Twinkle Twinkle Little UFO

As a child I was amazed every time I’d look up at the stars. Even now looking up on a dark starry night evokes a sense of wonder. The vast sea of twinkling stars is awe inspiring. It seems so incomprehensible, so magical and mysterious. Looking up is our personal view into space. What could be out there? It’s not all a mystery, but much of it still is.

Star gazers enjoy gathering to look up and witness the celestial dome in groups. Star gazing is a way to socialize, commune with the universe, and catch the occasional shooting star or satellite. it is a time to revel in the majesty of a grand, mysterious universe that science is still learning about. Through science we understand a lot more than our ancestors did about those bright twinkling things in the sky but the mystery, reverence and excitement are indisputable, and contagious.

This contagious excitement happens at UFO watch parties too. Like star gazers, UFO watchers gather for the social aspect and are intrigued by the grand spectacle of the stars above. Unlike most star gazers though, UFO watchers have a specific goal: to see UFOs. They want to, most of them expect to, and many are predisposed to seeing so-called unidentified flying objects.

This article doesn’t attempt to explain daylight silver disc-shaped sightings, triangular objects, landings or crashes that some people claim to have witnessed. I’ll save those for another time. The point of this writing is to suggest an explanation for flickering lights seen in the sky that some UFO enthusiasts claim to be unknown objects maneurvering in ways that defy the known laws of physics. There have been many accounts of spinning, blinking and flickering UFOs that change colors and zip around the sky, zig-zagging in view finders of binoculars and cameras alike.

My proposal is this: they are stars. But of course what might seem obvious to one person is not so obvious to another.

Not long ago I was watching a documentary on UFOs and one segment included two guys who were utterly amazed by the blinking and color-changing UFOs they were watching through their video camera and binoculars. The video of these objects wasn’t convincing to me. I’ve seen this phenomenon before when aiming my own camera at certain small objects and zooming in. What I was seeing on the television screen was, in my opinion, shaky video of stars in the sky.

The UFO hunters on TV marveled at how these bright objects zig-zagged erratically, clearly something no conventional aircraft can do. The assumption seemed to be that these lights must be spacecraft from another planet or dimension… piloted by beings far more advanced than humans.

They were making a big deal of two things well understood by science, and innately understood my most brains because we’ve all experienced them to some degree at one time or another, and we don’t always jump to crazy conclusions.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider common sense and our innate understanding of most simple situations. If you hear a creak when you open a door you don’t immediately assume it was a ghost, you know it was the door making that noise. Depending on your age and understanding of basic physics you might not know exactly why the door creaked, you might not understand what a hinge is, but you know that the sound came from the door.

So too, when we look up at the stars and see them twinkle, we might not know exactly why they do that but we know they’re stars, not alien spacecraft. Fairly certain anyway, and we’d be safe to assume so. It’s a low-level first pass our brains make at a given observation, and most of the time our first suspicion is the correct one. Any other conclusion, that involves alien-piloted spaceships for example, requires a stretch of the imagination and maybe a moderate degree of self-delusion. The most simple explanation is likely the correct one. That’s called Occam’s Razor.

The two things I hinted at above, which are very likely responsible for the flickering, bright, multi-colored objects the witnesses claimed to be UFOs, are refraction of light and something called autokinetic illusion. Actually there is a third, shaky hands jiggling the camera or binocs, but today I’m focusing on the twinkle…

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Any one of us can look up at the sky on a clear night and confirm this phenomenon, but what causes a star to appear as if it is twinkling? Is it the flicker of flames? Even though stars are massive blazing infernos they are too far away and far too bright for us to discern any flicker the flames may cause. Instead, the twinkling is caused by interference as the narrow beam of starlight passes through Earth’s atmosphere on route to our eyes.

Stars appear to us as very bright points of light, that’s why we can see them so well, but because of their great distance from Earth the apparent size of any given star is so small, literally like a pinhole in a black sheet of paper, that light from the star actually appears to flicker in brightness, as well as change color and wiggle, due to atmospheric refraction as it passes through layers of turbulent air masses in our planet’s atmosphere. This is called astronomical scintillation. Can’t claim that I knew that, I just learned it while writing this. Check it out for yourself at

Think of looking at a penny on the floor of a swimming pool. It distorts and wiggles as ripples refract the image on the way to your eyes. Differing air masses in the atmosphere cause a similar effect when we look at the stars. The effect is more pronounced closer to the horizon. Another example is the rippling effect we see as heat rises up from the road and passes before the landscape beyond.

Along with distortion of the light refraction also causes the color of the light to change because it disperses the wavelengths of white light. If you look at a star through binoculars or zoom in with a camera, the star will look like it is flashing or rotating through white, red, green and blue, and possible other colors like yellow or purple but the effect is so rapid that we can’t pick out every color.

Here’s an animated example of what the light from a bright star, constantly refracted in different ways by the changing atmosphere of our planet, might look like.

Simple animation shows how atmospheric refraction may cause a star to appear to twinkle and change color.

This interference creates a very dynamic effect and it might even seem as if the star is spinning really fast, pulsing various colors of light like a hovering UFO in a sci-fi movie. It’s exciting and mysterious, but readily explainable. Certainly there are things occurring in our world, and most definitely in the universe, that we don’t yet understand and cannot adequately explain, but that doesn’t mean it was aliens.

If you’re interested in sky watching check out some great books about Star Gazing and Astronomy at (Paid Link)

Next up: Autokinetic Illusion. Stay tuned!

References: – Twinkling – Atmospheric Refraction