Google, it is cheekily said, knows everything — even, apparently, the origin of an unidentified flying object (UFO).
On Oct. 16, 2012, residents of Pike County, Ky., looked high in the sky to find a strange sight. Amateur astronomer Allen Epling described it to a local reporter as looking "like two fluorescent bulbs, side by side, parallel, shining very brightly."
"It would get so bright they would seem to merge, and you could see it very clearly with the naked eye," Epling said. "Then, it would dim down almost invisible ... It wasn't anything I recognized. Definitely not an airplane, and I've never seen a helicopter that looked like that."
Epling wasn't the only one who noticed; police in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee got phone calls from concerned citizens. Calls were made to nearby airports, but government officials could shed no light on it. The unidentified flying object, estimated to have reached an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), remained more or less stationary for hours, suggesting that it was tethered to the ground somehow, or hovering under its own power. [ 7 Things Most Often Mistaken for UFOs ]
And now, the origin of the bright bulbs has been found.
Explanations and speculations
Alien spacecraft were, of course, suspected. The most likely explanation — a balloon of some sort — was floated, but led to further mystery and shadowy speculation. What entity placed it there, and what was its purpose? Was it spying on unwitting Americans?
Or was it sampling — or even creating — so-called "chemtrails," those lines in the sky that resemble normal airplane contrails but are suspected of being anything from extraterrestrial signals to mind-control experiments to weather-controlling machinery? Many thought top-secret chemical agents were involved, which raises the question of what possible purpose the chemtrails would serve. As Bob Carroll notes in his book "The Skeptic's Dictionary" (Wiley, 2003), "Any biological or chemical agents released at 25,000 feet [7,600 m] or above would be absolutely impossible to control, making any measurement of effects on the ground nearly impossible. ... Such an exercise would be pointless, unless you just wanted to pollute the atmosphere."
Besides that, the fact that the U.S. government didn't know — or, depending on your point of view, claimed not to know — what the object was simply fueled the speculation. Obviously, whatever was that big and high up in the sky was not put there by a hobbyist, and if no one at the Air Force or Pentagon truly knew what it was, perhaps a private company, or maybe even a foreign power, was behind it. The reports and news faded away, but the mysterious object hung like a question mark in the sky.
Now, an article in Wired magazine has revealed the secret behind the mysterious craft: a Google-financed tech endeavor code-named Project Loon. "The people in Pike County were witnessing a test of Project Loon, a breathtakingly ambitious plan to bring the Internet to a huge swath of as-yet-unconnected humanity — via thousands of solar-powered, high-pressure balloons floating some 60,000 feet above Earth," wrote Wired's Steven Levy.
The balloons stayed aloft for 11 days before reaching Canada, Levy reports.
The Project Loon balloons, while providing fodder for UFO websites and conspiracy theorists, travel "on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps and bring people back online after disasters," according to the project's website. The solar-powered balloons would circle the planet, floating in rings about 12 miles (19 kilometers) above Earth in the stratosphere (about twice the altitude at which commercial airplanes fly). "People connect to the balloon network using a special Internet antenna attached to their building. The signal bounces from balloon to balloon, then to the global Internet back on Earth," the website reads.
The result? Low-cost Internet access.
So the mysterious UFO was, indeed, the result of a technologically advanced civilization, but it seems that civilization comes in peace and is here to help us — or at least provide affordable Wi-Fi to rural populations.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" and "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.