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They are out there: UFO reported over Billerica

February 9, 2005
Wilmington Advocate

Whatever it was that appeared in the cold skies over Billerica on December 12, at least one observer was concerned enough to seek answers.

That's according to Mark Petty, an investigator with the Massachusetts Mutual UFO Network, which said he is heading up a team to look into the reported sighting.

The volunteer-run network is part of a nationwide mutual UFO network, whose chapter members in several states track reports of all manner of peculiar lights and objects seen hovering or cruising through the heavens.

Petty, who is originally from Billerica, offered few details about the Dec. 12 incident in order to protect the privacy of the person who reported it. A press release describes the reporting sighting only as "a strange aerial phenomenon."

"One of the biggest concerns we have is for the person who reported the sight," Petty said. He added, "They might be traumatized, or just so curious they go crazy. A lot of people report them years later. They will say, 'Back in 1976, I saw this thing.'"

Petty did say that someone reported a similar sighting that same night, several miles away, on a southern stretch of Interstate 495 in the Worcester County vicinity.

He hopes others who may have witnessed something unusual will come forward in an effort to help the investigation and will e-mail him at or visit the Web site,

Billerica police said they did not receive any reports of an unusual sighting in the sky Dec. 12, but said from time to time, they, like all police departments, do get calls from concerned residents of a strange light or sound. Usually, it's easy to figure out what the person is seeing.

UFO network chapters are volunteer-driven, and members come from many walks of life, from astronomers to factory workers, Petty said. The network trains and certifies volunteers who wish to investigate UFO reports, teaching them skills that include interviewing witnesses and looking at data on celestial activity. The Massachusetts network has more than 120 members.

In a written statement, Greg Berghorn, the state director of the Massachusetts network, said he sent a team of four investigators, led by Petty, to conduct interviews and survey the area of the reported sighting.

According to Berghorn, the network has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Aviation Administration to acquire radar tapes and phone reports. The network may also review police logs, newspaper articles and Internet findings in search of clues.

Petty said someone also reported seeing something peculiar in the sky over Billerica around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 29 and reported the incident to the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle, Wash.

That report describes "a very large, circular, bright-white light above the clouds going around and around in a very large circle" at high speeds. The report said the witness looked out again and saw the same light about an hour later and insisted it wasn't a search light or plane.

Without ruling out any possibilities, Petty said the light may have come from an area business, such as a gym in nearby Tewskbury.

By strictest definition, a UFO is, simply, an unidentified flying object. Petty said 95 percent of reported objects turn out to be ordinary things - a satellite or aircraft, or a planet or star that appears to waver because of atmospheric conditions.

"Lots of times, they are planes, meteors, something like that, or a reflection from the ground," Petty said, adding that the luminous planet Venus is the top-ranking culprit in UFO sightings.

Another factor in a possible area sighting is the presence of nearby Hanscom Air Force Base.

But among the annals of the Massachusetts Mutual UFO Network's cases remain about 5 percent whose origins have not yet been explained, said Petty.

Investigators will, from time to time, receive reports of aberrations such as a lighted object in the sky making several 90-degree turns, or blinking out and then reappearing in another part of the sky, Petty said.

There have also been reports of indentations in the soil that may or may not suggest an unusual craft landed there and even so-called crop circles - or unusual and seemingly deliberate patterns cut into the grass or ground.

"Then we have people who actually see what they describe as a craft," Petty said. "The ultimate goal is to try and find and answer as to what a UFO is."

To date, no smoking gun - a crashed vessel or vessel parts, or dead or wounded alien - exists to offer compelling evidence of interplanetary tourists.

Although the idea of a UFO sighting may conjure images of a spaceship landing in an open field in the Midwest, Petty said Massachusetts has its share of stories of unexplained occurrences.

Petty cited information from the National UFO Reporting Center indicating 412 reports of UFO sightings in the state. The earliest dates back to around 1638, when a strange light was reported flying back and forth over the Boston area.

Petty, who graduated from Billerica Memorial High School, now lives in Nashua, N.H. and works in marketing for a high-tech firm. Although he has no science degree, Petty said, "I've always been curious about it, ever since I was a child." He added, "I have always liked science, the sky and astronomy."

The Mutual UFO Network trains investigators on how to talk to people about what they may have seen and to collect information in an unbiased fashion, Petty said. Investigations may include questioning of those who say they witnessed something unusual, as well as their neighbors; looking at police logs and consulting with astronomers' records of celestial activity.

In short, he said, volunteers strive to make their work reflect the scientific process, in which a hypothesis must be tested and skepticism is a must.

But so is an open mind. Petty said for his part, he remains neutral on the subject of extraterrestrial visitors because he has never found incontrovertible proof for or against their existence.

He does, however, believe in the possibility of life on other planets, perhaps in distant galaxies.

It's an idea he has in common with the late astronomer Carl Sagan. In his acclaimed television series, "Cosmos," Sagan pondered the possibility of civilizations, both advanced and primitive, from other worlds.

Sagan was a professor at Cornell University, which runs the world's largest single-dish radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. There, astronomers are listening for possible communications from distant space travelers, although this work accounts for a small percentage of their research.

Despite his belief in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Sagan lamented the speculation over tales of alien abductions by short, surly creatures with large heads and dour black eyes.

The public's fascination with these stories peaked in the 1990s, with the television series, "The X-Files," appearances on talk shows by alleged abduction victims and even a best-selling book, "Communion," by novelist Whitley Strieber.

Sagan complained that the public's fascination with such stories deflects attention from the many advances in science.

Here, Petty and Sagan part company. Petty said a curiosity about UFOs led him to study astronomy and take a greater interest in science.

"Anything that sparks curiosity in the sciences, whether it be a hobby such as UFOs, I think is a good thing," Petty said. "I think the schools do not teach enough hard sciences. Anything that sparks curiosity is a good thing."


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