When Planets Attack

Contributed by
Aug 11, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Here’s a point I’ve made eleventy-bajillion times: People aren’t familiar with the sky. This is understandable, and generally curable—go out and look up!—but it does lead to many folks being surprised they can see human-made satellites, meteors, and even the planets of our solar system with nothing but their eyes alone.

In most of these cases lack of celestial knowledge doesn’t cause any direct harm. But in other cases the outcome could be a lot worse. Like, if you mistake bright planets in the sky with enemy drones.

The Ladakh region of India, in the country’s north, borders with China. The two countries have had a long history of dispute over this land, so the Indian army keeps surveillance in the area. In mid-2012, according to The (Calcutta) Telegraph, the army began seeing two bright objects over the region, which for several months they suspected were Chinese drones. Unsure of what they actually were, the army contacted astronomers, who identified the lights as being the planets Jupiter and Venus.

OK then.

I did a quick check myself, and given some leeway on the timing, it makes sense. In August of 2012 Jupiter would’ve risen after midnight and been visible all night, rising a bit earlier every day. By November it would rise at sunset and be up all night. Venus orbits the Sun more quickly, and it moves more rapidly over that same time period, but in August 2012 would’ve been visible to the east before sunrise, getting closer to the Sun (and rising later) as time went on. All in all, the observations do seem to fit.

Although it’s being reported that the Indian military were saying the objects violated Indian territory, it looks to me like this situation ended up pretty well. It’s hard to know exactly how high tensions were, and how high up in the army ranks this misidentification ran. And while I wish they had contacted the astronomers earlier, the fact that astronomers were contacted at all shows a good deal of sense.

And I’ll note this isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) these two planets were mistaken for flying objects. People have reported Jupiter as a UFO in the past, and a NYC Fox station even took video showing Jupiter and its moons while the reporter thought it was a UFO. Venus has been widely seen as a flying saucer, and even the Moon has seen its share of misidentification.

Not that this makes me feel any better. I’d prefer that countries with itchy trigger fingers not mistake whole planets for enemy hardware, and while this kind of ignorance is curable—it was in this case—who knows when it’ll come back to haunt us?

Tip o’ the UAV wing to Emily Lakdawalla.