Was it a bird? Was it a plane? A meteor? Space junk? An alien spaceship? Superman?

Over the past couple of days, photos and videos taken by Robert Neil Moore that show an unidentified flying object soaring through the sky Saturday afternoon above his home off Quail Mine Road in the Big Hill area have captured the imagination of many on social media.

A picture of the object that Moore posted to the Tuolumne County Incident Feed group on Facebook has generated nearly 300 reactions and more than 60 comments from people offering up their theories that range from playful to apocalyptic.

Some offered links about recently launched satellites and spacecraft. Others posted memes of Superman, nuclear explosions and aliens.

But is there a more simple explanation than a precursor to an extraterrestrial invasion, or some sort of a top-secret government conspiracy to turn the population into mindless drones?

Moore said he had just picked up his daughter-in-law for a family dinner at his home when he first spotted the object about 4:55 p.m. while looking out at the horizon northwest toward Sacramento.

“We were thinking that thing looks weird,” he said of the object. “It doesn’t look like a normal airplane.”

Moore, who works for a machining company in Soulsbyville, ran inside to get his phone and started shooting pictures and video about 4:57 p.m. By about 5 p.m. the object was passing directly above his house.

The object appeared to be headed south toward Los Angeles.

Private aircraft frequently fly over Moore’s home going to and from the nearby Columbia Airport, but Moore said the object on Saturday appeared to be higher than most other airplanes he’s seen in the nearly two years he’s lived there.

“I’m always looking up at the sky,” Moore said. “You never know what you’re going to see up there.”

There was a low rumbling noise and a large plume trailing from the back of the object. Moore said there wasn’t anything breaking off from it, so he doesn’t think it was a meteor entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Moore said he believes it may have been an experimental aircraft of some kind, but he doesn’t believe it was a commercial jetliner due to how fast it was moving.

“I’m wondering just like everybody else,” Moore said.

Benedict Stuth, manager of the two county-operated airports in Columbia and Pine Mountain Lake, commented on the Facebook thread that it could have been a number of commercial jetliners that regularly fly over the area.

Stuth said in an interview on Tuesday the contrails made by the object match those made by a typical commercial jet traveling at high altitudes. He also said the object could appear orange because of the time of day.

“When you have an aircraft that high, it’s going to catch the sun’s rays like the clouds do,” Stuth explained. “That’s why you’ll see orange and pink clouds during sunset.”

The speed in which the aircraft passed overhead also leads Stuth to believe the object was likely just a typical plane. He said a meteor would have passed by in seconds, not minutes.

Based on the limited photo evidence, Stuth said he would confidently say the object was a airplane.

“Everything pretty much points to it being an aircraft, in my opinion,” Stuth said, adding that he would still reserve a small chance it could have been something else. “I’ll give anybody the benefit of the doubt, because we don’t have absolute clear pictures showing that it’s x, y, or z.”

Stuth, who previously worked as a consultant at Los Angeles International Airport, said he’s encountered a number of conspiracy theories over his aviation career that can much more easily be explained by science.

For example, one that Stuth still receives calls about is a popular conspiracy theory that contrails are really chemical compounds being sprayed by the government to control people’s minds.

“It’s basically just condensed water that’s reacting to a fast-moving object at high altitude,” Stuth said of airplane contrails. “It’s just a natural occurrence.”

Stuth pointed to a website called Planefinder.net that uses technology to track airplane flights in real-time across the globe.

Going back to Saturday between 4:55 p.m. and 5 p.m. shows American Airlines flight AA126 from Hong Kong to Dallas in a Boeing 777-323 flying from west to east above the Big Hill area at 34,975 feet.

“Going from west to east is a very common flight path from San Francisco that goes right over our area,” Stuth said while looking at the path of the American Airlines on Saturday. “Just about any flights from the Pacific Northwest down south tend to go over our area as well.”

However, Moore said he saw the object Saturday moving north to south.

One possible explanation for the contradicting routes is that directions can easily become confusing when looking up at the sky, according to Stuth. For example, he said that he thought a plane on Tuesday was flying over the airport from the north until someone corrected him that it was the west.

Planefinder.net" target="_blank">dir="ltr">Planefinder.net also says it strives to ensure its live tracking does not compromise national or regional security and will consider requests to block those aircraft from its system for that reason.

There didn’t appear to be any reports made to the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office regarding the object, Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Andrea Benson said via email.

The Union Democrat reached out to NASA in a quest for answers Tuesday, but has yet to receive a response.

“If it wasn’t a plane, I’m going full on UFO,” Stuth joked.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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