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Scientists show how to make a UFO

Astronomers rejected claims that they’re hiding UFO evidence and provided a how-to guide for making doctored photos.
This UFO-like image was created from a picture of the sun and its surroundings, captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.
This UFO-like image was created from a picture of the sun and its surroundings, captured by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.
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The astronomers in charge of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory issued an unusual response Friday to widely reported claims that pictures from the sun-observing satellite contained evidence of alien spacecraft: In addition to scoffing at the claims, they showed how to turn SOHO imagery into UFO snapshots.

THE HOW-TO GUIDE came in the wake of claims from a British-based group called Euroseti that hundreds of UFO-like images had been gleaned from NASA satellite imagery. The claims were picked up by newspapers in Britain and Australia over the past week or two, linking the photographs to SOHO, a $1 billion U.S.-European satellite that observes the sun from a vantage point 1 million miles from Earth.

The Perth Times headlined its article “‘UFO’ on NASA camera,” while the Evening News of Scotland worked the claims into an account that declared “We’re Doomed.”

“The images are irrefutable in that they are from official satellites owned by NASA. They resemble the kind of spacecraft we used to see in sci-fi films like Star Trek,” Graham Birdsall, editor of UFO magazine, was quoted as saying in the Perth newspaper.

Last week, forwarded press reports about the imagery to Paal Brekke, the European Space Agency’s deputy project scientist for SOHO. In response, Brekke said he was aware of the claims and thought they were “quite funny.”

By Friday, Brekke and his colleagues had put together a more elaborate response.

“Ever since launch, there’s been a number of people who’ve projected their fantasies onto the SOHO images, seeing flying saucers and other esoteric objects,” he noted. “Mostly, we’re just amused by the unfounded claims, but in recent days, we’ve been receiving so many questions and claims (in news stories) that we’d like to set the record straight: We’ve never seen anything that even suggests that there are UFOs ‘out there.’ That is, to our (trained) eyes.”

Brekke pointed to the new how-to UFO guide on NASA’s SOHO Web site.

The SOHO team’s technique starts out with a garden-variety image of the sun from the spacecraft’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope. Such images often include tiny marks made by cosmic rays hitting the instrument’s detector. In the SOHO team’s example, one of those marks is enlarged several times, smoothed into a saucerlike shape, then filtered to give it a metallic glint.

The guide said the UFO recipe also could start out with the speck-sized shapes of planets visible on some SOHO imagery, or with marks left because of detector defects, software glitches or space debris.

“It should be noted that we do see objects moving in SOHO images,” the guide said. “Over 500 comets have been discovered in SOHO images, most by amateurs using LASCO data which have been downloaded from the Web. That’s more comets than from any other observatory, either from the ground or in space. People are looking for moving objects in these pictures all the time, and are highly motivated to find them. None of them have ever turned out to be anything other than comets.”

Over the years, NASA has taken various approaches to dealing with conspiracy and UFO claims. In a fact sheet, the space agency notes that no governmental agencies are currently investigating claims relating to alien spacecraft or civilizations. NASA has also disputed repeated claims that the Apollo moon landings were nothing more than Cold War hoaxes, although it recently backed away from commissioning a high-profile refutation of such claims for fear that the effort would stir up more controversy than it was worth.

Brekke and his colleagues acknowledged that hard-core UFO researchers probably wouldn’t accept their detailed explanation for the saucer imagery — but they hoped the new how-to guide would “provide some information for the curious who want to investigate the claims on their own.”