A streak of UFO light in the night sky over the mountains of the Eastern Sierra, near Lone Pine, California

A UFO streak of light flying through the starry skies over the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.

Can you tell me what this is?

Last spring I was shooting the clouds over the Sierra Crest from the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, doing long exposure shots of 25 seconds to capture the light of a waxing crescent moon lighting up the clouds that were clinging to the crest of the high Sierra peaks near Mount Whitney. I did not see what ever caused this streak of light while the shutter was open and the camera was exposing. However, as soon as the exposure was done and the image popped up on the rear camera LCD I instantly thought, “What the heck is that?”

I looked toward the west where my camera was aimed within two or three seconds after seeing the image on my LCD and noticed a very bright singular light source, brighter than Jupiter continuing to rise into the sky (from my perspective / vantage point). Within another two or three seconds after spotting the moving light source — which was moving slowly; much, much slower than a meteor, — suddenly faded out over the span of a second or two, like someone hitting a dimmer switch vs. a light switch.

The 100% view shows no aviation navigation strobe lights, which clearly show up as a string of dots during a long exposure, nor does it show any sort of fragmentation like a larger fireball breaking up.

Detail shot UFO over Lone Pine Peak

Last fall I also by sheer chance managed to photograph the Trident Missile that was launched from Vandenberg AFB on California’s southern Central Coast.

This definitely didn’t quite look like that other previous photo — though I think the speed of the moving object in this instance we more similar to a missile than a meteor. Through social media, I asked if anyone knew if a missile had been launched out of Vandenberg. A friend that subscribes to their public email service said no missile launch was announced. It could have been a secret military missile launch, maybe from a submarine off the California coast? I dunno… maybe some science or military guys (or gals) can chime in with an answer. For me, it remains unidentified.

(Side note: I’m a huge fan of watching and listening to the f-18 Navy jets that fly out of the nearby China Lake base, and constantly buzz (loudly) around this part of the Eastern Sierra and Death Valley, and I’m nearly 100% certain it wasn’t one of those since there was no sound and those aircraft are still using red navigation strobes at night.)

UPDATE: Thanks to many suggestions, I’ve checked whether it was the ISS; nope, it was over North Australia. I’ve checked some of the satellite tracking web sites, and nothing showed up for that time in that part of the sky. I’m still convinced it’s not a plane, as I’ve captured hundreds of planes over the years flying through my images. The navigation light colors and flashing pulses are a pure dead giveaway for what the object is; a plane – pure and simple. This ain’t that.

Meta:  3/11/2016, 8:50:02 PM
Nikon D800
80.0-400.0 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 110mm
Exp. 25.0 s at f/5.6
ISO 3200

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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.

Image ID#: 160311a_DVA-0135

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • Lynn says:

    China Lake flies more than F-18’s, the also have F-22 and other newer aircraft which you see (and hear) over Death Valley area. That would be my guess and if flying in restricted airspace it might not have had navigation lights

    • enlightphoto says:

      Thanks for the comment, Lynn. This would have been over Sequoia National Park, rather than east over China Lake and Death Valley. Even there, I’ve usually seen a single red nav beacon on the underbelly. It’s a blast trying to watch them at night when they’re practicing dogfights at altitude.

  • From the length of exposure and distance traveled I am going to say space station.

  • Paul Conrad says:

    It’s the International Space Station. The description you give of it fading is what it does when it moves into Earth’s shadow. I bet if you looked up in the NASA charts, seek the day & time you shot this, you’ll find it’s ISS.

  • Chloe M. says:

    Its a beautiful photograph…. must have been a lot of fun capturing it.

  • Hey Gary: You should be easily able to confirm online whether it was ISS using date/time/location data.

    Whatever it is/was, Coast to Coast should know about it 🙂

    • enlightphoto says:

      Thanks, MG. That’s a good suggestion. Coast2Coast has kept me company on many a dark desert night drive.

  • Peter says:

    OK, I shoot night skies all the time. Lone Pine, Trona Pinnacles, Red Rock Canyon, Joshua Tree N. P. Eastern Sierra was my stomping ground past 8 yrs.
    I would saw you got a airplane with it forward lights on. The time of exposure and you don’t show a 2nd frame.
    I do shooting star & time lapse, so if it is in 2 or 3 frames:
    1. airplane.
    2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iridium_satellite_constellation Iridium FLARES are a common sight. Short busts of light on the camera frame the satellite takes 10 seconds to pass through the reflecting area. I often have 2 frames with half the image on each. leaves small thin streaks like a shooting star.

    The size of the lights suggests a passenger airline with the “forward facing wing landing lights were on.” Yes, I have seen these before. As they fly across the skies.

    When I shoot, I have a 4 second buffer between frames/shutter, so any light going across 2 or more images is an airplane or UFO.

    Yes, I have stared up at the skies long enough over the years, that while I don’t have an images of UFOs. I have seen stuff that will challenge any Scientist.

  • Richard Heather says:

    I have seen a Vandenberg launch trail from Lone Pine It looked like it was coming straight up from Mt Whitney the trail twisted in the wind layers. I did not see the rocket I was too late. This was pre-digital too faint to photograph. We often see Vandenberg launches here in SLO county. It would not look like this. Richard Heather Los Osos, CA

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