Common UAP Misidentifications

Several common objects or phenomena can sometimes be mistaken for UAP, especially when they are observed during weather or other conditions that may reduce visibility or cause unusual visual effects. Below are a few examples of things that frequently result in UAP sighting reports:

Astronomical Objects

Planets, bright stars, meteors, and other celestial objects are commonly mistaken for UAP. This is especially the case under visual conditions that may include partially cloudy skies, where stars or planets observed through gaps in moving clouds can result in the illusion that the fixed celestial object is moving, rather than the clouds closer to the observer. A few astronomical objects that commonly result in UAP sightings include planets like Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, as well as meteors, comets, or even the Sun or the Moon. For more information, see this FAQ page from the NASA Night Sky Network.

Starlink Satellites

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX that began launching several thousands of small satellites into orbit in 2019, giving rise to numerous misidentifications of UAP. Starlink satellites can appear one of two ways: 1) as a straight line or “train” of lights very close together that all move through the sky in one direction (particularly within two days after they are launched, as 46 or more of the satellites ascend toward their final orbits), or 2) as single more widely-spaced non-flashing lights (like any other satellite) that appear one at a time as they pass overhead, but all still moving together in a single line. Information on how to track Starlink locations can be found here.

International Space Station and Satellites

The largest modular space station currently in low Earth orbit, for the last several years the International Space Station (ISS) has made appearances as a solid, sometimes very bright white light traversing the evening sky from one end of the horizon to the next as it reflects sunlight from its position in orbit. Occasionally, the ISS and other orbital satellites will enter Earth’s shadow as they pass through the night sky, creating the illusion of a bright light that very suddenly vanishes. Information about where the ISS can be seen near you can be found using NASA’s Spot the Station resource page.


Experimental aircraft, stealth planes, military drones, and other U.S. government aircraft are also frequently mistaken for UAP due to their often atypical flight patterns. However, even more conventional airplanes and helicopters can be misidentified as UAPs when observed under certain conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enforces lighting requirements for aircraft flying at night, which must have red, green, and white position lights, one anticollision light, which can be white or red and can be a rotating beacon or flashing strobe, and a landing light. Additionally, FlightRadar24 remains the go-to source online for real-time aircraft flight tracking globally.

Rocket or Missile Launches

Missiles and rockets are frequently launched from several locations in the United States and other parts of the world. These launches often take place late at night or in the early morning hours, sometimes resulting in visual displays that can appear very unusual. As the rocket ascends, its trail is illuminated by the heat of its engines and can be seen over great distances. As exhaust gases from the rocket engines expand and disperse, it sometimes creates a plume that appears to be brighter near the rocket due to the scattering of light by the gases. The path of the rocket can also sometimes appear curved due to the curvature of the Earth. The projectile may also appear to have a luminous tail, especially when the rocket is illuminated by the Sun from below the horizon, making the rocket’s path visible even during nighttime launches. Spaceflight Now publishes a regularly updated launch schedule of orbital missions around the world on its website.


Weather balloons, party balloons, and other airborne inflatables can appear as mysterious floating objects, especially if they catch sunlight or are illuminated by artificial lights. Information about weather balloon launches can be found on the website of the National Weather Service.

Weather Phenomena

Unusual cloud formations like saucer-shaped lenticular clouds, as well as atmospheric optical effects like halos and sundogs, can sometimes result in UAP misidentifications. A complete list of unusual weather conditions can be found on the website of the National Weather Service.


With the increasing use of drones for military, commercial, and recreational purposes, drone flights can also sometimes be mistaken for UAP, especially at night when their lighting patterns can make them easily visible. Information about drone sightings and operations in U.S. airspace can be found on the FAA’s website.

Birds and Wildlife

Birds (single or flocks) and insects can occasionally also result in UAP sightings when observed under unusual lighting conditions. One novel example of this outlined by Callahan and Mankin (Applied Optics, Nov. 1978) can be viewed on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Chinese lanterns, sky lanterns, and other floating decorative objects released into the air can create the illusion of glowing, floating objects at night.

Military Activity

Certain military exercises that may include the use of flares, or other training activities involving aircraft and pyrotechnics can lead to sightings of unfamiliar lights and movements. According to a 2023 Rand Corporation study that mapped public reports of UAP across America, public reports of UAP sightings were consistently correlated with areas where military operations occur. The RAND Corporation’s report, “Not the X-Files: Mapping Public Reports of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Across America,” can be found here.

Atmospheric Optical Effects

Mirages, reflections, and refractions in the atmosphere can distort the appearance of aircraft and other objects, making them seem like they are hovering or moving erratically.

Holographic Projections

Large-scale holographic displays used for events or entertainment can create realistic-looking objects in the sky that might be misinterpreted as UFOs.

Hoaxes and Pranks

Some sightings are deliberate hoaxes or pranks, where people create fake UFOs using lights, lasers, or other means.

It is important to note that while many UAP sightings have logical explanations, some remain unidentified due to insufficient information, perceptual limitations, or other factors. With new technological advancements, as well as those in the sciences that expand our understanding of the natural world, the list of potential misidentifications may increase over time. Hopefully, our understanding of any legitimately unexplained anomalous phenomena appearing in our world will also expand, potentially leading to the acquisition of new knowledge that may be valuable to humans.