IF YOU HAPPEN TO FREQUENT the more UFO-happy corners of the internet, you’ll see a lot of weird things: exploding blue lights high above the horizon, eerie white specks floating around the Space Shuttle, and something called “space dandruff”.
If you don’t believe your eyes, try scrolling down to the comments. You might find, sprinkled among them, the strangest sight of all: former NASA employee James Oberg, calmly explaining what is really going on.
Oberg worked at Mission Control in the late ’90s, and then became a space journalist and historian. A few years ago, he picked up a new hobby: taking UFOs seriously. Unlike other debunkers, Oberg is less into dismissing theories offhand (an activity he calls “stomping on dormice”) and more interested in figuring out exactly why people react so strongly to outer space images and footage.
To do this, he has combed through decades of supposed UFO sightings, reading eyewitness testimony and cross-referencing it with mission logs. In the process, he’s come to an interesting conclusion: human senses, evolved in and trained on (relatively) slow-moving objects, certain light conditions, and an atmosphere, get thrown into a tizzy when those conditions change. “Our sensory system is functioning absolutely perfectly for Earth conditions,” says Oberg. “But we’re still a local civilization. Moving beyond our neighborhood has been visually confusing.”
Here are three outer space phenomena that Oberg says tend to bamboozle the human eye, and the truth behind them.