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Gail Shumway  /  Getty Images

    By 1952, according to MUFON's Easter, UFO fever was at such a high pitch that sighting reports started to clog telephone networks. The buzz hit a crescendo during two consecutive July weekends with a series of visual and radar sightings over Washington, D.C.

    The military explained the wave of sightings on a temperature inversion, which can cause interference with light and radar. Skeptical members of the UFO community, however, see the time frame as the beginnings of a government-orchestrated mission to squelch the UFO phenomenon by making fun of the people who reported the sightings.

    Oberg says the government was concerned about the flood of calls - it was interfering with communications. Security experts reasoned that enemies could purposely spread UFO panic to tie up lines of communication as they dropped bombs on U.S. cities. Instead of debunking the UFOs - which was an option studied - the military shored up its communications systems.

  • 1967: Malmstrom missile site shuts down

    Robin Loznak  /  AP

    Some UFO researchers say an inadequately explained sighting at a nuclear missile launch site near Malstrom Air Force Base, shown here, in March 1967 bolsters the case for a connection between nuclear weapons development and UFOs.

    According to a MUFON investigation into the matter, retired Air Force Capt. Robert Salas, who was stationed at the site, said sightings of UFOs with pulsating red lights were followed by a rapid shutdown of the missiles' targeting system. The military admits the shutdown occurred, but its own investigation concluded that the UFO sighting was a rumor.

    Oberg says he'd like to know more about the events surrounding this incident. He notes that the tale sounds similar to a case in Russia in which officials used UFOs as an excuse to explain why nuclear equipment was faulty.

  • 1980: A diamond in the sky

    BJ Booth  /  UFO Casebook

    In December 1980, Betty Cash, Vickie Landrum and Vickie's grandson Colby were looking for a bingo game in Texas when a diamond-shaped UFO appeared in the sky. Moments later, the UFO seemed to be escorted away by a fleet of helicopters - some similar to a type used by the U.S. military, according to various accounts of the UFO incident known as the Cash-Landrum Case.

    After the incident, Cash and the Landrums reported symptoms such as nausea and burns that some experts believe to be radiation poisoning. Cash spent more than two weeks in the hospital. The trio sued the U.S. government for compensation, but the case was dismissed because a government connection to the incident could not be shown and the medical condition of the alleged victims prior to the incident remained sealed under privacy protection laws.

    "That was an interesting case in the sense that it was one of these outliers that have a bright light being carried away by helicopters low across the skies," Oberg says. "That's really bizarre and as far as we know, that, if accurately reported, was the only case where that ever really happened."

  • 2008: Did fighter jets chase Texas UFOs?

    NBC Nightly News

    Dozens of people in rural Texas near Stephenville reported seeing a large object with bright lights flying low and fast in the skies on Jan. 8, 2008, apparently chased by F-16 fighter jets. At first, the Air Force denied they had jets in the area at the time. Two weeks later, the military admitted that there were indeed jets in the area, and suggested that the residents might have seen one of the jets as a UFO.

    The admission satisfies some people as a reasonable explanation. Many such sightings turn out to be military operations. Others, however, remain unconvinced that the larger object has been adequately explained.

    Oberg says even he has been fooled by jet overflights. When the line of jets passes overhead, the lights of the leading jet can be seen long before any sound arrives from it. By the time the second and third jets fly over, the roar is evident and it looks as if the jets are chasing the "silent" light out front. "I was shocked by just how gripping, how persuasive, the illusion was that the roaring jets were following a silent light in front," he says.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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