Depending on whom you ask, there's either an unidentified flying object that makes regular trips over downtown Denver in the middle of the day, or, a local news crew broadcast a five-minute segment that showcases insects' ability to fly in front of cameras.
Both camps have been vocal on Internet comment threads in the days since local Fox affiliate KDVR first reported the "mile-high mystery in the skies over Denver," but no one's cinched the issue.
The reason Denver's supposed serial UFO has earned widespread media attention seems to be because, in a rare twist, KDVR's attempt to verify a viewer-reported UFO sighting actually resulted in the station's own photojournalist filming a UFO. (And whatever the objects in question are, they do remain UFOs in the technical sense of the acronym.) [Watch the Denver UFO Video]
The story began when a Denver man who asked not to be identified shared video footage with KDVR of flying objects he said he'd been filming on a near-daily basis with his digital camera, usually between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. local time and always from a vantage about 10 miles north of the city center. The objects manifest on his recordings as erratically moving dark blotches, sometimes flitting around at odd angles, and sometimes seeming to tumble end-over-end through the sky. [Ten Paranormal Videos Debunked]
When a KDVR cameraman set up at the same spot and caught something similar on film, the news team tracked down Steve Cowell, a former commercial pilot and an accident prevention counselor with the Federal Aviation Administration. His judgment: "That is not an airplane, that is not a helicopter, those are not birds. I can't identify it."
KDVR reports Cowell also said the objects were not insects, though he's not shown saying that on the broadcast.
But a common refrain from skeptics on the Internet is that Cowell would not be qualified to determine whether or not the objects were insects, and that KDVR would have been better off consulting an expert videographer, or perhaps an entomologist.
Life's Little Mysteries asked the opinion of Larry Engel, the associate director of American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking, who has filmed insects both intentionally and inadvertently during his decades of work on science and nature documentaries.
"I've spent a lot of time around bugs, whether for a film about mosquitoes, on the upper peninsula of Michigan filming bald eagles, or deep in Amazonian jungles. And they are indeed an issue when filming, especially with wide-angle cameras or small-format cameras, as each emphasizes or records objects, including dust and bugs, close to the lens," Engel wrote in an email, adding that he's resorted to applying bug repellant to a camera's sunshade or enlisting a fan-wielding assistant to prevent insects from crowding a shot.
The KDVR UFO segment uses stylized, dramatic editing that seems to discourage objective analysis, and Engel notes that, with only the information available, "determining factually what's going on is nearly impossible." Still, his best guess is bugs.
"I would suggest that these do look like insects, flitting about near the camera. But no one on the broadcast reports anything about insects in the field," he said.
Regardless of whether the objects are insects, Engel says their blurry appearance on the footage gives some reason to believe they're close to the lens. He says that on a bright, sunny day, the depth of field (the distance between the closest and farthest object in a camera's view that are in focus) would be high and it would be unlikely that objects in the distance would be out of focus or unrecognizable.
But the people who aren't satisfied by the insect explanation say the available data leaves room for their views. They claim that in some shots the object appears to be tumbling over its axis (allegedly evident near the 2:40 mark of the KDVR segment) or reflecting sunlight in a manner that seems uncharacteristic of an insect.
It's worth noting perhaps that these shots are attributed to the unidentified tipster. The only footage KDVR singles out as its own shows a black spot tracing a pretty straight, downward-diagonal trajectory that doesn't appear to mirror the erratic movements of the other objects shown.
Luckily, there's a clear-cut way to scientifically test the bug hypothesis for anyone with enough interest to follow through, and Denver members of the social media site Reddit are already on it.
They say they plan to set two cameras a fair distance apart at the UFO-spotting site but pointed toward the same point on the horizon. If one camera records a flying object in its field of vision, but the other doesn't, it will be obvious that the object was close to the camera that recorded it.
If both cameras record an object darting around in the far distance and the citizen scientists document and report their findings thoroughly, the Denver UFO story will likely get more coverage.