Flying mysterious objects over US: aliens and UFO or surveillance equipment?

The mysterious objects floating over the US in recent weeks have sparked a wide range of conspiracy theories. But the truth is probably rather more prosaic.

"All right, Beatrice, there was no alien. The flash of light you saw in the sky was not a UFO. Swamp gas from a weather balloon was trapped in a thermal pocket and reflected the light from Venus."

It's a line from the movie Men In Black, but, to some, not so different from the official US government position on the four mysterious objects that have been shot down over the North American continent in recent days.

Over the last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has told reporters that "There is no, again no, indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns," with national security council spokesman John Kirby saying "I don’t think the American people need to worry about aliens with respect to these craft."

So what exactly are these objects, and why are we hearing so much about them at the moment?

Four objects downed

The first object to be brought down, on February 4, was a 200-foot balloon that toured a fair hunk of the US before being shot down over the South Carolina coast. Some wreckage has been recovered.

The second was rather different — 'about the size of a small car,' according to Pentagon press secretary Air Force brigadier general Pat Ryder, and came down over Alaska's northern coast on February 10.

A day later, another smallish, cylindrical object was taken out over Canada's central Yukon, and the following day another over Michigan's Upper Peninsula, this time 'an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernible payload,' according to officials.

The objects are believed to be devices launched by China; the first has been confirmed as a spy balloon. The following three, according to officials, weren't sending out communication signals, making them a little more mysterious. There's a distinct possibility that they weren't designed to do anything other than test what types of objects could successfully be flown.

There's certainly nothing new about Chinese spy balloons. The US military has admitted, for example, that it failed to detect at least three that passed through US airspace during Donald Trump’s presidency.

What's changed is that detection capabilities have improved, with adjustments having been made that make it easier to spot smaller objects.

Theories spread

The alternative theories about the objects fall into several different camps. There are, genuinely, many people that believe them to be unidentified flying objects from outer space — although as physicist Brian Cox has pointed out, it seems just a little implausible that alien beings with the capability for interstellar flight would arrive and start playing around with balloons.

Some — flat-Earthers, mostly — are suggesting that the devices are man-made and exist to hold up satellites which, they say, are basically fakes.

Others are linking them to the Project Blue Beam conspiracy. This alleges that a murky alliance between NASA and the United Nations is plotting to abolish all religions and force the world's population to work for a new one-world government through a holographic simulation of the second coming of Christ.

Still, others believe the downed devices to be a deliberate distraction created by President Biden to divert attention from other issues. These include the alleged activities of Biden's son Hunter; the war in Ukraine; and the recent chemical spill causing so much devastation in Ohio.

Conspiracy theories tend to flourish in times of hardship - just before the outbreak of the second world war, for example, there was a flood of sightings of German Zeppelins around the world — sightings that were later shown to be nothing more than stars and planets.

In a 2019 paper, Understanding Conspiracy Theories, researchers from the UK and the US concluded that conspiracy theories were particularly prevalent among people who felt they had little control over their lives.

"People who lack agency and control may reclaim some sense of control by believing conspiracy theories because they offer the opportunity to reject official narratives and allow people to feel that they possess a better account," they write.

"Consistent with this reasoning, studies have demonstrated that conspiracy beliefs are associated with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, anxious attachment style and existential anxiety."

What with Covid, the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey, and a worldwide cost of living crisis, there's been plenty of hardship lately. Few people have much of a sense of control anymore.

And let's face it, the events of the last few years have been pretty weird. From Donald Trump reaching the White House to a global pandemic, from extreme weather events to Elon Musk taking over Twitter — well, an alien invasion starts not to seem all that implausible after all...