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Science And Nature

Flying saucer-shaped cloud floats above Hawaiian telescopes (photo)

cloud shaped like a flying saucer floating over telescopes on a mountain top

A lenticular cloud floats above the Gemini Observatory in Maunakea, Hawai’i.(Image credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Chu)

No, aliens didn’t just go to a few telescopes probing for celestial phenomena.

The Gemini Observatory on the Big Island of Hawai’i recently experienced a “close encounter” from the cloud that some people keep company with unidentified flying objects (UFOs), however the real explanation is much less alien. (It’s never about aliens, actually.)

“If initially you thought the white shapes on the left appeared as if a flying saucer, you then aren’t alone. The white oval structures are actually beautiful types of lenticular clouds,” officials with the U.S. National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab, shared Thursday (Aug. 10) in a description of the image, that was taken at Gemini North in Maunakea, Hawai’i. (NOIRLab helps manage Gemini.)

Lenticular clouds, sometimes called “UFO clouds,” form when fast winds crash in to the side of a mountain or other tall structure, based on the National Weather Service (opens in new tab).

Related: Ghostly ‘UFO cloud’ hovering over mountains wows judges in weather photo contest

The United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office says these formations are very common in mountainous regions. “When air blows across a mountain range, using circumstances, it could create a train of large standing waves in the air downstream, rather like ripples forming in a river when water flows over an obstruction,” the Met Office stated.

“When there is enough moisture in the air,” any office continued, “the rising motion of the wave may cause water vapor to condense, forming the initial appearance of lenticular clouds.”

Lenticular clouds form mostly in the mesosphere, that is the cheapest and densest layer of Earth’s atmosphere. Roughly 75% of Earth’s air is available here, in a narrow zone just 5 to 9 miles (8 to 14.5 kilometers) in altitude.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is really a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to greatly help others explore the universe. Elizabeth’s on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from the simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada’s Carleton University. Elizabeth can be a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got thinking about space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, but still really wants to be an astronaut someday.

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