UPDATE 4:20 P.M. ET: This afternoon officials from the Milestone School in Mount Vernon identified the "UFOs" as some of the helium balloons that escaped from an engagement party held for a teacher at the school shortly before the sightings. The wind direction at the time would reportedly have taken the balloons to within sight of people in Manhattan's Chelsea area. The article below remains as it was originally written.
New Yorkers are used to odd sights, but what hundreds of people in the Chelsea district of Manhattan’s West Side saw in the sky yesterday afternoon surprised even them.
A cluster of silvery, shiny lights floated above. Initial descriptions of the supposed UFO varied wildly. One person said that it was "an oddly shaped object full of lights, flying slowly" while others saw (and recorded) three distinct objects; still others saw nearly a half-dozen entities.
However many there were — and whatever their nature — the city's 311 emergency line received dozens of calls about the mysterious, "extraordinary" lights.
Alien spacecraft was of course a popular theory, though most New Yorkers seemed to take the lights in stride. Officials said that the objects were not detected as any security threat, and FAA spokesman Jim Peters said that the UFO did not appear on radar: "We re-ran radar to see if there was anything there that we can't account for but there is nothing in the area."
A closer look at video of the supposed UFO offers clues about its identity. The lights moved independently like floating objects, not fixed lights on an aircraft or spacecraft; they moved together in the same direction as the wind. Furthermore, the objects were not emitting light but instead reflecting sunlight.
The sightings were very similar to a famous UFO report from New Jersey's Morris County on the evening of Jan. 5, 2009. An eleven-year-old girl noticed some bright lights in the night sky. There were three lights grouped together, and another pair some distance away. The glowing red lights moved silently and slowly. The case, which I investigated and debunked in this column, was later revealed to be a hoax. Two pranksters had tied road flares tied to helium balloons and released them "as a social experiment."
The Manhattan UFOs have all the characteristics of floating mylar balloons. The balloon explanation fits all the facts, including why the objects did not appear on radar.
On "The Early Show" anchor Erica Hill reported the story, concluding that law enforcement officials suspected the objects were balloons, "but so far no confirmation. As they said on 'The X-Files,' the truth is out there."
Unless the responsible people (whether careless partiers or sly hoaxers) come forward, it's unlikely there will ever be any "official confirmation" of the objects' origin. Thus the balloons will remain unidentified flying objects. At least that's what they want you to think.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.