Unidentified Flying Planet

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending December 14, 2013

One of the other planets orbiting the sun shines brighter than almost everything else in the sky. It’s been around since before people were here to look up at it. You might think such an old and bright object would be recognizable. But it’s often not. Chances are, you’ve been in a conversation with people wondering what some dazzling object up there is. And if you recognize the planet Venus, chances are you knew that’s what it was.

People who investigate unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, somewhat often conclude that someone saw the second planet from the sun. Even though Venus was probably in nearly the same place for several nights or mornings, it got mistaken for something that hadn’t been there before. And even though it pretty much just hangs there in the sky while rising or setting with the stars behind it, Venus is described as moving around. Some people have thought it was coming toward them!

Don’t be too quick to think that only a fool could mistake a planet in the sky for something moving around. Some very respectable people have made the mistake. One is a former U.S. president. He wasn’t president yet, but the incident inspired him to make a campaign promise when he asked for that job.

It was in 1969 when former state legislator, former gubernatorial candidate, and then Lion’s Club District Governor Jimmy Carter was going to speak to a Lion’s Club meeting in Leary, Georgia. He was with a group of people outside a nearby restaurant when someone noticed a light in the sky. Carter said the light changed colors, moved toward them, then backed away and disappeared. It had come as close as perhaps 300 yards. He estimated it to be 30° above the ground in the west.

As with so many UFO reports, Carter’s has a few problems. The biggest is that he didn’t formally report it to anyone until about four years later. Memories had changed, including his own. He told a UFO investigator it happened in October 1969. However, the Lion’s Club says his speech was in January that year. Also, there were about ten people with Carter who saw the object with him, according to his statements in the 1970s. Only one recalled looking at a light in the sky with Carter. That other witness didn’t think there was anything unusual about the light.

Carter was Georgia’s governor when he made the report with a group called the International UFO Bureau. A few years after that, news of Carter’s UFO report became presidential campaign news. By 1976, there was a common belief that the U.S. government knew exactly what was behind three decades of UFO reports but was keeping secrets. Carter promised to encourage the government to make such information public. He won the election, but changed his mind about declassifying all the UFO secrets.

Years later, Carter said about 25 people were with him. That’s more of an indication that his memory of the event had changed. For what it’s worth, he also has said he didn’t believe it was an alien spacecraft.

Many UFO investigators today believe the former president saw Venus. Carter himself doesn’t think so. He describes himself as an amateur astronomer who knows what Venus looks like. Even so, one can argue that a familiar object can look unfamiliar in strange circumstances. Airplane pilots who know what other aircraft look like have mistaken Venus for airplanes coming toward them at night.

Take a look at Venus for yourself and try to imagine mistaking it for something else. It’s in the southwest after sunset this month. And if the weather’s just right, the atmosphere might act like a giant flexible lens and play a trick on you so you think the planet’s changing colors or moving around.