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.

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 (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: