Look! Up In the Sky!

Back in November, Spectator contributor Tera Camus pitched me a story about local UFO sightings which sounded like fun and so I said yes and then she wrote it and then I sat on it for a few weeks, intending to add some additional information, and then Christmas came and I went on vacation without publishing it.

Truth be told, I’ve never been much interested in the world of UFOs — I’ve always found enough weirdness to keep me occupied right here on planet Earth (see: the CBRM’s handling of my 2015 FOIPOP request or anything involving the Port of Sydney).

Night sky with meteor near Flagstaff, AZ

Night sky viewed from the hills surrounding O’Leary Peak, near Flagstaff AZ. A bright meteor streaks across the center of the scene. Photo taken 17 September 2017 by Deborah Lee Soltesz. Credit U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.

When I have paid attention, it hasn’t generally involved taking them seriously. This is genetic, I think. One night back in the ’70s, a strange light appeared in the sky over Sydney prompting a barrage of phone calls to my Uncle Sandy’s radio phone-in show. Most people were simply calling in to say they’d seen the phenomenon in question, but my mother took the opportunity to call in and tell Sandy it was an Air Canada 747 making a pee stop over the city. I think this was a key moment in the formation of my attitudes towards UFOs: I learned they were to be milked for comedy.

So I went into the holidays with Camus’ story in the hopper for January and — as fate would have it — found my attention repeatedly drawn this season to extraterrestrial phenomena.


It all started with the “Christmas Star.”

December 2020 saw a “great conjunction” of Saturn and Jupiter, as the two planets — which rendezvous roughly every 20 years — came within 0.1 degrees of each other, their closest encounter since 1623. This prompted Eric M. Vanden Eykel, an associate professor of religion at Ferrum College, to revisit a theory — proposed by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the 17th century — that “this same planetary conjunction in or around 6 B.C.” could have served as inspiration for the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem, as recounted by Matthew.

Jupiter/Saturn conjunction, December 2020

Jupiter-Saturn “Great Conjunction” simulation.

Eykel didn’t buy the theory, but the discussion was interesting nonetheless and based (mostly) on scientific fact.

Soon after I’d read his article, though, things started to slip the surly bounds of science.



First, a retired Israeli “space security chief” made headlines with his assertion that extraterrestrials from a “galactic federation” have been in touch with Israel and the United States for years.

New book The Universe Beyond the Horizon, Conversations with Prof. Haim Eshed, Ph.D. Aeronautical Engineering

New book The Universe Beyond the Horizon, Conversations with Prof. Haim Eshed, Ph.D. Aeronautical Engineering

Eighty-seven-year-old Haim Eshed, who served as head of Israel’s space program for almost three decades, told the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot that US cooperation with the aliens included a secret underground base on Mars, where there are American and alien representatives. According to the Jerusalem Post:

As for why he’s chosen to reveal this information now, Eshed explained that the timing was simply due to how much the academic landscape has changed, and how respected he is in academia.

“If I had come up with what I’m saying today five years ago, I would have been hospitalized,” he explained to Yediot.

He added that “today, they’re already talking differently. I have nothing to lose. I’ve received my degrees and awards; I am respected in universities abroad, where the trend is also changing.”

At first I wondered what the significance of “five years” was, and then I realized he means since Donald Trump emerged on the American political scene. The “alternative facts” of the early years of the Trump regime paved the way for the full-blown fantasies of the Q-Anon movement — children kidnapped and tortured by Democrats, celebrities murdered and replaced by clones — in comparison to which, belief in aliens seems perfectly reasonable. (Cynics attribute Eshed’s sudden willingness to discuss space aliens less to the more receptive zeitgeist and more to his desire to sell his book, The Universe Beyond the Horizon — conversations with Professor Haim Eshed.)

Whatever his motivation, Eshed caused enough of a stir that NASA felt the need to release a statement:

One of NASA’s key goals is the search for life in the universe. Although we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe. From studying water on Mars, probing promising “oceans worlds,” such as Enceladus and Europa, to looking for biosignatures in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, NASA’s science missions are working together with a goal to find unmistakable signs of life beyond Earth.



Then, just as I’d dragged my eyes away from the heavens, a Harvard professor announced that a cigar-shaped object picked up by Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope in October 2017 — and which NASA has confirmed as “the first object ever seen in our solar system that is known to have originated elsewhere”  — was probably debris from an advanced alien technology.

Artist's impression of Oumuamua

Artist’s impression of Oumuamua

Astronomer Avi Loeb has — wait for it — written a book (Extraterrestrial) about the object, which was dubbed “Oumuamua,” a Hawaiian term (which I really like) meaning “a messenger that reaches out from the distant pas.” Loeb told a CBS affiliate in Boston:

It’s possible that there is a lot of space junk out there or it is a probe. We don’t know because we didn’t collect enough data, enough evidence and I’m just alerting everyone to look for objects like that so that next time there is one coming by we will examine it more carefully…

He said his ideas are not popular in the scientific community right now – talking about potential extraterrestrial intelligence is “out of the mainstream, and it should not be.”

“We should be open minded and search for evidence rather than assume that everything we see in the sky must be rocks,” he said.

Loeb is not the first to speculate that Oumuamua is the work of “advanced alien technology” — such theories have abounded since the International Astronomical Union created the designation “Interstellar object” to describe it.

Potential formations of Oumuamua

Potential formations of Oumuamua (Source: Report of ISSI

But in 2018, an international team of 14 experts met at the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) in Bern, Switzerland to review all the available evidence about Oumuamua and concluded that, while questions remain about the object’s “very elongated shape,” its rotation and its home system:

Assertions that ‘Oumuamua may be artificial are not justified when the wide body of current knowledge about solar system minor bodies and planetary formation is considered.

But that’s not going to sell books, is it?


Still, that astronomers could be surprised by an object like Oumuamua — which the expert panel admitted it was, noting it had “challenged many of our assumptions about how small bodies from another star system would look” — made me anxious to revisit what Camus had discovered about local UFO sighting, sightings reported to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), a US-based non-profit tracking organization I’d never heard of but which has apparently been around since 1969.

Google MUFON, though, and before you know it you’re sucked into a series of articles about its former executive director Jan Harzan, who was arrested in July 2020 on child solicitation charges (the 13-year-old girl he was communicating with turned out to be a Huntington Beach, California cop; in passing, I have never been comfortable with cops impersonating 13-year-old girls, but this story still has a very high ick factor). Harzan was removed from his position with MUFON and a rumor has apparently taken hold in the “UFO community” that the FBI and CIA colluded to take him down and steal his laptop which contained top secret files proving the existence of aliens.

The Vice article cited above then goes on to discuss allegations of racism in the organization and this episode of a Canadian podcast called Spaced Out Radio (which I could only get half way through) adds misogyny to the list of MUFON’s sins and by the time I’d got there, I was ready to abandon my line of inquiry.

But then I remembered that what I was curious to know, when Camus pitched her story, was the kind of things Cape Bretoners have seen in the skies of late, and we can discuss that without getting into the messy, messy details about MUFON and pseudoscience and child solicitation and racism and misogyny, so let’s look up, look way up, shall we?


Camus discovered when she consulted MUFON’s sighting logs, that on 12 October 2020, a Sydney Mines resident reported a “bright orange glowing light sitting in one position in [the] sky, moving in circular motion.” The object was spotted at 8:30 PM.

Reserve Mines photo filed to MUFON

Reserve Mines photo filed to MUFON

There was also something weird reported over Sydney on 23 October 2020 — a “cigar-shape, brightly illuminated object “ spotted around 2:00 PM by an unidentified Sydney resident who reported it to the tracking site:

We were driving home when me and my daughter looked up and seen this cigar shape bright object just hovering in the sky. We drove for about two minutes watching the object as we went into a dip, it went behind the trees and we did not see it again. We drove another minute up the road and seen a military helicopter going in the direction of the object. We did take a picture but it wasn’t a very good one.

(My UFO game is so bad, I looked at the photo below and thought, “That doesn’t look like a cigar, that looks like somebody drew a black circle on a photograph.” At which point I realized, somebody had drawn a black circle on a photograph — apparently around a bright, cigar-shaped object.)

Sydney photo filed to MUFON

Sydney photo filed to MUFON

On 22 January 2020, a resident of Mill Creek, Bras d’Or, reported seeing a “black triangular-shaped object” hovering above with flashing white, green and red lights. The sighting happened around 7:30 PM .

Camus spoke with Canadian “ufologist” Chris Rutkowski, who heads the Winnipeg-based Ufology Research and compiles an annual Canadian survey of potential UFO sightings.

Rutkowski said his preliminary numbers show UFO sightings were way up in every province in 2020 compared to 2019, an increase he attributes to COVID:

During the pandemic, the numbers have risen. Even in the first half of 2019, we were seeing much lower numbers than what we have for 2020…People are being forced to spend more time at home or outside…many are spending more time looking up to the big sky out there and there’s a lot to see.

On his blog, Rutkowski compared MUFON data on Canadian UFO sightings for the first half of 2020 to the data for the same period of 2019:

UFO sightings Canada

Source: Chris Rutkowski’s Ufology Research blog 

(Rutkowski’s recent blog post about UFO sightings at Christmas was picked up by the CBC on Christmas Eve.)


Rutkowski’s full 2020 survey is not yet available, but according to the 2019 survey, there were 849 sightings in Canada, 21 of which came from Nova Scotia.

Several last year involved Cape Breton, including a report filed 14 November 2019 by two Cheticamp residents who saw a low-flying “Saturn” shaped object.  They managed to capture a 28-second video of it at 1:00 PM in the afternoon, from which I’ve extracted this still photo:

Cheticamp UFO sighting f

Still from Cheticamp video filed with MUFON

“Bizarre drone like flight, no one in area, did not see where it went despite following trajectory,” the Cheticamp sighting report stated.

Near sunset that same day, in Indian Brook, Roger Ward and his wife Amy Maloney saw what they would later tell the Chronicle Herald was a giant, grain silo-shaped object, which the Canadian Survey reported as a “grey large object in sky, likely cloud or contrail.”

Another report last year involved a Scotch Lake resident who, around 9:30 PM on 2 August 2019 spotted a “bright light moving slowly across the sky.”

“I was looking for planets, “ the resident said in their report to the agency. “I spotted Jupiter however it began to move slowly and was about ten times brighter than the brightest planet. No sound. No contrail.”

That same day, according to the survey, two people living on the other side of the Canso Causeway also reported seeing a “bright light going south west flashed” at 4:00 PM or “fast light moving across sky that gave off flash” just before midnight.

The survey also includes a report from a resident of New Waterford who, on 23 Feb. 2019 at 6:33 PM, spotted “a small light in the sky seemed to hover then shrink in size.”  According to the survey, about an hour later, in Little Lorraine, a retired couple, one of whom worked on a Canadian Forces Base for more than a decade, was outside when they both saw something weird.
They filed a report to the National UFO Reporting Center (another North American outfit that tracks sightings and provides data to the Canadian research team under Rutkowski):

As we both watched, it proceeded up into the air at about a 15 degree ascension. Moving fast through the sky from a NNW to a NNE direction, at one point, the bright light disappeared, and we then could see what appeared to be a very bright, orange flame coloured streak going across the sky. The streak seemed to consist of either flames (I say flames because we saw actual sparks) or a laser like trail in the sky. I find it hard to actually describe it in words. We noticed the flames were very thin, and very very straight in the air. Then the streak slowly vanished or burnt out. It was as if the light had streaked through the air then vanished and all that was left was the propulsion burn off.


Rutkowski says that since he started collecting UFO data in 1989, more than 21,000 sightings have been reported in Canada — 595 of them from Nova Scotia. But he believes the reports represent just a fraction of the Canadians who witness unusual lights or objects in the sky each year — he estimates that about 10% of people who’ve seen something unusual in the sky don’t report it either out of fear of ridicule or because they assume it was an aircraft or a weather phenomenon or a trick of the light or simply a figment of their imaginations. And, in fact, Rutkowski says most of the lights and activity reported as possible UFOs turn out to have “reasonable explanations,” and are not some alien invasion.

Until the mid-’90s, it was the RCMP or the military that investigated reported UFO sightings in Canada but that job now falls to various organizations — like the above mentioned National UFO Reporting Center and MUFON as well as Quebec’s Association québécoise d’ufologie (AQU). Rutkowski draws on all three for his annual survey, in addition to information provided by Transport Canada and the Department of National Defense.

NORAD confirmed it responds to reports of unknown, unwanted and unauthorized air traffic but not to reports of UFO sightings per se. NORAD’s public affairs officer, Maj. Jennifer Jones, said they are on stand-by to “investigate any flights that show up” on radar that are not supposed to be there.  For Canada’s east coast, that response flies out of 22 Wing Canadian Forces Base North Bay, Ontario.

“From the NORAD perspective we are focused on aerospace control, aerospace warning and maritime warning,” she told the Cape Breton Spectator.  “Our mission is to deter, deny and defeat air threats to the United States and Canada, and we do so using a well established, graduated response process.”

Rutkowski says if you see something unusual, find someone else to “watch it with you,” and make note of the date, the time, your location and the direction in which you were looking. Grab a photo or film the object, if possible. And report it to his group or other UFO reporting sites in North America. As his 2019 report concludes:

Results of this study show that many people continue to report unusual objects in the sky, and some of these objects do not have obvious explanations. Many witnesses are pilots, police and other individuals with reasonably good observing capabilities and good judgment. Although the largest percentage of reported UFOs is simply lights in the night sky, a small number are objects with definite shapes observed within the witnesses’ frame of reference.

Just don’t report it to my mother — you know what she’ll tell you.

This story was written with files from Tera Camus.

Featured image: Night sky viewed from the hills surrounding O’Leary Peak near Flagstaff, AZ. A bright meteor streaks across the center of the scene. Photo taken 17 September 2017 by Deborah Lee Soltesz. Credit U.S. Forest Service Coconino National Forest.