Apparently, the pageantry surrounding the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was so entertaining even extraterrestrials couldn't resist checking it out. At least that was the scoop from The Sun, a British tabloid. It ran stills lifted from a two-and-a-half minute video clip shot by a visiting tourist that showed a blurry blob the paper characterized as a "shimmering white object" hovering in the cloudless sky over Westminster Abbey on the morning before the wedding. "It changed shape, but stayed there for at least 30 minutes," the tourist explained in an Internet posting. "Then I lost sight of it."
Skeptics might explain the ambiguous images as lens distortion, vapor trails from an aircraft, or perhaps just wishful thinking. But to believers in UFOs, the sighting provided yet another chapter in the vast annals of possible sightings of alien visitors. The National UFO Reporting Center, which makes its headquarters in a former underground nuclear bunker in Harrington, Wash., posts an estimated 5,000 new sightings annually to its online database, and maintains records on as many as 70,000 potential glimpses of extraterrestrial visitors, going back to the 1950s, according to Seattle Weekly. But UFO believers say that reported sightings go back as far as ancient times, when the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel described seeing fiery wheels touch down on land, apparently piloted by strange creatures with animal faces.
Evaluating the credibility of UFO sightings is a daunting task, since the absence of a clear-cut explanation for an incident doesn't automatically prove that an object is of alien origin, and there's often a paucity of physical evidence or data from scientific instruments available to bolster witnesses' visual observations. But as any student of physics will tell you, there's no such evidence to prove quantum mechanics either, and yet scientists nevertheless seem confident that it's real. With that in mind, here are 10 of the most interesting, provocative, influential possible alien sightings on record. Draw from them whatever conclusions you like.
10: Circa 600 B.C. -- Ezekiel's Wheels in the Sky
In the 6th century B.C., the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, who was 30 years old at the time, was walking along the Kebar River, probably in what is now Iraq, when he saw an immense storm cloud coming out of the north, surrounded by lightning. In the center, he saw what looked like glowing metal, and four winged creatures who each had multiple humanoid and animal faces. According to Ezekiel 1:1-28, when the visitors landed, Ezekiel saw that each of the visitors was riding on what "appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel." The vehicles moved with the creatures, rising with them as they rose from the ground. Above the creatures was "what looked something like a vault, sparkling with crystal, and awesome," which contained a seated humanoid figure who seemed to be made of glowing metal from the waist up.
Ezekiel took it to be a vision of God accompanied by angels, but modern UFOologists, noting the similarity between the creatures' vehicles and more recent descriptions of flying saucers, have questioned whether what he observed was actually a visit by extraterrestrials.
9: 1561 -- UFO Dogfight over Nuremberg
Two German broadsheets -- the 16th-century equivalent of newspapers -- now preserved in a Zurich library depict a bizarre incident that occurred on April 16, 1561, in the skies over Nuremberg, Germany. An eyewitness, professional illustrator Hans Glasser, made an engraving that shows a variety of enormous objects -- globes, airplanelike flying crosses, and long cigar-shaped tubes -- flying overhead and engaging in aerial combat. Two of the objects in the illustration have crashed and left smoking wreckage on the ground.
Glasser wrote that "this dreadful apparition occurred on the sun, and this was seen in Nuremberg in the city, before the gates and in the country -- by many men and women." He notes that "the globes flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour … they became fatigued to such an extent that they all … fell from the sun down upon the earth as if they all burned, and then eventually wasted away on the earth with immense smoke." In his book "Flying Saucers -- A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky," early 20th-century psychoanalyst Carl Jung speculated that the scene described by Glasser actually was some sort of symbolic vision, summoned up from mankind's collective unconscious. But UFOologists suspect that he actually was describing a conflict between different groups of space aliens.
8: 1639 -- UFO over Massachusetts
The precise day is lost, but sometime in 1639, Massachusetts colonial governor John Winthrop recorded in his journal what may be the first-ever UFO sighting from United States soil: "One James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River," Winthrop wrote, using the then-common name for the Charles River, which flows through the Boston area.
The object, which Winthrop recounts was about 9 feet long (2.7 meters), ran "as swift as an arrow" up and down the length of the river for two to three hours. At times, the object contracted -- oddly, into what witnesses described as "the shape of a swine." Lest we assume that Winthrop was delusional or telling a tall tale, he assures us that "Divers(e) other credible persons saw the same light, about the same place." James Savage, who edited Winthrop's journal in 1835, attributed the sighting to "some operation of the devil," but UFO enthusiasts see it as a possible account of an extraterrestrial visit.
7: 1860 -- Fiery Red Balls Buzz Delaware
Weird stuff is supposed to happen on Friday the 13th, but this incident might be the weirdest of all. On the evening of July 13, 1860, virtually the entire city of Wilmington, Del., was lit by a pale blue light, and residents looked into the skies to see what appeared to be a 200-foot-long (61-meter) object flying about 100 feet (30 meters) over them. A contemporary news account in the Wilmington Tribune reported that the object "moved in a straight line without any inclination downwards" and gave off "sparkles in the manner of a rocket."
The UFO apparently had an entourage. It was preceded by a pitch-black cloud flying in front. And bringing up the rear, about 100 feet (30 meters) apart, were three "very red and glowing balls." As the object turned toward the southeast over the Delaware River, a fourth red glowing ball appeared. After eight minutes, the mysterious object turned east and disappeared from view, according to "The UFO Book of Lists."
6: 1942 -- The Battle of Los Angeles
We're not referring to the recent cinematic sci-fi thriller, but to an actual event that occurred in the early days of World War II, shortly after a Japanese submarine surfaced near Santa Barbara and fired 15 shells at an oil facility. While the only attack against the U.S. mainland didn't do any damage, it put anti-aircraft batteries in California on edge. Thus, when radar picked up an unidentified object 120 miles (193 kilometers) to the west of Los Angeles in the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 1942, operators watched anxiously as what they assumed to be a Japanese aircraft zoomed to within a few miles of the coast, only to vanish suddenly from their screens.
According to the book "The Air Raid Warden Was a Spy," sometime after that, an artillery officer along the coast reported seeing what he believed were 25 aircraft flying at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) over the city of Los Angeles, and a few minutes later, others saw a balloonlike object carrying what appeared to be flares over adjoining Santa Monica. The anti-aircraft batteries then erupted in a fury, firing 1,400 rounds of ammunition at what various witnesses later described as "swarms" of objects, flying at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour) at altitudes from a few thousand to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). Oddly, none of the fire hit anything, because no wreckage was found afterward, and 40 P-38 fighters who arrived soon afterward to defend the city found no enemy aircraft to fight. The official explanation was a false alarm, exacerbated perhaps by mass hysteria -- though some also suspected a clever psy-op staged by the Japanese, using civilian light aircraft launched out of the Mexican desert. But believers in UFOs wonder if extraterrestrials were the real explanation.
5: 1947 -- The First Flying Saucer
On June 24, 1947, while flying his two-seater plane near Mt. Rainier in Washington state, aviator and businessman Kenneth Arnold saw nine otherworldly objects flying in a formation. Arnold described the objects as flat and shaped like pie plates, "with a sort of convex triangle in the rear," and said that they moved erratically, like a fish flipping in the waters of a stream. Newspapers modified Arnold's description to the catchier-sounding "flying saucer," and a new pop culture term was born, according to a local Idaho newspaper.
The U.S. Air Force dismissed the three-minute-long sighting as an optical illusion, but UFO believers weren't dissuaded. Though Arnold tried to stay out of public attention, in 1977, he did make a rare appearance at an international conference on UFOs in Chicago, where he added additional detail. The objects were shiny and pulsating, he recalled, and had been moving as fast as 1,700 miles per hour (2,736 kilometers per hour). He also said that they "seemed to be alive in the center, to have the ability to change their density." According to the Associated Press, he was careful to add: "I know that sounds strange."
4: 1952 -- Extraterrestrial Tourists Visit the U.S. Capital
At 11:40 p.m. on July 19, 1952, an air traffic controller at Washington National Airport spotted seven unidentified objects on the radar screen, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) to the southwest of the nation's capital city. "Here's a fleet of flying saucers for you," he jokingly told his supervisor, according to the Washington Post. But the mood changed to high alarm when a second controller at another facility revealed he not only had the objects on his screen, but could see "a bright orange light" through the window of his control tower. Pretty soon, other objects on the screen were moving toward the White House and the U.S. Capitol building.
Shortly after that, an airman at nearby Andrews Air Force Base reported seeing a strange orange ball of fire, similar to what one of the controllers had described, followed by a second ball. At 12:30 a.m., one of the objects buzzed a runway at National, and another controller got a glimpse of it. He described it as an orange disk, and said that it hovered at 3,000 feet (914 meters) over the airport before disappearing.
When jet fighters from a base in Delaware scrambled to confront the apparent intruders, the objects mysteriously vanished, only to reappear after the fighters had run low on fuel and returned to base. Finally, they left the area just before sunrise. A civilian radio engineer in the suburbs described them as five large disks, flying in loose formation. After a repeat visit by what appeared to be similar objects on July 26, President Harry Truman called Capt. Edward J. Ruppelt, the supervisor of the Air Force's Project Blue Book, a secret probe of UFO reports, and asked him to find out what was going on. Ruppelt told the president that the objects on the radar screen probably were a false reading, caused by a temperature inversion in the atmosphere. That explanation, of course, didn't account for the eyewitnesses. Subsequently, though the Air Force continued to insist that nothing untoward had happened, the White House reportedly gave a shoot-down order if the objects returned.
3: 1974 -- Ronald Reagan sees a UFO
When former President Jimmy Carter revealed that he'd seen a UFO, he was the subject of widespread mockery. But it largely escaped notice that the man who eventually would succeed Carter in the White House, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, also had once seen a mysterious object in the sky.
In 1974, by various accounts, Reagan was being flown over Bakersfield in a small plane when he and his pilot both spotted a glowing white light, several hundred yards away in midair. The object subsequently changed shape and became elongated, and then gained speed and disappeared. Reagan made little mention of the incident thereafter in his political career, but there are hints that his apparent close encounter influenced his thinking. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 1987, he lamented the lack of a common cause to unite countries and compel them to work together. "I occasionally think, how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside the world," he said.
2: 1997 -- The Phoenix Lights
On the night of March 13, 1997, a Phoenix man named Tim Ley and his family looked north out the windows of their Phoenix home and saw an array of unusual lights in the sky that seemed to be moving in their direction. As they watched, the array flew directly over them, and they got a good look at what appeared to be an enormous V-shaped craft, several city blocks across.
After an investigation, the U.S. Air Force came up with an explanation: The lights actually had been flares dropped by an aircraft in training exercises at a nearby base. But that explanation failed to satisfy many people who'd seen the flying V -- including then-Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, who himself had seen the mysterious sight. "I'm a pilot and I know just about everything that flies," he explained in a 2007 news conference. "It was bigger than anything that I've ever seen."
1: 2008 -- Aliens in North Carolina
On the evening of Feb. 20, 2008, at about 10:40 p.m., a 47-year-old former U.S. Army helicopter pilot was outside his home in Fayetteville, N.C., watching the lunar eclipse from his front porch. In a report filed with the National UFO Reporting Center, he notes that he suddenly noticed a bright, round object that "clearly was not a naturally formed object," traveling in a straight line from the left side to the back side of the moon, in what appeared to be a straight line toward the Earth. The object then made a 90-degree turn to the former pilot's right, directly in front of the face of the fully eclipsed moon. After that, it suddenly disappeared to the moon's right side. The entire event lasted less than five seconds.
The witness, who assures he is "not a UFO nut" and has 20/12 and 20/15 vision in his eyes, recounted: "This object made intelligent turns and in relation to the position of the moon, was travelling at a fantastic rate of speed." His name was redacted from the report for privacy reasons.