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News media mistake commercial rocket flight for a UFO

UFOs are in the news once again, after observers in parts of southern Africa and the Indian Ocean reported seeing a mysterious fuzzy-looking orb streaming across the sky Sunday morning. Astronomers were able to identify this “unidentified flying object” fairly quickly, however—it wasn’t a flying saucer, but SpaceX’s prototype Falcon 9 rocket craft.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket that SpaceX is designing as a vehicle to lift the Dragon, SpaceX’s experimental spacefaring airplane, into Earth orbit. The rocket-and-vehicle duo have completed five previous missions successfully, the last four of which included a docking at the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 even brought supplies to the space station, on NASA’s behalf, on its latter three missions. It’s the first commercial vehicle in history to visit the space station, and the only one on Earth today capable of both lifting several tons of payload to the space station and coming back to Earth with several tons of payload from the space station in turn.

This latest flight commenced at 9 a.m. Pacific Time, when the Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. Not coincidentally, the alleged UFO sighting began occurring shortly afterwards. The Zimbabwe Mail reported sightings of a “strange moonlike object” flying over the country’s Mashonaland region. Media in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and the Indian Ocean island nations Mauritius and Reunion posted similar reports.

Speculations over the mysterious object ran a wide range. Mauritius’ L’Express openly wondered whether it was a star cluster, a satellite, or maybe a UFO.
Individual astronomers very quickly perceived a more Earthly explanation, however. The timing running so close to the Falcon 9 launch was the first tipoff. A second was the remnant traces that floated in the sky in the vehicle’s wake.

Greg Roberts, a retired astronomer in Cape Town, recognized it as rocket propellant and told the South African publication the New Age accordingly. The Falcon 9’s typical flight procedure is to reach a certain altitude, and then its second stage releases its leftover fuel in order to avoid a blowup during atmospheric reentry.

The Falcon 9’s observers are only the latest in a long history of individuals seeing an experimental aircraft flight and suspecting a UFO. UFO rumors erupted in Israel, Syria, and other Middle East countries in June 2012 following a Russian rocket’s flight over their territories. And in May 2013, Chinese villages were abuzz over UFO sightings, the cause of which turned out to be the Chinese Academy of Science’s test flight of a new rocket.