An Australian YouTuber playing around with video-editing software accidentally created a UFO hoax that was viewed hundreds of thousands of times and sucked in several news outlets. Journalists consulted astronomers and meteorologists, and reported that the unexplained light in the sky was probably ball lightning. Really, it was just a composite someone whipped up in Blender and After Effects.
Over the weekend, Australian National University astronomer Brad Tucker gave the ABC a very plausible and elaborate explanation for the video, trying to make sense of what he was seeing: It had to be a rare combination of an aurora and ball lightning.
"An aurora is when energy from the sun hits the Earth's atmosphere, the energy rubs the Earth's atmosphere with friction and charges the gas," he said. "But the problem is there was no activity from the sun, it was cloudy, we can't see the aurora, so it doesn't really fit."
"The same activity that causes an aurora can actually happen inside our atmosphere if you have a storm with a lot of electrical charge that is rubbing against the gases in our atmosphere, causing it to grow that green or red color," he said.
"Sometimes, if you get a really interesting occurrence, you create something called 'ball lightning.' Normally lightning strikes up and down hitting the ground, but ball lightning is a weird thing where it appears as a ball explosion, sometimes it can even move around in the sky."
It’s a good theory, if you assume the video is real. And Tucker had no reason not to.
"It's probably not Photoshop either,” he said. “Everything kind of fits and it seems right.”
The ABC wasn’t the only news source to pick up the “UFO” video: The Canberra Times and others fell for it, too.
The unintentional hoaxer, “Johnson Thompson,” later released a second video revealing how the whole thing was done: by layering day and night shots of Canberra, then adding sound and lighting effects. Tucker was right about the “aurora” — but it was added in digitally, not caused by energy from an unlikely lightning storm.
He said that he never meant to fool anyone and “didn’t think the video would gain as much attention as it did.”
"I didn't intend for it to be taken seriously, but I made an error in judgement and titled the video as if it was real," he added later on Reddit, in a post called “an apology from an idiot.”
He couldn’t have pulled a better hoax if he’d tried. Not bad for someone who claims he’d just bought After Effects two days before he made the fake video.