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Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010
Surrey's alien invaders or sky lantern menace?
By Heather Discoll-Woodford
BBC Surrey

Sky lanterns

Picture the scene. You happen to look out of your bedroom window one night and spot something odd in the sky.

A large group of glowing orange lights are floating silently past, high above the Surrey roof tops.

So, do you immediately rush outside in your pyjamas, thinking that aliens are about to invade?

Or just shrug, assume a neighbour in party mood has let off a few sky lanterns and clamber into bed without giving it a second thought?

Lights in the sky
How the floating orange lights may look in the Surrey sky

Personally I'd be straight back under the duvet, eyes tight shut, snoring loudly, with Teddy tucked under my arm.

A move that some might see as rather blasé, even foolhardy.

But I'm an old sceptic.

And I have never witnessed first-hand the spectacle of floating orange lights.

But plenty of people have and quite a few believe there is more to them, than just a burning wick inside a large paper bag.

Anthony Mullins lives in Byfleet and saw three orange lights following each other in quick succession, at 10.46 on the night of 31 December 2009.

He asked if anyone else had seen them, or knew what they were.

My immediate thought, when I read his message, was that someone had got a little carried away and launched their New Year's Eve lanterns an hour early.

But Kenneth John Parsons, Founder and Chairman of The British Earth and Aerial Mysteries Society based on the Surrey/Hants border would probably disagree.

He has been quoted as saying "That's [sky lanterns] usually the standard explanation given by the debunkers to dismiss such cases."

"I have studied actual film of the release of these lanterns and one can easily see the tell-tale flickering of the flame from the tea light."

He says people "are living in denial about this phenomenon."

And those "people" include me. A definite debunker if ever there was one.

Could real ET's be responsible for the lights in our skies?

While I am not completely averse to the idea there might be life somewhere else in the universe, I am yet to be convinced the floaty lights are anything other than floaty lights.

I've never come across any bug-eyed little green men in flying saucers on my travels, but I have found remnants of sky lanterns in the woods near my house.

Proof to me that one definitely exists, even if the other possibly doesn't.

A dozen round orange lights

Andy Clarke contacted us last year, to say he had witnessed up to a dozen round orange lights, visible from Redhill, heading in an easterly direction from the town, at approximately 22.40 in the evening.

On 4 July, several people reported seeing orange lights moving across the sky between Leatherhead and Dorking.

They apparently "moved in clusters, sporadic groups, or single units, some at synchronised speed, some not."

This would indicate they are light enough to be carried on air currents, in a similar way that the seeds of a dandelion are carried on the wind.

Either that, or our little alien chums need a quick lesson from the Red Arrows in formation flying.

Hot air balloons

Sky lanterns are designed to be very light. They are made of paper, with a fine wire frame and small piece of gauze attached at the bottom.

Igniting this gauze causes the paper canopy to fill with warm air and rise, when released, in the same way a full sized hot air balloon does.

The lanterns emit a flickering orange glow which is diffused through the translucent paper as they soar skyward, reaching heights of up to 1,250 metres, before eventually falling back to earth, spent.

And the higher they go, the less obvious the flicker becomes to the observer on the ground..

They can apparently travel up to 30 miles from their release site.

The increasing popularity of setting off mini hot air balloons for celebrations in this country, could account for the growing number of sightings of strange orange lights in the Surrey sky.

Since our county has yet to be subject to a large scale invasion from any of ET's relatives, it would suggest that sky lanterns could well be the cause of most, if not all these incidents.

Cattle deaths

Silage field
Farmers are concerned lantern wire will end up in silage

But there is a more serious side to this phenomenon.

The National Union of Farmers is concerned about the trend for releasing burning wadding and paper into our skies.

They report that these lanterns are landing in members' fields where silage is growing.

They said "If the wire component were to be chopped up with the grass and end up in the silage fed to the cattle, it would cause the cows serious stomach problems and probably result in their death."

One farmer allegedly found over 50 burnt out lanterns in one of his fields.

There is the added danger that lanterns can set fire to crops or buildings if they have not burnt themselves out before they reach the ground.

In fact, Surrey's fire service says that they can be a "substantial fire risk."

Surrey Fire and Rescue Service shows how easily the lanterns catch fire.

Warnings came after remains of lanterns were found on farmland near Reigate, last Summer, prompting fears of grassland fires.

A spokesman urged people to be careful and said the lanterns could start random fires if they fell to earth or came into contact with something.

Bryn Strudwick, from Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, said although it was difficult to prove the fire service suspected the lanterns were the cause of a number of grassland fires this year.

Where's the evidence?

However, the potential hazard of the lanterns aside, if Kenneth John Parsons and others are right about the lights being caused by something else, and if we are being visited from "beyond", why is there no evidence on the ground?

Surely these space tourists would not waste valuable fuel, just floating about aimlessly above Dorking, for instance?

If I'd just travelled one hundred miles, let alone thousands of light years, I'd be bursting for the little girl's room.

At the very least I'd need to stretch my legs and have a nice cup of tea and a sandwich.

It all seems rather pointless, arriving en masse, to visit our green and pleasant land if you aren't ever going to get out of your craft and say hi to the natives.

Other related links

The lights in the sky

MOD shuts UFO investigations unit

Astronomers hopeful of alien find


Do you believe there is more to the orange lights than can be explained away by the sky lantern theory? Or are these lanterns the cause of all the sightings? Are some of us right to be sceptical? Email me at surrey@bbc.co.uk and let me know what you think.

I and a group of friends also witnessed the orange floating lights in the sky on July 4th 2009. We were enjoying a BBQ in a friends garden in Buckland near Dorking when the lights appeared. My husband quickly surmised that they were Chinese Lanterns probably released at a party or wedding near by.

PS, Dorking

One night last Summer, about midnight, my son and I were walking the dog when we witnessed a couple of these lanterns 'launched' from a nearby garden, where a party was in full swing. We watched the lanterns rise up in the sky and float away. When some distance away, the flicker disappears and a single point of light is visible. The light will then appear to accelerate away at high speed. Of course, it hasn't really, when it is a certain distance away, the light becomes too small to be seen; this happens quite suddenly, giving the appearance of acceleration. A few days later, the local paper carried reports of UFO's sighted, at the same time and date as my son and I had observed the lanterns. Had we not seen the lanterns launched, we too, may have wondered what the lights in the sky were!

Michael Parkes

I just saw about 10 lights pass silently over my house in Farnham, Surrey, 06th feb at 23:30 hrs. I think they were travelling too fast to be taken by the wind.

Andrew Tomkins

Have just read your article on orange lights. I too saw the three orange lights on Dec 31st, heading west over Lightwater. Had no idea what they were at the time, but the possibility that they were lanterns makes perfect sense - just the right colour and speed of movement.

Andrew Hockey

I spotted some lights in the sky tonight whilst at work, just two, one following the other rather slowly. They looked like people dancing in the sky, but all lit up.

After thinking I was going crazy, I thought OMG ALIENS RUN! Which, as you can imagine, is a rather embarrassing way for a twenty-year-old female security officer to behave.

But I digress. I began researching. I found your article and found it rather illuminating. Pardon the pun.

I sat and thought a little more, ignoring my work, and remembered. Of course! Burns Night! Of course the lights had to have been paper lanterns. It's so obvious now.

I however, do believe in the existance of aliens. Not little green martian men with three eyes on stalks, but actual intelligent beings from another world.

But the keyword in that sentence was 'intelligent'. If they're so intelligent, why would they, as you say, come all this way just to float around a bit? Surely they'd want to make contact. Then, finding us lacking, they'd shake their heads (or wherever their brain is) and immediately leave. Let us hope they don't talk to a politician. They may think us all stupid and decide to invade.

However, the point I'm trying to make is that your article on lights in the sky was possibly the most helpful thing I've read on the internet in a very long while, and I thank you for preventing me from putting in a scared call to my boss and looking like a fool with my (all male) colleagues.



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