We’re constantly being treated to new or newly reexamined evidence of UFOs–now called UAPs–and the Pentagon’s commitment to taking them seriously has accompanied additional (contentious) evidence such as video and FOIA documents floating around the UFOlogy communities. An FBI memo purports to admit to the Roswell event really being an alien ship.

The FBI has since said the memo conveys secondhand accounts, but how do we know, the communities ask. Videos and photos, unverifiable by their social media audience, fly around the internet.

But it’s weather balloons that are the silent, neutral enemy of the good UFO/UAP story. Weather balloons aren’t hot air-powered, but rely on helium or hydrogen, and can go really really high–20 miles up–and can get really cold, like -95 C and -139 F. And they’re white and shaped funny, particularly because they expand and contract and can thus manifest as different shapes at different times. These balloons carry instruments to measure air pressure, temperature, humidity, wind speed and more. Sometimes the balloons disintegrate or burst in their radically high altitude, and the instrument panels parachute to the ground. Other times, of course, the balloons themselves come down, and are perhaps confused with crashed spaceships.

Last week, in a town of 35,000 where my friend lives, a few people spotted a distinct speck of white in the sky, stationary, hanging. Some of them snapped imperfect pictures and took to social media asking if anyone knew what it was. Some, in their posts, preemptively said they suspected it was a weather balloon. It looked like two objects in the sky, one above the other. Soon, their suspicions were confirmed. I saw it too–it looked like two tiny white dots, untethered from each other but connected, floating perfectly still together. Of course, they are tethered together in real life.

Also tethered together: alleged flying saucer sightings and weather balloons as the unending official explanation. A google search of “UFOs” “weather balloon” yields 47,900 results. Roswell is an archetypal contact event, and its official explanation was a weather balloon. Eliav Chohen’s 2021 piece “Hot air balloons and UFO’s: A history of mistaken identity” at the Seattle Ballooning site also discusses weather balloons, emphasizing that “balloons found themselves at the core of a never-ending mistaken identity crisis with unidentified flying objects.” Toronto’s North York Central Library Blog ran a post about 8 years ago with the wonderful title “UFO or Weather Balloon? Choose One,” although there was no such quiz in the actual post. Instead, the author created a useful list of definitive books on Roswell, both sides of the cryptic debate on UFOs, and some meta-analysis on conspiracy theory. The inclusion of The Roswell Encyclopedia was my best takeaway. And it’s still happening: According to Mental Floss, “In 2017, a large balloon from the Google company X crashed in Colombia. Farmers who observed the downed object smoking and leaking ‘strange liquid’ thought they were seeing a UFO.”

Photo credit: NASA/Goddard/BARREL/Brett Anderson