A UFO Over China?! Well, No.

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A purported unidentified flying object in the skies of Hangzhou, China has drawn attention from international media. Earlier this month, the local airport was shut down for about an hour when an odd twinkling object was spotted in the sky.

Because people love a good UFO story, the news of the airport shutdown has rippled outwards from the Chinese town. A Fox News affiliate posted a video it claimed came from the incident, and the LA Times bought that interpretation and posted it, too.

It's a gorgeous video. But there's just one problem. It wasn't taken over Hangzhou, but Kazakhstan, says Geoffrey Forden, an MIT weapons analyst, who is often called upon to analyze mysterious rocket launches and other real unidentified flying objects. 

"Unfortunately, this video is not from Hangzhou but from Kazakhstan and was taken on June 30th and shows a Progress M launch from the Baikonur," Forden said. The rocket seen here, in other words, was a routine launch to resupply the International Space Station. "It looks so strange because the upper stages have already left the earths atmosphere and the plume has expanded to many kilometers. It's very unusual to see this from the Earth's surface (and very
interesting since it shows the transition from one stage to another) but it is not a black-ops rocket at all."

The rest of the UFO story falls apart in a similar way. Forden debunked the alien conspiracists on his fascinating blog, Arms Control Wonk. It's tough to get a handle on what people really saw in the sky -- and photoshopped pictures proliferate immediately -- but the likeliest scenario, it turns out, is that the Great Twinkling Light of Hangzhou was actually a Chinese ballistic missile, the DF-21.

Video: LA Times.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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