The light suddenly rose into the sky, then disappeared, leaving a dense halo of milky smoke, while other witnesses only described a large ball of light veiled as if by fog. Amazed testimonies and quite a few photos and videos of the phenomenon flourished on social networks. Some of them even talked of UFOs.
The official explanation arrived just over an hour later, with a message on X by the French Minister of the Armed Forces, immediately picked up by all social networks. It was the test launch of an M51.3 intercontinental ballistic missile from the Biscarrosse range, on the Atlantic coast. After following the expected trajectory, the missile fell back into the ocean waters, a few hundred kilometers from any coast. The most spectacular light phenomenon was produced by the detachment of the rocket's final stage, and the ionization of the residual fuel generated the expanding cloud.
In Spain, a large fireball crossed the sky of the Basque Country. Those who were in the towns along the seaside were able to see an intense light coming out of the sea, which ended up exploding, leaving behind a large luminescent trail of smoke. An online newspaper related the event with the Leonid meteor shower, then at its peak, only to correct itself once it learned of the missile launch right off their coasts. A mysterious cloud or some sort of glow that remained visible for a few minutes in the night sky was also reported from different parts of the Costa Brava, on the Mediterranean side of Spain. Just like in France, the phenomenon was widely documented with photographs and videos. A mediavida.com forum user even published a post entitled “France launches a missile with radioactive material to northern Spain”, claiming it was a missile launched towards the Spanish coast without warning. Of course, it was not radioactive, it had not entered Spanish territory, and authorities had indeed been informed. In short, just misinformation.
Also in Portugal, late afternoon, images of something that appeared to have exploded in the sky started surfacing on social media from numerous witnesses. The light reportedly lasted about five minutes before disappearing. More confirmation came from as far as Belgium, on the other side of France.
The effects of this M51 ballistic missile launch were also watched from Italy, in a westward direction, for a few minutes around 7.20 p.m. CET: a sort of whitish luminous ball of remarkable size, whose light then faded out entirely. The reported times vary from 7 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., some even until 8 p.m. Hundreds of reports arrived from Piedmont, Lombardy, Liguria, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Tuscany, and part of Sardinia (some locations more than 1,000 km away from the launch site). People went wild on social media networks, reporting the apparition and triggering discussions. Numerous messages also on Facebook, for example in the “Tornado in Italia” FB group, which deals with meteorology and extreme phenomena. The sighting was immortalized by many dozens of witnesses with their smartphones, and some fixed webcams also recorded it. Pictures were immediately shared on the web.
Some online newspapers incorrectly wrote that the phenomenon was also spotted in the province of Rome and the Castelli Romani area - a mistake due to the incorrect localization of a webcam video - immediately spread around the web - taken from Monte Romano (Rectius Monteromano) astronomical observatory which, despite the name, is not located in Lazio but in the Ravenna province, on the Apennines between Tuscany and Emilia.
This apparition, also due to its spectacular and unexpected aspect, provides the opportunity to think about how the event was experienced by the witnesses, and to compare considerations, reactions as well as media treatment with similar phenomena that occurred in past years, in particular with the luminous phenomenon observed from Italy on the evening of March 21, 1989.
Around the same time as the 2023 case, a glow in the sky, followed by a white and red streak of light that transformed itself into a large jagged cloud slowly dissolving after almost half an hour, was observed westward by hundreds of people across northern Italy. Very few images were produced (only photos, no videos) as compared to the dozens we got in 2023. In 1989, Italian daily newspapers widely covered the unusual celestial event the very next day, giving the same prominence to both missile and UFO hypotheses in their headlines. Even more articles were published on March 23, with four and six-column headlines, as well as full-page features. The official explanation from the French Ministry of Defense arrived only on the following day: that was the exercise launch of a S-3 ballistic missile, from that same Biscarrosse range.
However, at the time, France had not notified neighboring nations in advance of the launch, thus creating tensions with Italy. Before the explanation was provided, numerous theories were put forward: the explosion of the French Superphenix nuclear power plant, aurora borealis, or the launch of a rocket. Many believed it was a UFO, and some even thought of a “celestial sign” connected to the Virgin Mary apparitions. Another interesting case is that of a British Island Airways plane flying from Malta to London, which was over Sardinia around 7 p.m. on that same evening. Without any warning, the passengers were thrown from their seats when the pilot was forced to make a sudden maneuver to avoid colliding with a bright, multicolored object that suddenly appeared in his path. And English tabloid newspapers had a field day with that story.
Let's now analyze the differences with the latest episode on November 18th, 2023. The news was picked up by numerous online newspapers, but completely ignored by the newspapers in the paper edition, so much so that some were even surprised that no TV news talked about it. Unlike the previous time, the launch had been announced in advance at the appropriate locations. For example, as early as November 2nd, Dutch satellite tracking station SatTrackCam Leiden blog wrote about “an upcoming French M51 SLBM test to be launched from DGA missile test near Biscarrosse. Two Navigational Warnings have appeared that indicate the test, with a window running from Nov 16 - Dec 1, and a time window (18:00-23:59 UTC)”.
As for interpretations, some early sources linked the apparition to the (failed) launch of Space X’s Starship rocket, which had taken place that same afternoon in Texas, or to the unusual Northern Lights observed in Central and Northern Italy a few evenings earlier (November 5th). Someone also thought of an iridescent cloud (observed in those same days from various Italian locations) or the moon behind the clouds, but soon noticed that the night, moonless sky was clear. Some (very few) ufologists prone conspiratorial tendencies refused to accept the ballistic missile explanation, demanding to know the exact time of the launch and the reason for it. Some people, once the explanation of the missile arrived, criticized France for the launch, worried about an increase in international tensions, but also about possible environmental pollution.
Interestingly however, although the media continued to highlight that “many people thought of UFOs and aliens”, this isn't reflected in the visual first hand testimonies. The opinions were much more “neutral” than those in similar episodes in the past. Has something changed? Probably so, if compared to the past. Indeed, in Italy at least, despite the fact that we continue to talk about UFOs, or UAP (the more recent fashionable definition), the topic is less newsworthy. So much so that reports of alleged UFO sightings have greatly decreased. On the other hand, the “M51” case demonstrates that, if an anomalous light phenomenon appears in the sky, even of relatively short duration, many people will take photos and record videos, unlike what could have happened years ago.
Finally, a telling anecdote: two weeks after the M51 launch, on December 4th, a post was published in a UFO Facebook group with 1264 members, by a user who had signed up two days before, accompanied by two photos: “Good evening. A couple of nights ago, this light appeared in the sky, first small then becoming huge and gradually going out, it's definitely not the moon because you could see it from the opposite side, the sky was clear of clouds, clear with the moon and stars clearly visible. What could it be?” The photos and the report certainly refer to the launch of the M51, but the answer by a group administrator was: “Thanks for sharing... Many people from every region have seen it... but I couldn't say what it was...”
Unusual celestial phenomena, often resulting from missile launches for military or scientific purposes, have been consistently mistaken for UFOs worldwide since the early 1960s. While these occurrences are infrequent, it's possible that people have grown somewhat accustomed to them. As a result, when they witness such events, they may no longer associate them with UFOs.
Recent events once again highlight that, in the majority of cases, witnesses prove to be reliable in reporting what they observed, setting aside their interpretations. Social media platforms also play a significant role in providing immediate explanations and reducing ambiguity surrounding such experiences.
Main picture: Image by SpaceX-Imagery from Pixabay