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In the wee hours of the morning of last Saturday (July 30, 2016), while out stargazing, I saw something odd which I am unable to explain.

  1. The object was traveling with a bearing of about 5-20° east of straight south.
  2. The object flew nearly straight overhead, somewhat near the star Vega, sometime between 1:10-1:30AM local time (6:10-6:30AM GMT). I was stargazing at the latitude and longitude 44.795614 N, 94.377516 W (https://goo.gl/maps/FB4yDsR8GYv).
  3. The object was moving at a speed similar to an airplane.
  4. The object's light blinked 3-4 times, but at a seemingly lower frequency than a typical airplane. Also, while planes typically have a very short duration flash, this object had much longer flashes (1-2 seconds, probably), with the light being lit for about the same proportion of time as it was unlit.
  5. I did not hear any propeller sounds, indicating that either that the object was relatively far away or that this was not a plane/helicopter.
  6. The light also seemed brighter than a typical airplane's light, although I can't be entirely sure. It was certainly brighter than every star in the sky.
  7. After the 3-4 blinks, there were no more blinks (and this is on a wonderfully clear night; it's not possible that it was obscured by clouds, as I could still see the stars along the path it was flying)

From all this information, I am able to deduce that it was not a satellite, as satellites don't blink like this. It is presumably not a typical commercial or private flight, even though there is a small airport roughly 4.5 miles north of where I was, because the lights stopped blinking, and that is presumably prohibited in nighttime flights. I have not heard of any plane crashes nearby, which I expect I would have, had this been a plane that went down in flight.

Any ideas what I might have seen?

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closed as too broad by Ron Beyer, Federico, Ralph J, GdD, Manu H Aug 3 '16 at 8:13

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ I apologize, but this is going to be almost impossible to answer. It could be anything from odd optical "tricks" to moon men from planet Florax. The lights could have "stopped blinking" because part of the aircraft got in the way of you seeing it. There just isn't a way to answer this factually. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 3 '16 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ Satellites don't blink (since they don't have light sources) but they can appear to blink as they move and catch the sun on solar panels etc from different angles. My guess would be an Iridium flare or a similar flash from a smaller satellite. If you are curious, install an app on your phone that will give you the time and location of the next Iridium flare in your area (or look it up online) then watch it. Is it what you saw? $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 3 '16 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good question but it is quite difficult to answer as there is no other evidence than you testimony. You should have capture some pictures/videos and make a description having in mind all what the comments and answer suggest so that your description could have been more specific (I know, it's too late now). $\endgroup$ – Manu H Aug 3 '16 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ Check what flights passed at that time planeflighttracker.com/2014/02/… $\endgroup$ – Viktor Mellgren Aug 3 '16 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I know that this is a very difficult one to answer. I was just so curious that I wanted any help that I could get figuring out what it might have been. @RonBeyer For what it's worth, it certainly wasn't an optical trick. The only optics involved were my glasses, but there was no visible source of optical light that my glasses could have been reflecting so brightly. $\endgroup$ – Ben Sandeen Aug 3 '16 at 19:16
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My best guess is you saw a high altitude aircraft flashing its landing lights.

Landing lights serve a number of purposes. Besides illuminating the landing surface, they can also be used to signal other planes as they are so bright. To experience how bright they are, stand near the approach or departure path of a busy airport at night.

The reason for the pilots flashing the landing lights in your scenario is unknown. It could be signaling another plane on a potential collision course, or just a way of saying hello to other traffic (hey, cruising a commercial airliner is kinda bored, huh?).

Without any visual reference, judging distances on a nighty sky can be tricky. Flashing a light is a convenient way of saying "hey I'm here!" to other planes. It is likely that your judgment of the flying object's distance was also impaired by the night environment. The only reliable observation I would pick is that you did not hear any sound, which suggests the object was very far away.

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  • $\begingroup$ But is it permitted for an aircraft to fly without any lights whatsoever? $\endgroup$ – Ben Sandeen Aug 3 '16 at 5:07
  • $\begingroup$ @BenSandeen No it is not permissible for aircraft to do fly without lights on. $\endgroup$ – SMS von der Tann Aug 3 '16 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @BenSandeen it is possible that the navigation lights were very dim at your distance, or obscured by part of the airframe (after all they're not designed to be observed at this angle) $\endgroup$ – kevin Aug 3 '16 at 14:42
  • $\begingroup$ @kevin True, but I doubt that it would be blinking with perfect regularity, if that was the case. $\endgroup$ – Ben Sandeen Aug 3 '16 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @kevin Oh wait, I see what you mean; you were saying that they would never have been visible at all, and that blinking lights I saw were just the landing lights. That seems plausible enough $\endgroup$ – Ben Sandeen Aug 4 '16 at 18:37

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