Dozens of orange orbs, flying in formation. Cigar-shape objects with blue spotlights. Green, humming, zigzagging lights. Translucent flying jellyfish.
These are among the descriptions of UFOs made from Utah to the National UFO Reporting Center through the decades.
Personally, I’m pretty agnostic about UFOs. There’s been some interesting reporting from organizations like The New Yorker and The New York Times in the past few years about the Pentagon’s uptick in UFO investigations. Clearly, the vast majority of UFO reports can be explained, but there are some sticky cases in which even the government seems to have trouble turning a UFO into an IFO — at least publicly. Of course, the recent news about U.S. jets shooting down mystery craft over Alaska, Canada and Michigan have heightened interest in the topic.
In all, there have been 1,455 such reports made to the National UFO Reporting Center from our state. First founded in 1974, the nongovernmental nonprofit group wasn’t able to gather reports in much bulk until the mid-1990s, when it opened up a website. Since, the site has gathered about 150,000 reports in all, including those from more than a thousand Utahns who have gone online and tried to explain what they saw to the site’s reporting form. The data has always been public.
I’ve gone through these 1,455 reports. The truth is out there — and also in here. Keep reading.
What are Utahns seeing? And where and when?
Let’s first break down the base statistics. People are asked to identify what type of object they saw, and when and where they saw it.
So what’s the most common type of UFO seen? An unknown light or multiple lights.
All sorts of shapes are common, too. Circles and disks are seen up there, representing the “flying saucer” trope. There are triangles and teardrops, cigars and cylinders. There are flashes and fireballs, cones and crosses.
These reports come from across Utah. As you’d expect, the higher-populated areas report the most, but small towns see some as well. Some UFO sighters end up putting an approximate location next to their reports.
Interestingly, the past decade was full of UFO sightings — but we’ve seen clear drop-offs in 2021 and 2022.
Some questionable stories
To be sure, many of the Utah reports in the UFO data leave a lot to be desired.
Of the more than 1,400 reports, only 26 that I could find were corroborated by the report of a clearly independent party. Some others were seen by larger groups — a family, for example — that made multiple reports, or a single report altogether.
Frankly, some of those individual reports are outright funny. (The quotes included in the rest of this article have been lightly edited at times for clarity.)
One individual reported seeing “red and blue flashing lights, low to the ground, behind my car on a deserted road in Riverton” in 2002. With all due respect — you probably saw a police car. Pull over.
Another had a sighting, best described by a computer operating system: “The easiest way to describe the sighting is to get a Windows 7 program. Start or open or reboot. If you are at the program’s start page screen, watch the opening animation. That is what I saw exactly.”
A UFO sighting in September 2022 includes an adorable drawing from the two fifth graders who saw it. A number of reports include photos that clearly are the result of a lens flare or other iPhone camera bug.
Some reports are made by UFO searchers, who have their third eye a bit too open. A 2015 UFO sighting begins with a simple but curious opening: “I was in meditation in an attempt to invite extraterrestrial beings, when...” Multiple reports I read were submitted by multiple-time UFO reporters — not necessarily disqualifying but a bit unusual. There are also occasional reports from clearly unwell people, and those are tough to read.
Perhaps my favorite report, though, came from someone living next to Hill Air Force Base. “I believe I was telepathically communicated with by an otherworldly entity,” the report reads. “It gave me an urgent message for humanity.” The statement ends there.
The center’s investigator on the case added this note to the file: “We have urged the source of the report to reveal what the urgent information is, but have not received that information, as of this writing.”
Guess it wasn’t so urgent after all.
Some notable UFO sightings
Most reports are not from obviously disturbed individuals. Most are simply curious, trying to explain what they witnessed. Many people state their skepticism toward the whole UFO phenomenon and say they find themselves surprised to be filing a report. Those people often say that they’ll be relieved to find out they saw a meteorological, astronomical, or known aeronautical phenomenon.
With some reports, the center is pretty easily able to explain the UFO. A bold steady light near the horizon is almost certainly the planet Venus. Dozens of dots in a straight line moving across the night sky are probably a cluster of recently launched Starlink satellites. Those now make up 40% of all satellites ever launched; they’re bright little guys, too. (That 2020 spike in reports is mostly a whole lot of people seeing Starlink. The center website now warns folks about that possibility before they submit their stories.)
In 2015, the U.S. Navy launched a missile in California that was so bright it was apparently seen by some Utahns. In 2016, 19 reports concerned the reentry of a disintegrated Chinese rocket.
But here are some of those 26 independently corroborated reports — where multiple independent parties made separate filings — that stood out to me as difficult to immediately dismiss.
• On Jan. 26, 2011, three people submitted similar reports about lights in the sky — two of the reports were from American Fork, one from Lehi. All reports indicate three red lights hovering in the sky in a triangle, without any sound. These red lights were “periodically dropping white, sparkly substances,” which then would “drop approximately a third of the distance between the red light and the ground, and then disappear.” There is also bad video of it on YouTube. There would be other similar corroborated sightings of the three red lights or orbs on Dec. 24, 2011, Jan. 1, 2012, and May. 28, 2012.
• On March 7, 2014, two people reported a UFO over Layton: a formation of six lights that both people thought must be planes or helicopters lined up to land, until they “realized the lights weren’t moving or flashing.” Both reported that the lights changed formations quickly, saying, “They went from a 55-degree angle, to a 40-degree angle, to a 70-degree angle within moments,” and “the shape of the line would move around like they were lights hooked to a string.” Then, one report said, the lights scattered; the other doesn’t indicate how the lights ended.
• On Aug 11, 2020, five reports — two from Salt Lake City, and one each from West Jordan, Sundance, and Nephi; all from 7:40 to 8:28 p.m. — indicate something happening in the skies. The biggest commonality is three white lights in the form of a triangle, shining brighter than the night sky, that then disappeared one by one. The West Jordan report noted a “U-shaped grayish object with a black center, zigzagging like a snake through the cloud” before the three lights appeared. None of the other four reports saw the U-shaped object.
Can all of those be explained by knowable phenomena? Very possibly. The most likely explanation for those cases is probably some U.S. military activity of which we’re unaware.
Even if that’s true, though, it’s still fascinating. Some powerful entity is displaying some technology that goes beyond how we expect things to work in the skies.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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