1/ NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope // flickr
Do you believe in aliens? Many people do. In fact, so many people do that the United States Navy changed the standards for reporting UFOs in 2019 to quell the sheer volume of eyewitness accounts coming in. With so many countries possessing sophisticated aircraft, the potential for misidentifying UFOs as alien crafts is huge. That said, aliens are alive and well in American pop culture—and many people think the government may be covering up secrets about aliens.
Unlike ghosts, UFOs are usually described in similar ways over time. The National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) has identified the most common words used to describe UFOs. There are “egg” UFOs,“cigar” UFOs, and lots that people just can't find the words to describe. Why do we have these patterns? Is it because we're seeing real aliens, exploring our galaxy in their different spaceship models?
Call us skeptical, but we here at Stacker went into NUFORC's data to try and find the stories behind these shapes. Are any types derived from how we picture aliens in fiction? Can nature explain any of these phenomena? In looking at the overlap between these shapes and popular fiction, we found plenty of ways people reference culture and everyday phenomena to describe these alleged objects from space. Our adjectives for spaceships could also describe flying animals and even sports equipment. But spaceships from art and movies fall into these shapes, as well. Maybe it's no coincidence that Stitch escaping from space police officers or Deep Purple singing about space truckers ditching a fireball ship match what UFO enthusiasts report seeing in real life.
What follows is a gallery of the most common UFO shapes reported by witnesses, along with some threading of the needle to see how those shapes have manifested in popular culture. They say the truth is out there—but we may simply be seeing the shapes we've created ourselves.
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2/ Kory Westerhold // flickr
4/ Catarina Carvalho // Unsplash
- Count: 1,405
What exactly does a chevron-shaped UFO look like? Look for an inverted V shape such as those used traditionally on military uniforms. In May 2019, a U.S. Navy veteran described just that in Irondequoit, N.Y., saying the chevron UFO was roughly the size of several football fields.
5/ Max Pixel
6/ Breve Storia del Cinema // flickr
- Count: 1,866
Maybe aliens traveling in this spaceship type were inspired by “A Trip to the Moon.” But we may associate them with the classic Round Up amusement park ride. A 2017 UFO sighting derived from NASA footage featured a UFO of this shape, though lens flare was partly blamed for the phenomenon.
7/ Jázon Kováts // Unsplash
8/ Dan Pelleg // Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 2,151
Memory wiper or natural phenomenon? Either way, it's good to have your eyes examined when you come across a UFO of this type (seeing flashes may also indicate a health issue). Various UFO sightings feature flashes of various colors, and may not be considered credible unless there are no comets or sources of noise tied to the phenomenon.
9/ silviu bocan // Unsplash
- Count: 2,901
This UFO shape is highly similar to cylinder-shaped ships, but with a distinct extended length. The shape also suggests softer edges than that of the rectangle—think the USS Sulaco from “Aliens” (which also appears momentarily in the opening of "Alien 3"). Maybe the length helps UFO ships achieve increased speed, as with the praying mantis?
10/ Jason Wong // Unsplash
- Count: 2,936
The phenomenon of watching a flying object change size or shape over time alludes to technology that far exceeds our own. Maybe these UFO ships change internally like Hogwarts. Or maybe they consist of some of the many natural compounds that change color with temperature shifts, such as chlorine and thermoplastic compounds.
11/ John Benson // Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 3,739
It's not crazy to suggest that spaceships might fly together for efficiency like geese do in the wild. But this hasn't been seen much in pop culture since “Lilo and Stitch.” Sightings featuring different ships in formation suggest a cluster of smaller ships monitoring a larger ship.
12/ Conni Nielsen // Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 4,063
Let your imagination roam on this one. How would you describe the Slave 1 from “The Empire Strikes Back,” with its unusual shape and speed? When encountering a UFO, sometimes the proper words just don't come.
13/ olga brajnovic // Unsplash
- Count: 5,351
Children of the '90s may recognize this UFO shape from “Muppets From Space;” while children of the '80s got familiar with it in “Flight of the Navigator.” Many flying insects have a similar shape, allowing for safe travel and protection from predators.
14/ James Ting // Unsplash
- Count: 7,414
“Independence Day” made this UFO shape famous and associated it with aliens that come purely to destroy humanity. But humans have been making discs take flight (in a fun way) since 800 B.C.
15/ steve baxter // flickr
- Count: 7,900
People have been trying to figure out what falling spheres from the sky were for millennia. But today, this shape is more commonly associated with spirits in ghost hunting. The Hornet Spook Light is our favorite modern mystery with this shape, and the classic song ”A Spaceman Came Traveling” may be alluding to this UFO shape.
16/ Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 8,313
We understand, spaceships can just look weird sometimes. It's difficult to describe spaceship models such as the Enterprise, built for atmospheres and planets far unlike Earth. The “sun angel” UFO definitely defies description.
17/ NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope // flickr
- Count: 8,415
Mysterious things falling from the sky understandably can leave eyewitnesses at a loss for words. Irregular shapes may, in fact, be a rising trend for UFO sightings—hence the stricter reporting guidelines.
18/ Schesco Nyarwaya // Unsplash
- Count: 9,016
Since the fall of the city of Pompeii, humans have been cautious of fireballs coming from the sky. On the ground, most people are discussing the Flatwoods Monster and an iconic spell from "Dungeons & Dragons" when fireballs come up. The space truckers of “Space Truckin'” by Deep Purple ditch their fireball craft to travel on a more reliable craft.
19/ Rob Shenk // Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 11,157
For a triangle-shaped UFO, think the Icarus ship from “Planet of the Apes” and the Ark from the “Transformers” series. Futuristic airplanes in pop culture can also share this shape. All of these may explain why this shape appears to be most on humans' minds.
20/ Jabberocky // Wikimedia Commons
- Count: 12,456
Don't worry, the Death Star isn't coming to destroy us. Though maybe these are the UFOs responsible for crop circles? Assuming the phenomenon isn't just humans out to create aerial art, this shape seems the most intuitive for shredding up corn fields.
21/ Meagan Carsience // Unsplash