UFOs and Other Lunar Visions

The Apollo 11 astronauts were not the only people to report observing strange lunar phenomena. Fortunately, science and common sense can plausibly explain the sightings. The truth may be out there, but it is even more exciting than we imagine.

The Moon from Mansfield (c) 2020 Kirsten Trecento (Used by permission).

It sounds like a sci fi story: a UFO (technically an ‘unidentified flying object’ because it remains officially unidentified) trailing the Apollo 11 spacecraft as it flew towards the Moon for its historic landing. Was it a vehicle carrying aliens who were observing humanity’s first steps offworld? Or perhaps it was a space bus full of time-travelling tourists who wanted to observe what was, for them, an historic event from humanity’s past?

Sadly, neither possibility seems likely. In his book No Dream Is Too High, astronaut Buzz Aldrin reports this sighting by the Apollo 11 crew as they flew Moonward, three days and 200,000 miles (over 320,000 km) away from Earth. The object (or light) in question was visible but too distant to be identifiable to them, and Buzz reports they were reluctant – in the glare of the world’s media – to simply ask aloud: “Hey Houston, we have something moving along beside us, and we don’t know what it is. Can you tell us what that might be?” They concluded that it was either the final stage of the Saturn rocket that had launched them on their lunar trajectory two days earlier (somewhat implausible because that was reported to be 6000 miles, or just short of 10,000 km, away from them), or – more likely – was one of four panels from the casing that had been discarded when they had extracted the lunar module. This panel, flying its own lonely trajectory alongside them and reflecting sunlight, would appear to be a light or a vehicle following them at some distance.

This was not the only strange sighting these astronauts experienced on the way to the Moon. Time magazine (25 July 1969) includes in its Apollo 11 report that the astronauts were asked to investigate a strange sighting near the crater Aristarchus: “Astronomers in Bochum, West Germany, had observed a bright glow on the lunar surface—the same sort of eerie luminescence that has intrigued moon watchers for centuries. The report was passed on to Houston and thence to the astronauts. Almost immediately, Armstrong reported back, “Hey, Houston, I’m looking north up to ward Aristarchus now, and there’s an area that is considerably more illuminated than the surrounding area. It seems to have a slight amount of fluorescence.” Aldrin confirmed his observation.”

This latter sighting was a transient lunar phenomenon (TLP) or lunar transient phenomenon (LTP) – which Wikipedia summarises as comprising a short-lived light, color or change in appearance on the surface of the Moon. These events, reported for over one thousand years (at least since monks in Canterbury reported such a sighting on 18 June 1178) are attributed to possible outgassing, geologic, or meteorite activity. Even NASA notes these sightings:

“If you stare at the Moon long enough, you start seeing things. “82 things to be exact,” says Bill Cooke, leader of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Group. That’s how many “transient phenomena” the group has video-taped since they started monitoring the night side of the Moon in Nov. 2005.”

So while staring upwards and yearning for excitement, it may seem exhilarating to ponder whether alien cities, UFOs, portals to other dimensions, or other exciting possibilities exist within plain sight. However, such possibilities are best consigned to exciting sci fi stories, while the reality is more plausibly explained by solid science and critical thought.

Aldrin, in his aforementioned book (subtitled “Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon”) quotes Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Let’s remember that and accept that reality can still be as breath-taking as our imaginings. Sure, the Apollo 11 crew may have missed the chance to be stalked by aliens or time travellers, but hell, they walked on the Moon. Sagan’s quote provides its own challenge. While sci fi might provide inspiration for future dreams, it cannot compete with the excitement of real life. If you think that your life is only half as exciting as an episode of Star Trek, chances are you’re reading this blog article on a piece of technology that was inspired by – and closely resembles – the tech represented in that imaginary future. We are here already, folks.

Enjoy our dreams and visions, but also enjoy the real universe in which we live. Our grandparents walked on the Moon, dammit; where will our grandchildren tread?

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Previously published on ScienceSpaceandFiction blog.