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Jupiter Ascending: UFO’s, Bokeh & Atmospheric Distortion

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

A professional astronomer summarily dismissing a UFO sighting, made by a down-to-earth suburban couple, as nothing but Jupiter seems like something of a cliché. One I would have treated with apparent derision in my days as a believer and conspiracist. However, looking into some of the physical and psychological processes at work here, reveal it to be anything but an easy explanation.

It should be noted that the observers’ descriptions of an “ominous” UFO do not come from what they saw with their own eyes. In fact, as one of the observers makes clear, all that they saw with the naked eye was, “something bright in the sky.” Rather, their description of what they are calling a “spaceship,” “because it is weird,” come from pics they had taken and blown up on their camera phone.

These observers took to their own research with a confirmation bias that was quickly satiated by an apparent 2010 article titled, Doughnut shaped UFO spotted over Switzerland. I've been unable to locate that article, but I did find a 2021 one with the clickbait title Doughnut UFO’ spotted over Switzerland baffles scientists, and an apparent desperation to obfuscate the likely object of the sighting.

The doughnut shape of these so-called UFOs will, of course, be immediately recognisable to many stargazers as an out of focus point of light. This effect, known as doughnut bokeh, is caused by a catadioptric or mirror lens used on many telescopes. A similar effect, known as onion-ring bokeh, is caused by aspherical lens elements. Both are common on equipment used by the observers.

The source of the extraordinary claims about the object therefore seems to be apophenia in overdrive, with the observers subconsciously scrambling for meaning in the meaningless noise of an out-of-focus image. A process which led to their descriptions of, “a round bit in the middle,” “a hazard sign with lights along the strip of it,” and, “another bit with legs”, which are far from obvious to me.

So, what bright lights were visible south-south-west of Broadstairs in the early mornings of this August. Well, a quick glance at the relevant sky-charts indicates an obvious culprit. A culprit confirmed by Astronomer Michael Smith of Kent University as Jupiter. Albeit at a low altitude and thus heavily distorted by the atmosphere. But the king of the planets, nonetheless.

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