Astronomers and UFOs

One question astronomers sometimes get from the public is about UFO’s.  These questions usually come from an honest place: the public doesn’t really have a good sense of what astronomers do all day (or night).  Do we look through our telescopes hoping to discover a new star or galaxy?

One angle I’ve tried is to point out that (some) astronomers study big swaths of the sky all the time, and with much more sophisticated equipment than the cameras that have captured those iconic images of extraterrestrial “UFOs.”  I tell them we don’t see any UFOs.
Just today on Twitter via @jegpeek I saw this fantastic tweet:

Brilliant!  The link is to the Astronomer’s Telegram, a forum where astronomers can quickly disseminate information about new, interesting, or strange things they discover with their telescopes and cameras (so, yes, some astronomers do just “look through” telescopes all night trying to discovery new “stars”).

In it, an astronomer (D. Denisenko) reports an update on a previously reported unidentified object in their survey.  Denisenko couldn’t figure out what a particular object was. It was moving too slowly to be in a circular orbit around the Earth within the distance of the Moon, and too quickly to be an asteroid in the main asteroid belt.  They reported it to the Telegram and the Near Earth Object Confirmation page so other astronomers could help them track it.

After consulting with some other astronomers, they discovered that it was a man-made object in an unusual orbit, called TA29DCF.  They Googled this strange code name, and discovered it was part of the rocket that launched the RadioAstron satellite, tumbling in space after having done its job.

RadioAstron is a fascinating project — it is a 10 meter radio telescope in an elliptical orbit around the Earth.  This orbit is not commonly (ever?) used, so the discarded upper stage of the rocket that got it there was in an unusual orbit, which caused the confusion.  Incidentally, the PI of the RadioAstron project is Nikolai Kardashev (yes, that Kardashev).

But the point here is that astronomers discovered a spacecraft orbiting the Earth that wasn’t in their database and quickly informed the world about their discovery.  Just as quickly they determined that it was actually an object that just happened to have been overlooked by their database, and announced the resolution to the issue.

What did not happen is NASA sent its goons to quiet the astronomers, or phone calls to the President sent national security officers to red alert 5, or astronomers quickly opened up Photoshop to destroy the evidence.  Indeed, most astronomers would not have even heard about this incident but for Schroeder’s tweet (the Telegram is very useful for some fields, but not the sort of thing most astronomers read daily).

Now, I don’t expect this example to convince hard-core UFOlogists who engage in highly developed conspiratorial thinking (such thinking can dismiss or incorporate ANY contrary evidence), but I hope it sheds some light for others on the chasm between popular misconceptions of how extraterrestrial UFO’s might be real, and the reality of our understanding of all those lights in the sky.