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Flying saucer-shaped cloud floats above Hawaiian telescopes (photo)

cloud shaped like a flying saucer floating over telescopes on a mountain top
A lenticular cloud floats above the Gemini Observatory in Maunakea, Hawai'i. (Image credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Chu)

No, aliens did not just visit a few telescopes probing for celestial phenomena.

The Gemini Observatory on the Big Island of Hawai'i recently experienced a "close encounter" from a cloud that some folks associate with unidentified flying objects (UFOs), but the real explanation is far less alien. (It's never about aliens, actually.)

"If at first glance you thought the white shapes on the left looked like a flying saucer, then you are not alone. The white oval structures are in fact beautiful examples of lenticular clouds," officials with the U.S. National Science Foundation's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, or NOIRLab, shared Thursday (Aug. 10) in a description of the image, which was taken at Gemini North in Maunakea, Hawai'i. (NOIRLab helps manage Gemini.)

Lenticular clouds, sometimes called "UFO clouds," form when fast winds crash into the side of a mountain or other tall structure, according to the National Weather Service (opens in new tab).

Related: Ghostly 'UFO cloud' hovering over mountains wows judges in weather photo contest

The United Kingdom's Meteorological Office says these formations are quite common in mountainous regions. "When air blows across a mountain range, in certain circumstances, it can set up a train of large standing waves in the air downstream, rather like ripples forming in a river when water flows over an obstruction," the Met Office stated.

"If there is enough moisture in the air," the office continued, "the rising motion of the wave will cause water vapor to condense, forming the unique appearance of lenticular clouds."

Lenticular clouds form mostly in the mesosphere, which is the lowest and densest layer of Earth's atmosphere. Roughly 75% of Earth's air is found here, in a narrow zone just 5 to 9 miles (8 to 14.5 kilometers) in altitude.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.