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In popular culture, the term UFO–or unidentified flying object–refers to a suspected alien spacecraft, although its definition encompasses any unexplained aerial phenomena. UFO sightings have been reported throughout recorded history and in various parts of the world, raising questions about life on other planets and whether extraterrestrials have visited Earth. They became a major subject of interest–and the inspiration behind numerous films and books–following the development of rocketry after World War II.
The first well-known UFO sighting occurred in 1947, when businessman Kenneth Arnold claimed to see a group of nine high-speed objects near Mount Rainier in Washington while flying his small plane. Arnold estimated the speed of the crescent-shaped objects as several thousand miles per hour and said they moved “like saucers skipping on water.” In the newspaper report that followed, it was mistakenly stated that the objects were saucer-shaped, hence the term flying saucer.
Sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena increased, and in 1948 the U.S. Air Force began an investigation of these reports called Project Sign. The initial opinion of those involved with the project was that the UFOs were most likely sophisticated Soviet aircraft, although some researchers suggested that they might be spacecraft from other worlds, the so-called extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH). Within a year, Project Sign was succeeded by Project Grudge, which in 1952 was itself replaced by the longest-lived of the official inquiries into UFOs, Project Blue Book, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. From 1952 to 1969 Project Blue Book compiled reports of more than 12,000 sightings or events, each of which was ultimately classified as (1) “identified” with a known astronomical, atmospheric, or artificial (human-caused) phenomenon or (2) “unidentified.” The latter category, approximately 6 percent of the total, included cases for which there was insufficient information to make an identification with a known phenomenon.
Aside from Project Blue Book, the only other official and fairly complete records of UFO sightings were kept in Canada, where they were transferred in 1968 from the Canadian Department of National Defense to the Canadian National Research Council. The Canadian records comprised about 750 sightings. Less-complete records have been maintained in the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, and Greece. In the United States, CUFOS and the Mutual UFO Network in Bellvue, Colo., continue to log sightings reported by the public.
In the Soviet Union, sightings of UFOs were often prompted by tests of secret military rockets. In order to obscure the true nature of the tests, the government sometimes encouraged the public’s belief that these rockets might be extraterrestrial craft but eventually decided that the descriptions themselves might give away too much information. UFO sightings in China have been similarly provoked by military activity that is unknown to the public.
UFO reports have varied widely in reliability, as judged by the number of witnesses, whether the witnesses were independent of each other, the observing conditions (e.g., fog, haze, type of illumination), and the direction of sighting. Typically, witnesses who take the trouble to report a sighting consider the object to be of extraterrestrial origin or possibly a military craft but certainly under intelligent control. This inference is usually based on what is perceived as formation flying by sets of objects, unnatural—often sudden—motions, the lack of sound, changes in brightness or colour, and strange shapes.
“Contact events,” such as abductions, are often associated with UFOs because they are ascribed to extraterrestrial visitors. However, the credibility of the ETH as an explanation for abductions is disputed by most psychologists who have investigated this phenomenon. They suggest that a common experience known as “sleep paralysis” may be the culprit, as this causes sleepers to experience a temporary immobility and a belief that they are being watched.
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