March 27, 2013 at 10:43 AM ET
A strange sight in the Texas night sky over the weekend had many people talking about fireballs and alien invasions. But, alas, the real culprit has been identified, a much more Earthly one.
Police in East Liberty County got a 911 emergency call at around 8:30 p.m. on Saturday from a person reporting "red fireballs in the sky." Responding police officers, along with a dozen locals, described seeing four orange lights moving slowly in a line high in the sky. Police scopes revealed that the objects looked like hot air balloons — complete with flames — but were much smaller and did not have the signature gondola at the bottom.
Even more mysteriously, the lights were estimated to only be a few thousand feet off the ground, and yet they moved silently. No known airplane or helicopter technology could fly that low and remain so quiet. Within minutes the UFOs were gone, having disappeared into the night. They didn't fly away but instead simply blinked out of existence; some eyewitnesses thought they had vanished behind a passing cloud and would reappear at any moment, but they never did.
Even so, the sighting wasn't over: A second batch of the strange lights soon appeared, in an identical line and in a more or less identical formation, until they too vanished in the same pattern. Baffled police contacted the National Weather Bureau, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies, though none of them could shed light on the mystery. No unusual aircraft appeared on radar, and though weather balloons had been launched earlier that day, they were not aloft in the area at that time — and in any event did not match the UFOs description. The National UFO Reporting Center was also contacted, though they had no information to offer. [UFOs & Psychic Powers: Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]
The Unidentified Flying Objects became IFOs when members of a nearby wedding party informed police that the floating, flaming objects were paper lanterns lit just after their ceremony. Such Chinese lanternsare made of lightweight paper and a candle that provides the heat that lifts the lanterns as well as the light that makes them glow. That explains why there was no aircraft engine sound, and the flamelike appearance. Each lantern represented a wish made by each of the guests for the new couple. The newlyweds apologized if their wish lanterns scared anyone, and the sheriff took it in stride but noted that the lanterns might pose a fire threat, and asked the public to notify police before lighting such lanterns in the future.
This is not the first time that paper lanterns have sparked UFO reports. In October 2011 over a dozen strange lights were seen in the night skies over northern Utah. The UFOs glowed a strange fiery red as they headed north at an estimated speed of about 70 mph (113 km/h), according to one witness. A nearby Air Force base was asked if they had any experimental aircraft, helicopters or planes in the sky. Officials claimed that they knew nothing of the UFO lights, and that no air-training exercises had been conducted at that time. The mystery was solved when students at a local high school mentioned they had launched 16 lanterns just before the sightings occurred as part of a ceremony.
Lights in the night sky — whatever the source — can easily be misinterpreted and mistaken for strange extraterrestrial craft or mysterious weather phenomenon. As always, just because you don't know what a light in the sky is doesn't mean it's unknown or mysterious. And it may just be sending newlywed wishes toward the heavens.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His Web site is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
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