Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for July, 2010

UFO over Hangzhou, China: a long exposé


“An unidentified flying object (UFO) disrupted air traffic over Zhejiang’s provincial capital Hangzhou late on Wednesday [July 7], the municipal government said on Thursday. Xiaoshan Airport was closed after the UFO was detected at around 9 pm, and some flights were rerouted …

A source with knowledge of the matter, however, told China Daily on Thursday that authorities had learned what the UFO was after an investigation. But it was not the proper time to publicly disclose the information because there was a military connection, he said, adding that an official explanation is expected to be given on Friday.” [source: People’s Daily, July 9, 2010]

And yet, no official explanation has come after more than a week. Though the Internet is still buzzing with speculation about why the Chinese government wouldn’t clarify the case, perhaps the most immediate question should be why should we trust that anonymous source. Did the source really had “knowledge of the matter”? Or was it simply an unreliable source, which may not even exist?

Because, you see, in the case of the UFO that stopped the Xiaoshian airport, no source seems to be reliable.


Identifying the initial photograph

The image that first circulated with the news, seen at the beginning, is described as “a photo taken by a resident in Hangzhou shows an unidentified flying object hovering over Hangzhou, capital of East China’s Zhejiang province, late Wednesday, July 7, 2010. Photo/Metro Express”.

It’s supposedly the UFO in question.

However, as many have quickly pointed out, the photo is simply a long exposure of a common airplane. You can notice the long exposure by the double image more clearly seen in the house at left, but motion blurs are seen everywhere in the image.

Especially in the "UFO”, which is simply a luminous object with blinking lights flying in the sky. Which is just a common jet airplane. The landing lights generate the more intense white streak, while strobing lights on top generate the points which some have misinterpreted as the windows of a spaceship.

The effect is well-known to UFO buffs. The photo below, captured by a long-exposure webcam in Washington, is almost identical, and though it provoked discussion when it first appeared in 2005, other images quickly showed it’s simply an airplane:


Similarly, the photo allegedly captured by a resident in Hangzhou is also simply an airplane. Case closed? Have we identified the UFO? The story is a bit more complicated, because the sources are so unreliable that even when they promote a misidentification, the mistakes may go even further.


Identifying the other photos

As more news reports came up about the case, new photos showed up along. Even ABC apparently swallowed all them up, presenting them along with the case.

All of these other photos, with the exception of a single one, are also simply long-exposure photos of aircrafts, but in this case, helicopters. Not only that, they have nothing to do with China and were published on the web long ago.

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The two photos above, largely circulated with the recent Chinese case, were originally published on the ATS forum by greeneyedleo in April 2010. The amazing thing is that he clearly labelled them as “pictures of helicopter as an example (all I had in my MATS folder)”.

Another image published with the Hangzhou case is actually from Russia, published in 2008:


The actual source of these images was tracked by user “elevenaugust” from the UFOcasebook forum (reply #19). He identifies some other images, none of them from China, having nothing to do with the airport closing.

We can identify these other images as helicopters rather than airplanes because of their characteristic floodlight. The illustrations below, created by Zoucas, member of the Brazilian Center of Ufology (CUB), where Caetano Júlio Neto also helped clarify the case, may help to understand the effect of lights in a moving helicopter captured in a long-exposure of several seconds.



It’s now quite clear what must have happened. To illustrate the news of the Xiaoshan airport UFO incident, several newspapers simply scoured the web for any UFO images that looked like the original Hangzhou photo – which was, in itself, simply a long-exposure photo of an airplane. They found several long-exposure photos of helicopters. And again, with nothing to do with the actual case.



One image that went along with the Chinese case does not involve long-exposure nor an airplane or helicopter.


It does, however, has a simple and clear explanation. It’s the sighting of a Russian Soyuz-U launching a Progress M-06M vehicle to the ISS on June 30, 2010. A week before the Chinese case. Images from the launch can be seen at the NASAspaceflight forum. The spectacular images were captured quite a distance from Baikonur, on Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. And they were also captured on video:

The launch was seen in large areas of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. Another video from a local news report can be seen on KTK.

If on the first photos the nice effect is due to long-exposure, a camera effect, here the effect could be seen by naked eye, caused by albedo, by rocket propellant reflecting the sunlight at great altitude, in particular contrast at twilight, just after the night comes down at ground.

It’s the same light show and effect displayed by the Norwegian and Australian spirals, caused by Russian and American rockets, respectively, and a similar show in Tomsk, Russia, caused by another Russian Soyuz.


So what about the UFO?

With all the images published along with the case explained and identified, the thing is that none of them has any actual relationship with the UFO case discussed, and are therefore completely of no use to identify it. So what caused the closing for around an hour of the Xiaoshan Airport?

“No prosaic explanation can be formulated at present because the basic facts remain garbled”, writes James Oberg at ATS. But he does offer a possible explanation.

According to Oberg, as also quoted by Tim Printy on the latest SUNlite, from the best one can extract from the many conflicting reports, apparently “an airliner coming in for landing around 8:40PM saw an UFO”. From the orientation of the Hagzhou airport runway, one can assume the plane was heading to the airport from the southeast.

“If so, this meant the UFO hovering over the airport was to the northwest/west.  A prime candidate was in the western sky that evening, Venus.”

Could a confusion with Venus fool pilots and air controllers, closing an airport for an hour? “There are some historical analogs that may provide suggested avenues of genuine research”, says Oberg. “Here’s one that immediately comes to mind:” the case of Barnaul Airport in Russia back in 2001.


“As it turned out, the runway that the taxiing aircraft stopped on was pointed directly at the horizon where brilliant Venus was setting. The crew reported "a bright UFO", but never mentioned two bright objects, or a "UFO next to Venus". When Venus set, the crew reported that the UFO had flown away.”

The Russian case is evidence that crewmen and traffic controllers may close an airport due to Venus, as unbelievable as this may sound. We are prone to error, much more than we would like to assume.

Pending further, and much better information, it’s possible that the Hangzhou Airport case may have simply involved a confusion with Venus. Or not. In any event, the media only furthered the confusion by quoting anonymous sources on “military connections” and circulating illustrative images of airplanes, helicopters and even rocket launches seen in Kyrgyzstan.

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[The basic information for this post came from Tim Printy‘s short note on the latest SUNlite]

UPDATE 07/21/2010: Bruce Maccabee takes a look at the photos and confirms that “the images are consistent with being the result of taking nighttime, ‘long’ exposure photographs of a helicopter with a searchlight”. As for what actually caused the airport shutdown, Maccabee is, like Oberg and everyone else, at a loss from the lack of reliable information. “It may have been a ‘military vehicle’ as suggested by recent stories or something else. … We may never know”.

Meanwhile, Michael Naisbitt kindly warned me that one of the photos published associated with the case not only was indeed a time-lapse photo of a helicopter, but it also came from Wikipedia:


As the description informs us, it’s a photo of “helicopters watching for possible rioting or protests following the 2007 presidential election in Lille, France; the helicopter is equipped with a powerful light, which is seen as a line because of the long exposure time of this photo.”

The image was taken on 6 May 2007, by “ChtiTux”.

As if the total mess of sources wasn’t already amazing in itself, now there’s a purported video of the UFO allegedly captured from inside the airplane:

As the folks at ATS have already noted, first, this video also has nothing to do with the Chinese case, as it was already being posted promoted as an UFO captured in 2009. And second, this video may be simply another signalling light on the wingtip:


In the photo above, of an ERJ190 winglet light (also with long exposure), one can get the idea, though it also shows that a winglet light would probably show parts of the winglet. The light source could be another kind of signalling light in the wing. Some have suggested it could be the Moon, but it seems much too bright in my opinion.

What can be said with more certainty is that the lights around the main source (on which the cameraman zooms in) are secondary reflections from the double glazed aircraft window. At 0:59s, when the camera zooms out and moves, you can see the change in geometry of these secondary lights in relation to the main source, characteristic of reflections.

And, again, what we do know for sure is that this video has nothing to do with the Chinese case as it was already on Youtube at least since last year.

Finally, for this update at least, Linda Moulton Howe published an alleged new image which would actually be of the Hangzhou UFO case:


But if you read all down to here, you will probably agree this just looks like another long exposure image – which can be seen from the noise and the details in the very dark houses — of yet another common airplane – with bright landing lights and red signalling lights. And you may also doubt that the photo is even from China, taken on July 7, in Hangzhou. Even if it’s confirmed as being taken when and where the anonymous source claims, this is hardly of much use and interest, unless the case actually involves confusion with an aircraft with the right signalling.

The spontaneous generation of images and videos allegedly of the Hangzhou case reminds of the O’Hare Airport UFO, which also prompted the appearance of fake images. Both cases became newsworthy because they involved somewhat credible facts involving airports. And UFOs. On the other hand, there’s absolutely no image, no video, nothing to illustrate the news reports. Apparently, this situation just isn’t bearable. Thus…

Generatio spontanea.

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Le Serrec’s Sea Serpent photos


This picture gives me the shivers, even though it “has been rather universally labeled a hoax”, as cryptozoologist Loren Coleman points out. Darren Naish over at Tetrapod Zoology wrote an excellent piece back in 2008 on these amazing Hook Island sea monster photos.

It was on Naish’s post that I saw two additional photos that, even knowing they must have been hoaxed, managed to creep me out even further.


Perhaps that has something to do one with the fact one of my terrors since childhood have been giant underwater creatures. But I don’t think I’m alone and the story told by photographer Robert Le Serrec in 1965 that his wife saw this gigantic tadpole-like creature, and he along with friend Henk de Jong got off their boat to get better close-ups and even film this huge 75-80 ft thing is quite unbelievable. According to them, they only returned to the boat when the creature opened its mouth and moved towards them.

The story is highly doubtful even if you don’t take into account that Le Serrec was not a very credible man, that six years earlier he was apparently already talking about making money with a sea-serpent and that according to Coleman even the Interpol was after him.

So, this must have been a hoax, but how he did it? Darren Naish quotes Ivan Sanderson’s suggestions of “either a plastic bag used by the US Navy ‘for experiments in towing petrol’, a deflated skyhook balloon which had become covered in weed, or a roll of cloth which had been tied together in places”.

Naish favors however the idea that “it was a custom-shaped expanse of plastic sheeting, weighted down with sand”, an idea also favored by Bernard Heuvelmans already in 1968.

It’s a very good suggestion. Naish notes how the broken outline of the creature-thing, especially as can be seen in the head close-up photos, show  that “in at least four spots it looks like someone has placed handfuls of sand on top of the edge of the creature: exactly what you would do if trying to weight down a monster-shaped sheet of plastic.”

But this broken outline bothers me. They could be as Naish suggests the result of sand thrown over the black plastic sheet at the bottom of the lagoon, but I tried the best I could to better see the bottom and I would assume the several rocks that can be seen would mark the contour of the creature if it was plastic sheeting weighed down. Apparently, they don’t. The borders go over the rocks, perhaps that’s why Sanderson suggested weed and cloth tied together, because the border is very broken.

Most of the broken outline could be simply due to the water waves distorting the image of the borders of the creature at the bottom. This Japanese video parody of the Le Serrec photo is funny, but it also illustrates that water distortion on the borders:

But there’s another possibility: the whole black streak could be simply thick oil floating over water. If you look at the broken outline, is could composed of patches of oil breaking from the main blob. Here are some images from the oil spill by South Korean tanker Hebei Spirit in 2007.



This spill is on a much, much larger scale, and looks somewhat different from Le Serrec’s photos. But it illustrates the idea. It has its problems, starting from the fact that I don’t know if it would be even possible to get oil in that shape for a couple of minutes, or even longer; if one could make “eyes” by poking holes in the oil floating. Also, Le Serrec’s story actually mentions that the alleged creature was at the bottom of the lagoon, which favors the idea that that was true, only that the creature was a black plastic sheet, as suggested by Heuvelmans and Naish (and also supported by Coleman).

I hope further investigation, analyzing better quality versions of the original photos, and perhaps even some attempts at reproduction on site, would definitely settle how he did it. Naish even mentions rumors that Le Serrec may be still alive and living in Asia – as of 2003.

However he hoaxed this, and as skeptical as I am, the pictures really creep me out.

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Wem ghost photo solved


I’m a couple of months late on this, as even the Daily Mail exposed the case in mid-May, but here it is. As you may remember, we initially thought the intriguing British Wem ghost photo could be an impressive example of pareidolia, but then discovered that Will Stapp from the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, had concluded the face of the ghost had a series of horizontal lines, indicating that it was a hoax.

When confronted with the verdict, photographer Tony O’Rahilly nervously denied having tampered with the image. This was on 1996, just a year after the photo was taken, and it’s interesting that rather than the skeptical verdict and evidence by Stapp from the National Museum of Photography, the photo circulated instead for all these years along with the conclusion by Vernon Harrison, former president of the Royal Photographic Society, that it showed “no sign of having been tampered with”.

A decisive piece of evidence came up on April of this year, when the local paper “Shropshire Starpublished a postcard in its nostalgia section:


"We’re in Wem today with a postcard which was franked on September 11, 1922. Shops visible include Mortons on the left, and Jarvis Ironmongers on the right.  The message on the back of the postcard was: “11.9.22. Dear Shie (? – the writing is difficult to read), This will give you some idea of the quaintness of Wem.  “There are heaps of ideal places to be snapped, but the sun is not too obliging. We are leaving this afternoon for the ‘Grange’. George’s sister telephoned me this morning. Love to all. Reg.”  It was posted to Miss Sewell (? – again, difficult to read), 89 Maring (?) Road, Tooting Common, London. This postcard was published by F. Hiden, Wem.  Picture: Ray Farlow."

If you have a keen eye as reader Brian Lear had, you will recognize the little girl on the left of the postcard. “Her dress and headgear appear to be identical”, he said. A blown up detail comparison confirms that this is no mere similarity or coincidence, it’s an exact match down to every detail.


If you are in still in doubt, check the interactive comparison by Richard Deeson. It’s amazing Lear managed to recognize the little girl from the original low-resolution image.

Unfortunately, photographer O’Rahilly passed away in 2005. But considering the exact match between his ghost photo and a postcard published by a local Wem company and the strange horizontal artifacts seen by Will Stapp in the original negatives, there’s little doubt the photo was hoaxed.

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[The credit goes to Brian Lear, the Shropshire Star, and thanks to Umbriel, José Ildefonso and others who suggested this solution]

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Jacques Vallée: Magonians create crop circles

Beautiful sunlight through clouds

“Angels, demons, fairies, creatures from heaven, hell, or Magonia: they inspire our strangest dreams, shape our destinies, steal our desires.” – Jacques Vallée, “Passport to Magonia

Recently, acknowledged Fortean researcher Jacques Vallée published a series of posts on our cherished BoingBoing regarding crop circles (part 1, 2, 3, 4). News from last year about a directed microwave weapon by the US army prompted Vallée to argue that, since “these things are typically revealed 30 years after they are tested”, their initial development and testing would fit well with the heyday of the crop circle frenzy.

That is, Vallée promoted the idea, which he initially suggested in 1991, that crop circles are made by the military using directed energy systems, beamed from “a low-observable dirigible using corn fields as a convenient calibration target.”

Crop circle 3

But this is the web, 2.0, this was BoingBoing, one of the biggest blogs on the web, and most of the 66 comments were very critical of the idea, several of them considering it even a joke. Most of the comment authors didn’t even know who Vallée was, an indication they had almost no background on the Fortean field.

In his second post, Vallée started saying that the original text was, “among other things, a social science test of the role of belief systems in the manipulation of memes and factual data”. Critical of the response, he then went on to explain why his hypothesis wasn’t a joke.

Curiously, in his own seminal book four decades ago, “Passport to Magonia” (1969), Vallée himself does not take very seriously the idea that Soviets were responsible for crop circles:

“Rumors circulated blaming the Soviets for using the vast open spaces of Australia to develop scientific ideas one or two centuries ahead of those of the Americans. Why the Soviets could not conduct their secret testing in the vast open spaces of Siberia was not disclosed. Neither was it revealed why the pilots of the super-secret communist weapon could not resist the temptation to buzz the tractor of a twenty-seven-year-old banana grower.”

He has changed his mind since at least 1991, but he should be able to understand why people would find it hard to consider seriously the idea that secret weapons would be tested on highly publicized events, besides Stonehenge for instance, instead of “the vast open spaces of Siberia” or anywhere else, and for what reason would the military “not resist the temptation to buzz” some farmers. Or any other witness.

If this was indeed a social science test, it seems nobody did their homework, as apparently no one confronted Vallée on what he had published. But let’s take the idea seriously: does it stand as something reasonable, even probable?

Keep reading for more of our long comment on the subject, with trackbacks to BoingBoing, of course.

Read more

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Explaining the giant holes in Guatemala


They are an amazing sight: even though the initial size figures were eventually corrected to a more comprehensible 66 feet diameter crater, 100 feet deep, those are still impressive and quite regular holes. The one in the image above engulfed a factory in the end of June at Zona 2, Guatemala, while a similar event happened in 2007 a few miles away, Zona 6. Below, an image of the 2007 hole:


While people were puzzled and many joked about these giant holes in the ground, the event in 2007 resulted in two casualties and the one a month ago in one death. Taking this seriously, we have to explain that these features are not mysterious nor have anything to do with “UFO tunnels”. Both features were ultimately the result of intense storms – and it’s an interesting coincidence that the new hole opened after tropical storm Agatha, since Agartha is the legendary city inside the hollow Earth.

These features do not lead to the center of Earth, however, at their bottom a hundred feet down what one finds is quite simply a sewage water collecting system. The infographic below, from Nuestro Diario (June 30th, p.5), illustrates how exactly below the opened hole a water collector tunnel around 10 feet in diameter goes through.


A few days ago a team of geologists also explored the bottom of the Zona 2 hole, you can find the whole Picasa set of photos here. All the soil in the giant hole didn’t disappear magically, it was simply washed away with the water and on to the sewage system. So much so that the sole victim’s body in the Zona 2 hole, Edwin Roberto Velásquez Salazar, was found days later in Las Vacas river, where the water from the collector system ends up.

Not only at the bottom of these giant holes one finds tunnels of the water collecting system: more importantly, perhaps, is that both of these holes were originally vertical shafts, that is, there were already originally vertical holes there, even though they were obviously not that large. Unfortunately many water draining shafts and tunnels were built in the 1950s and some were not properly recorded, and as the city grew some buildings were built over some shafts. That seems to be the case here.

Local geologists suggest then that the heavy water stream from the storm must have damaged the underground collecting tunnels, a problem aggravated by the fact that there was a difference in the level of tunnels. The graphic below (click to enlarge, from Diario de Centroamérica) illustrates, above, the proposed evolution of the holes in the first (above) and second holes.



Add to that that the soil in the city is particularly fragile, basically pumice fill – ash flows made up of loose, gravel-like particles deposited during ancient volcanic eruptions, and there’s no mystery here.

Days after the recent hole, called by many a giant sinkhole, geologist Sam Bonis, who was part of the team that investigated the 2007 case, correctly pointed out that it wasn’t in fact a sinkhole. As he told Discovery News (and National Geographic), "Sure, it looks a lot like a sinkhole. And a whale looks a lot like a fish, but calling it one would be very misleading."

According to Bonis, the hole was rather a “piping feature”, and the further info, photos and graphics here may help understand the giant holes in Guatemala.

Graphic: Nuestro Diario

[Almost all the info for this post comes from the blog “Ciudad Nueva zona 2 Guatemala”, with updated and detailed information on the events. It was suggested to me by friend José Ildefonso, who also provided me with most of the other information on the case]

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