Stargazing: Lights in the sky

Ken Tapping, astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory

Stargazing: Lights in the sky

One night, some years ago I had a phone call from a rather worried-sounding man.

He lived a few kilometres to the north of where I live. He said that his children had come into the house excitedly reporting that there were three disc-shaped objects circling over Giant’s Head, an extinct volcano to the south of his home. He was understandably skeptical but went out to see, and said there were three discs up there, doing exactly what his children said. Giant’s Head lies to my north, so I said I would go outside to look for myself, from the other side of the mountain. There were the three discs, circling in the sky. However, from my side of the mountain, I could see what he and his children could not. A local car dealership had three searchlights pointing into the northern sky, and waving them around, and there was a very thin layer of high, icy cloud, an ideal movie screen.

Every year we get reports of “lights in the sky.” People see something unusual in the sky and report it, and then we try to work out what it might have been. Sometimes we succeed, and often we don’t. Although alien spacecraft cannot be totally ruled out, the main cause of the unresolved reports is not enough information, with the added issue of weeks or months being allowed to pass before making that report. Here are some suggestions.

What does it look like: size, brightness and colour? Note that a bright, starlike object, such as a bright planet like Venus, Jupiter or occasionally Mars, can look bigger in the sky than it really is. Where is it in the sky? If you know your constellations, sketch its position with respect to at least three identified bright stars. Otherwise give the position as a compass bearing and elevation (angle above the horizon); for example, southwest, 30 degrees elevation. To estimate angles, use your hand at arm’s length. Hold your thumb and little finger as far apart as you can get them. From thumb tip to fingertip spans about 25 degrees. The tip of your index finger to the tip of your little finger is around 15 degrees. The width of a clenched fist is about 10 degrees. Three middle fingers together span around 5 degrees, and the width of your little finger is roughly one degree. “Guesstimates” made by eye are usually useless. Note the time and date.

Is it moving? In what direction? How fast? Use the hand angle technique and a watch. Is it moving on a fixed course? Manmade satellites cross the sky at about the same speed, or slower than high-altitude airliners. Unless it has to be otherwise, satellites are generally launched eastwards to pick up a free 1,000 km/h from the Earth’s rotation, so we see them crossing the sky in a very roughly west-east direction. Some satellites are launched into polar or near-polar orbits, crossing the sky in a roughly north-south direction. If it seems not to be moving, note where it is with respect to a flagpole, chimney, tree or some other reference feature and check again an hour later, from the same location. If it has moved a bit to the west it is probably a celestial object, like a star or planet.

The Earth is orbited by a large number of satellites with highly reflective antennas. These can catch the sunlight and reflect it in your direction. You will see something slowly moving across the sky, brightening until it is unbelievably bright, and then fading away to invisibility after a few seconds.

If you see something odd in the sky, check all the things listed here, plus anything else you notice, and write it down as soon as possible. Record the accurate time and date. Without this, nothing much can be done with your observation. Finally, report it promptly. Then your information can be combined with any other reports, with a higher chance we will be able to find out what you saw.

After dark, Venus lies low in the west, Jupiter in the southwest and Saturn in the Southeast. Mars, bright and red, rises about 11 p.m. The moon will be new on the July 12.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, B.C.

Just Posted

Fruit farmers in the Okanagan and Creston valleys are in desperate need of cherry harvesters amid COVID-19 work shortages. (Photo: Unsplash/Abigail Miller)
‘Desperate’ need for workers at Okanagan cherry farms

Fruit farmers are worried they’ll have to abandon crops due to COVID-19 work shortages

Earls On Top at 211 Bernard Avenue in Kelowna. (Google Maps photo)
Downtown Kelowna’s Earls ordered closed after COVID-19 transmission

Earls on Top on Bernard Avenue will be closed from June 18 to June 27

Danny Fulton receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Coast Capri Hotel on April 27. The pop-up clinic was hosted by the First Nations Health Authority. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Drop-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic planned for Kelowna

Clinic at Kelowna Secondary School from June 22 to 24 from 1 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Dereck Donald Sears. (Contributed/Crimestoppers)
Murder charge laid in relation to suspicious Kelowna death

Dereck Donald Sears is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Darren Middleton

A motorycle crash has been reported on Westside Road. (Google Maps)
UPDATE: Westside Road reopened following motorcycle crash near Vernon

AIM Roads advises drivers to expect delays due to congestion

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Jeanette Megens
KCR: Volunteering is sharing your story

Kelowna Community Resources shares stories of its volunteers in a weekly column

(File photo)
Penticton not holding Canada Day activities out of respect for Indigenous people

Cities across B.C. are cancelling the holiday after an increased spotlight on Canada’s dark history

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Most Read