The Kaikoura UFO

CHAPTER 17 – Sky-Watching Discovery I: The Kaikoura “UFO”

We bought Dominic a smallish 3″ refractor telescope for his birthday in October, 1979. He eagerly searched Norton’s Sky Atlas to learn about the stars and planets, and like a good father, I had to quickly learn this new hobby as well. Living, as we did then, in the caretaker’s house on the St John’s grounds, gave us a clear open sky view across the wide and dark college fields.

Orion was rising for the southern summer skies, and lo and behold, we discovered that Jupiter was rising in the night sky. After all, Jupiter is the easiest, excepting Venus, of the planets to see in the night sky – it’s always there, it’s relatively large, and for us novices, an easy target. It would take the next three months to reach its zenith. And even more astounding – Jupiter would be at its closest to earth for over 300 years, reaching its zenith near the solstice on December 21. We looked forward to seeing its stripes grow more clear, and its presence in the sky grow more boldly.

During the week leading up the soltice and Christmas, a typical Hawkes Bay dry nor’westerly swept the sky clean. Jupiter, by then, dominated the north and north-west night sky, looking like a bright orb-like jewel – I have never seen it since then so magnificently glorious.

One night in this week, TVNZ reported that an Argosy air freighter and later a NZRAF Orion reported a strange bright, glowing object in the north-west night sky: unexplainable. This object was reported to be glowing, bouncing around in the sky (the gale?). The TVNZ camera crew in the Orion with their handheld 200mm lens cameras sent images back of a big striped orb accompanied by three small orb-like spaceships, all bouncing around the sky (in the gale?).

New Zealand caught UFO fever.

That night though, Dominic immediately responded: “Dad, that is a typical image of Jupiter with its stripes!.”

Further UFO news developed. I phoned TVNZ and the RNZAF to bring attention to our own observations. Experts responded over the next week.

The following is a copy of a letter sent to TVNZ in 1979, regarding the Orion sightings of a purported UFO. The letter was ignored by the media, it was not published nor answered nor given to anyone in authority:

January 2, 1979

412 Jervois St


Chief Reporter

Avalon Studios


Lower Hutt

Dear Sir,

I rang your office on Tuesday night, January 2, 1979, at about 7.30 p.m. in order to draw to your attention some facts that might have been of interest to viewers in your investigation of the reported UFO sightings during the past week.

The information I gave you was not followed up, I gather, for there was no mention in the later news that night of any alternative explanation of the sightings. I still believe it is in the interest of viewers that the following alternative be considered:

1. My son and I have been observing the night sky for three months now, and with our new telescope we were particularly observing Jupiter as it rose through the summer skies. We were observing Jupiter and the night sky right through the time of the reported events regarding the Argosy and RNZAF Orion crews. We observed the TV news item and the camera clips of the object photographed by the TV crew.

2. In the past week Jupiter has dominated the whole northern sky dominating and present in the December night sky and clearly visible from 8pm in the NE till dawn in the NW, and is in one of the best viewing positions for observers with or without telescopes.

(a) It was very bright – much brighter at between 2am and 3am in the morning than any star, brighter than Venus which had not risen in the east.

(b) Its position about last Sunday at 3am was approximately NW and so bright and orb-like that two of its moons were visible to the naked eye (this week it will be lower in the sky and further north and less distinct perhaps – but still orb-like and uncanny nevertheless).

3. Even when viewed through our 60mm refractor telescope at magnification of 60x its markings were clearly evident – stripes across it are hazy but noticeable, especially the two white stripes above and below the equator of Jupiter. One of its moons is in transit and so appears as a black dot. I have enclosed with this letter photocopies of photos from a book about Jupiter: one photo showing how it appears with its moons, almost as part of a “fleet”; and a group of photos showing its markings. These photos confirm my own observations. You will note that if you freeze frame the TV clips of the “UFO” object that they are exactly like the stripes of Jupiter.

Much of the visual observation of the UFO is borne our by the transit of Jupiter, its position, its markings, its magnitude, its moons, and its orb-like “presence”. The term “presence” explains much of the awe, the splendour and predominance such an object can have, especially without binoculars, etc. Without binoculars, people would feel an uncanny experience observing this object over the past week.

4. The planet, Jupiter, this past December, 1978, reached its closest ever position to the earth in recorded history! It takes 350 years for it to get this close again! So these observations of Jupiter are unique and I believe are being reported incorrectly by the media.

5. Not only is Jupiter closer to the earth than ever, but it reached its closest point to the earth – its zenith last week – the week of the TV filming! Reaching its zenith means that two important events come together to make Jupiter the most outstanding visual object in the night sky: closest to earth in 1000s of years and at the zenith – high and right above the NW sky at midnight.

6. Southern Hemisphere observers were in a unique situation – the ecliptic in our summer skies at around the summer solstice presented Jupiter at its closest position to the earth anyway, but this time much, much more clearly than for 350-400 years. And 10,000 feet up in a plane would make Jupiter appear even clearer.

7. A north-west gale had blown for a week immediately up to and during these events – the sky was swept unusually clear of debris and thus the night stars and planets were unusually bright.

8. A hand-held 200mm TV camera with a typical big zoom would easily see Jupiter as a large orb and it would also see its moons (the “UFO” reported as having a “fleet of 2 or 3 ships”) in its lens – much bigger than in my small telescope! But of course holding a hand-held camera on zoom in a plane would make Jupiter jump around the viewing area – I know because I have the same difficulty viewing it when there is a wind blowing around the telescope.

I am sure that the above observations match those of pilots of the Orion crew.

Now, to the radar “blips”: I have no answer but I do know that if one accepts that the visual phenomena matches so well with the presence of Jupiter and the heightened expectations of some of its viewers then the radar blips may have another cause – after all, visual observation predominates over the medium of radar scanning. I saw Jupiter and am pretty sure the Orion pilots did too.

The New Zealand astronomers which were interviewed and admittedly are experts, seem to rest their observation on theory and Venus rather than the hard facts of actual observation of the night sky lately – after all it is the holidays for them. My son and I were aware of Venus being in the eastern sky in the early morning and had discounted it because the Orion pilots reported the UFO in the NW sky – exactly were Jupiter was over those nights. Some professional astronomers explained the events by saying that Venus was refracted through the sky by the unusual NW gale conditions. The Orion pilots and ourselves saw something different. So much for the arm-chair professionals.

Meanwhile my son and I had been doing our own field work since having our telescope from October, 1978. We have been observing the planet Jupiter for three months as it has risen through the sky. We have been observing carefully this planet – mainly because it is so bright and in the telescope it looks really close. We are not top physicists nor arm-chair astronomers, but keen observers of sky objects. The professional astronomers who are on holiday would not have been following local planetary events anyway – but deep sky objects – and all this UFO debate is beneath them.

It comes down to observers of the event: either an unidentified flying object observed by pilots and a TV crew; or Jupiter observed by probably the only two people in NZ actually scientifically watching the night skies over this period.

Lastly I would be obliged if some follow-up work were done from all the information mentioned above, for if you wouldn’t mind, my reputation as a father to an excited 13-year-old budding astronomer is at stake.

Yours sincerely

Michael Phillips

In 1999, TV3 New Zealand, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Kaikoura UFO Event. I intended to send the above letter to them, but thought it best not to reinforce the news sensationalism surrounding the issue. It is an issue. But the real issue is not whether UFOs exist or not.

The real issue is the failure of modern science and modern education to educate the public about astronomy: the facts about the everyday, typical, viewable night sky. In the present day, professional astronomers leave the viewable night sky to amateurs: they are busy with deep-sky observations. I doubt whether many of them even follow events in the night sky. Sad.

It is sad because the night sky presents an ever-changing, variable mix of moon, planets, stars and their relative positions relative to viewing from the Earth. There are some who believe that the moon’s position to the earth may cause earthquakes; there are some who believe that the moon effects the weather and growing patterns; there are some who believe that sun spots effect climate; there are some who believe that even the planetary positions of the major planets may effect the weather. Of course, most of these beliefs are unprovable mainly because the interactions of so many variables and the unmeasurable tiny changes in gravity involved are not worth the time and effort of scientific research. And so, the professionals do not bother to view the actual sky.

Scientists failed also to inform the public about the TV photos of the UFO: it had big stripes across it just like photos of Jupiter. Anyone involved in astronomy would have picked up that fact right away. And the TV reporters looking through their camera remarked that the UFO was a big orb with two or three little ships beside it. Why didn’t the scientists pick up on that obvious connection with Jupiter and its moons? Because they don’t know the night sky and most of the population of the Western world have given up looking up at the sky.

Those that reported the event, the eye witnesses wanted an explanation: what explains the big striped blog of light bouncing around the sky with its little fleet of light blobs. Those who saw with their own eyes these phenomena over two weeks did indeed see with their own eyes an unidentified “flying” object which was present through those weeks, and no explanations by the scientists seemed to be credible. One scientist surmised that Venus was refracted 90deg through the sky! Another that it might be a fleet of fishing boat lights. And then people started seeing UFOs everywhere: campers on the East Coast saw two globes, one bright the other small and red, rising above the horizon at dawn – Venus and Mercury.

This all leads me to suggest that a 1000 years ago, people knew more about the night sky than they do now.

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