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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 05/16/2008

Weird Clouds... From Another World?

By Steve Tracton


Courtesy U.S. Navy. Photos by John Gay (left) and Jarod Hodge (right).

What do we have here?... Grist for the mill for the UFO believers out there?

At first glance, the images above may indeed look to some like a UFO swallowing a jet fighter as it tries desperately to maneuver out of harms way. Could there be a more earthly explanation?

Keep reading for the answer. And see our full forecast through the weekend and beyond.

In fact, the "UFO" is an example of the condensation clouds that sometimes form around jets as they fly at or near the speed of sound. Under the right conditions, and even at lower speeds, these "vapor cones" are believed to be caused by the Prandtl-Glauert singularity (I know, fancy term for a Friday), the point at which a sudden drop in air pressure occurs around aircraft traveling near transonic speeds.

Lenticular clouds, such as that below, are also often erroneously reported as UFOs.


Courtesy NASA, taken near Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Photo by Peter Michaud.

Lenticulars occur when stable air near saturation is forced to flow over mountain ranges, elevated plateaus or high hills. They often appear stationary or migrate slowly, allowing time for large crowds to gather and witness the hovering spacecraft from a planet far, far away.

By Steve Tracton  | May 16, 2008; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Tracton  
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