What happens when you try to identify a mysterious object in the sky

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The house was dark. We'd just felt the first real chill of winter. I was making my way downstairs to check the thermostat. Then, I saw it.

Hanging in the sky, brighter than any star I'd ever seen, was a flaming point of light. The longer I looked, the more intense its icy shimmer seemed to become. Now and then, a prismatic blue and red halo flashed around it.

After staring for a few minutes, I called my wife to come downstairs.

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The two of us stood shivering in the open window, looking, and wondering what in the world it could be.

I had to know what I was looking at. But who do you call at 1:15 a.m. with such a question? - ''Hi chum, sorry to wake you, but do you know what that thing is in the sky?'' I turned on a light and tried a couple of TV stations, only to get recordings telling me to call back in the morning. That would be a bit late. So I tried a radio station, finally reaching a very pleasant man 20 miles away at WEEI in Boston.

''You say it is in the southern sky?'' he asked politely. ''Let me go look. Our window happens to face south.'' Long silence, during which, we turned off the lights again and looked at the light which now seemed familiar. ''Sorry, I can't see a thing. Why don't you call the airport?''

''Hello, Logan Airport. . . . No, sir, the tower only has FAA lines. You can't call them from outside. . . . This is just a curiosity thing, right?''

Well, in point of fact, it had become more than curiosity. We were looking into the heavens at something that seemed to grow brighter, something that stood silent, accepting our scrutiny with indifference.

''Wait a second, I think I may be able to get an answer for you. Where do you live?'' A very long pause. Then, another voice, this time, someone who happened to live in our town who was standing in the airport towgr, trying to persuade us that we were looking at the beacon of a local airport.

By now I was a bit embarrassed, having to admit that I didn't know in which direction my house faces. After a bit of conversation, the man in the tower determined, ''Sir, you are facing us right now. You are looking right towards Boston.

''. . . Wait a minute. I can see what you're looking at!'' The voice betrayed excitement. ''Yessir, we have it sighted. It's the brightest thing in the sky. . . . But we can't tell you what it is. Hold on a minute; let me get a telescope on it.'' More silence, during which we imagined a phalanx of airport technicians crowding around gazing at a star while airplanes veered off course.

They couldn't explain what it was. Perhaps a bit of space debris.

Now things were getting eerie. If the guys in the airport tower were mystified, what was I supposed to think? I wasn't conjuring up any Spielberg scenarios, because there was something deeper running through my mind. Confronted with the unknown, I was experiencing a mixture of wonder and foreboding.

Somebody must have an answer. Well, how about the Air Force?

''Negative, sir. We cannot give you a visual confirmation of objects in the sky. Why don't you call the following number? . . . That's the UFO sighting center.'' In Washington State.

This time the voice on the other end was deep and assured. ''In the southeast sky, right?''

Well, yes, suspended halfway between Mars and Boston. Sort of fixed there in the heavens.

''We've had calls about that from all over tonight. That's Sirius.''

Gasp! The Dog Star? A common ordinary star? But it's so bright.

''Yes sir, that's right. It can get very bright. When the atmospheric conditions are just right, it can put on quite a display.'' (Later I learned, it's the brightest star in the sky, having an apparent magnitude of -1.45.)

I flipped the lights off, again. Silence descended on the house. Outside it - outside our solar system - Sirius was blazing away.

No longer a mystery, it had become only a wonder, its unfathomably powerful nuclear engine burning a message of permanence and tranquillity to Earth, where two people sat in an open window, staring.

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