UFO alert! Aliens everywhere

A woman was 'abducted', a helicopter 'attacked'. What exactly is going on?

If you still live with your parents, wear a zip-up cardigan over your collar and tie, have enamel badges in your lapel and don't get out much because you're too busy curating your collection of Star Trek memorabilia, it has been quite a week. While the rest of the country has been fussing over such trivia as Zim-babwe, you've been tabulating the latest activities of forces beyond our galaxy.

On Wednesday you awoke to a Sun exclusive from Shropshire: "A shaken soldier told last night how he saw 13 UFOs spinning in the skies above his military barracks." Not to be outdone, the Hastings Observer reported a woman's sighting of strange orange lights above the resort, and asked: "Are aliens the latest visitors to Hastings?" The following day, it was "orange orbs" over Liverpool, and The Sun's further report from Salop: "A mum who insists she was abducted by aliens on the A5 said yesterday, 'I knew they'd be back'."

Only the week before, according to the ever-vigilant Sun, a "flying saucer-shaped" object "attacked" a police helicopter over Cardiff. The story got so much coverage that, within days, hundreds of sightings were coming into the newspaper.

What is going on? Let us explain. First, those lights above Shropshire. Superior beings in their radar-defying supersonic craft? No, says the manager of the Tern Hill Hall hotel, near Market Drayton: they were Chinese lanterns released to celebrate a wedding. Like miniature hot-air balloons, they fly off until they burn up and disintegrate. It is quite common for them to be mistaken for the gathering forces of the planet Tharg.

As for the rest, there's a more prosaic explanation. In the middle of May, the Ministry of Defence announced it would be issuing its hitherto classified files on UFO sightings between 1978 and 1987. This got enormous publicity, and also produced a huge leap in sightings of lights and flying saucers. UFOINFO.com has logged more than twice as many reports this May and June than in the corresponding months last year.

And, in their database, there lurks another possible clue as to the cause of UFO sightings by the ever watchful, and suggestible, British public. Which date do you suppose was responsible for the most reports this year? The first of April? No. It was 1 January, when there were more sightings in 24 hours than in the whole of the first four months of 2007 put together. It is also a night of fireworks and large numbers of people staring woozily into space. Some of them, it appears, are still doing so. Panic over. Back to the Star Trek collection.

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