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UFO reportedly seen in Park Rapids on Friday night may be a Jupiter sighting

PARK RAPIDS - Some Park Rapids residents claim to have seen a UFO Friday night south of the city.

But it might be an explainable phenomenon, a Hubbard County amateur astronomer believes.

The residents said it appeared as a bright yellow-orange ball that flitted briefly in the sky and seemed to become brighter as if someone had turned on a light switch. One woman said there appeared to be aircraft following or tracking it. She thought she saw a flaming tail emanating from it.

Jupiter is visible many evenings as a bright yellow-orange orb. Amateur astronomer Rick Johnson said it may appear to move.

Astronomer Rick Johnson said it's most likely Jupiter.

"It looks just like a plane's landing light pointed right at you but more a yellowish cream color," he said. "It was nearly bright enough to cast a faint shadow though the nearby moon was a lot brighter."

But Jupiter doesn't dart from place to place in the sky, which one observer claims. Johnson can explain that, too. It's called an autokinetic illusion.

"I wasn't standing there," he says by way of disclaimer. "If there were a few clouds or planes in the sky it makes judging motion difficult and a still object can appear to move. There is also an effect of the muscles of the eye that will cause a still bright object in an otherwise dark sky to appear to move as well."

The incident was apparently not reported to Hubbard County authorities.

"It (Jupiter) will be there every night for awhile but without planes in the area likely looks so much different as (to) not be recognized," he said.

Johnson supervised an observatory in Lincoln, Neb., for 27 years before moving here. He said observatory personnel often heard similar stories.

"People on the observing deck would suddenly notice Jupiter or Venus and swear it was moving rapidly," he said. "Later they'd easily recognize the planet but swear what they were seeing before was something different because a cloud or plane wasn't near it."

Johnson said when reference points disappear, an image looks different.

Johnson has been stargazing for 50 years and hasn't seen a UFO yet. An occasional meteor has been mistaken for a UFO, he said.

On Sept. 12, Johnson said Jupiter was to the right of the moon and a bit lower if you were looking south.

And he recalls the infamous case many years ago when a deputy in a neighboring county crashed into a row of mailboxes, claiming he'd seen a UFO. The deputy was castigated for allegedly falling asleep at the wheel and concocting a doozy of an excuse.

Johnson believes the man's story that he was blinded by green lights.

"I was observing that very night 40 miles away," he recalled. "I watched one of the oddest atmospheric events I've ever seen."

He said a bright red star called Aldebaran rose in the east-northeast and hit an "inversion layer" in the lower sky.

"For about 20 minutes it would flash all colors, not just it's normal orange-red color," he said. "Several times it turned bright green and appeared to send out what today we'd call a green laser pointer beam though they didn't exist at that time."

Johnson won't speculate as to whether the unfortunate deputy dozed off, then found a convenient excuse, or if he was so startled he went off the road. Regardless, he said, these things are all explainable.