7 Memorable UFO-inspired Images From NASA and Beyond

When sci-fi seems real

Photo: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

Stories of UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, are as much a part of humanity’s story as the fairy tales of yesteryear. Strange images in the skies have been noted throughout history, particularly after World War II with the rise of rocketry and the Cold War. Historians note that the first, best-known UFO sighting occurred in 1947, when small-time aviator Kenneth Arnold claimed to see “a group of nine, high-speed objects near Mount Rainier in Washington” in flight. As the number of sightings increased to a record number in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Air Force opened several investigations into UFOs, which were declassified in 1979.

We can only imagine what strange images NASA may have picked up since then. Here are seven interesting UFO-like images from NASA and other sources, most of which have been debunked with detailed explanations. But the real question is, do you believe in them?

First shots of spacecraft Mercury -- or not

NASA.

On Dec. 1, 2011, alien enthusiasts went into warp drive when images appeared of a supposed spacecraft hovering near the surface of Mercury. NASA’s Heliosphereic Imager-1 telescope on the SECCHI mission caught a giant coronal mass ejection (CME) streaming forth from the sun. And, as UFO watchers claimed, there was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it image of a previously cloaked spacecraft. But NASA was quick to dash the hopes of anyone dreaming of a steamy (as in temperature) meeting with a Mercurian cousin. Calling it a negative image, NASA quickly put the fears of an alien invasion to rest.

Have UFOs flanked NASA's Apollo missions?

NASA.

On April 27, 1972, astronauts Thomas Mattingly, Charles Duke and John Young recorded four seconds of video footage on the moon of an alleged flying saucer. NASA describes the image taken on the Apollo 16 mission: “the object appears momentarily near the moon. As the camera pans, it moves out of the field of view. It reappears as the camera pans back. It appeared in about 50 frames.” But was it really a UFO? Years later, the space agency concluded that it was merely the EVA [spacewalk] floodlight/boom of the Apollo spacecraft. This is not the only time NASA has seen strange things in space.

Planet or people from space?

Laurent Laveder/NASA.

Sometimes, that bright object beaming into the night sky isn’t a star, or an airplane, or overzealous lighting from a movie premiere down the street. So what is it? This line of thought can lead to speculation that you might be looking at an object you can’t identify — or an unidentified flying object. Or it just might be Venus. One of the biggest culprits for night sky misunderstandings may be the planet Venus.

As you can see here, Venus is the brightest of all planets and often appears low in the horizon. This is the main reason the bright planet's appearance often elicits a number of 9-1-1 calls when it first comes into view. In fact, Venus is so bright that it can even cast a faint shadow on Earth. Finally, because of its intense flow, it can give the optical illusion that it is moving .... or following your car on a dark night.

Asteroid or angel-like UFO?

NASA.

When comet-like asteroid P/2010 A2 first appeared to skywatchers in 2010, observers were quick to point out the mysterious X-shaped form racing through the skies. It is seen here as viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope. The X-shape is merely a “debris pattern” that suggest a head-on collision between two asteroids, says NASA. Nonetheless, the object — some 180 million miles from the sun and 90 million miles from Earth — caused quite a bit of excitement among alien enthusiasts. But in general, the government concludes that 90 percent of the UFO sightings are attributed to astronomical or meteorological phenomenon.

The face of Mars

NASA.

In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft circled Mars, photographing the surface of the Red Planet. When the images were released, there was a lot of excitement about what appeared to be the mark of a human face chiseled into the landscape. Soon speculation about an ancient, advanced civilization on Mars ran rampant, driven by the image of a human head that looked something like an Egyptian pharaoh. In 1998, images from the Mars Global Surveyor debunked the myth of the man on Mars. Subsequent images of the “head” showed it was simply a natural landform that seemed human-like due to shade and angles of photography.

Comet McNaught or ET's spaceship?

NASA.

Sometimes, when comets pass into the Earth’s atmosphere, their bright, fiery tails make them an easy mark for UFO enthusiasts. Some even take it a step farther, alleging that comets are merely the ultimate cloaking device of a spaceship. The 1997 mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate group was orchestrated by followers who believed they were leaving Earth to meet a mother ship trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Others have speculated that the Comet McNaught may be masking a mother ship or two in its tail. Here we see the comet photographed from Earth as it swept over New Mexico on June 13, 2010.

From the Earth to the moon, and beyond

Anita Ritenor/Flickr.

In the later part of the 20th century, UFO sightings were often closely associated with strange activity at various Air Force bases. It’s not hard to understand why. Pictured here is an image taken as a rocket was launched from a nearby Air Force base. As the photographer notes, it is a “COSMO SkyLab4 radar earth imaging satellite [as] launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base with a Delta II rocket.” This spooky, spectral image shows the rocket arching brightly from the Earth’s surface, careening into a cloud cover worthy of any close encounter of the third kind.

Ultimately, while NASA entertains the idea of alien life, the space agency seems hard-pressed to offer up any substantial proof. However, famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking believes strongly in the presence of aliens and has noted that he believes their arrival on Earth would not “bode well” for humanity. No word on when he thinks the aliens will arrive. In the meantime, perhaps it is prudent for the rest of us to brush up on our alien invasion survival skills.