I'll be watching my mashed potatoes closely, just in case.
November 14, 2011 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Assuming it wasn't a UFO, what was the weird light shining in my window last night?

I recently moved into a new apartment, and my bedroom is oddly shaped. Here's a diagram.

Last night, sometime around 3 or 4am, I woke up and noticed that light was shining in the window and hitting the angled over my bed (indicated by the green area in the diagram). (The light was yellowish, not green, but green shows up better in a picture.) I was watching the wall, not the window.

As I was looking at this light on my wall, it moved down and to the right, still roughly the same size and shape of the window, until it disappeared. This all took about 7 seconds. I went to look out my window to see what it might have been, but I didn't see anything.

Light shining in through a window isn't very exciting. This looked exactly like what it looks like when car headlights shine in through a window, then the car turns, and the light moves, until the car is too far away for light to shine in. No big deal.

But I'm on the third floor. The building I'm in is a whole storey taller than any two houses around me in any direction. When you look out of my (angled) window, you can only baaaarely see the top of a chimney on a house two houses down. So it wasn't a car, and it wasn't the light from anyone's house.

It also wasn't a plane. I live about 10 miles from the airport, and can see every arriving flight that goes by (they all take the same approach), and they're way too far away for plane light to be a factor. Departing flights take off in the other direction.

So: any ideas what this was? Since I can't think of any rational explanation, I'm really curious for yours. My working theory right now is that Ron Weasely stole his dad's car again, but somehow that seems unlikely.
posted by phunniemee to Science & Nature (26 answers total)
*hitting the angled wall over my bed...
posted by phunniemee at 9:06 AM on November 14, 2011

Helicopter that flew away by the time you looked out the window?
posted by desjardins at 9:08 AM on November 14, 2011

Helicopter was my first guess, but what kind of helicopter flies around a pretty residential area at 3am without making any noise? I should have mentioned that above: there was no unusual noise happening. (And I can hear, say, my neighbor opening his garage door, so it's not like I'm in a soundproof box.)
posted by phunniemee at 9:11 AM on November 14, 2011

Probably a police helicopter.
posted by kindall at 9:12 AM on November 14, 2011

Car lights can shine in that high. A friend lives on the 13th floor of a building next to the FDR- a New York City highway- and I have slept on her couch and seen the car lights shine on the wall. It surprised me so much that I got up and watched what happened when the next car drove by.

I also remember seeing the same phenomenon at my grandmother's house in a fourth floor apartment when I was a kid.
posted by mareli at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'd say just car lights, especially if someone had their high beams on. At my parents house, I'd get reflections when my mom pulled into the driveway directly adjacent to my window (2 and a half stories up in a split level house) and her lights weren't even facing the house, because she always backed in.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:20 AM on November 14, 2011

Interesting; I haven't noticed that effect from any of the other car traffic around here before, but I've only been here a few weeks. I'll keep an eye out.
posted by phunniemee at 9:29 AM on November 14, 2011

Do you live relatively close to a hospital with a helipad? Could be a medical helicopter coming in for a landing. Could be a small plane (Cessna or private jet) circling the airport in a weird flight pattern before coming in.

Could also be a police helicopter, or a military helicopter that was searching for something/someone. Or some other type of military aircraft doing some early morning training runs and using the airport runways or something.
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:35 AM on November 14, 2011

Long ago, I had a beat up old car with headlights that were completely out of alignment. One of them pointed more skyward, rather than down at the road. (My friend always told people that my car was "signalling the aliens.") So maybe someone has a similar issue, and drove by your house.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:52 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

shooting star?
posted by labberdasher at 10:10 AM on November 14, 2011

i'm guessing a car, are their any hills near you? also, a that angle, as the car got closer, it'd look like the light was going down, and since you said right, could also have been going not directly at your houses angle... also, the light could be reflected from another window...
posted by fozzie33 at 10:26 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it happens again, put a mark on the wall in the exact center of the light beam, and in the exact center where the light beam passes through the window. If the beam is bigger than the window, you can use the center of the window.

A line through those two points will point at the source, which should give you a clue. If the line points at a street or alley, probably a car. Another window, probably came from there. Something shiny, and it's a reflection, and so forth.

Now, look at the size of the image on the wall -- the larger it is, in comparison to the image on the window, the closer the source is to you. Indeed, if you can measure the size of the image on the window and on the wall, you could figure out how far away the source was.
posted by eriko at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2011

I'm about a mile and a half from the nearest hospital. I'm in Chicago, so there aren't any hills.

eriko: See, that's what was so weird about it. The spot of light was the same size/dimensions as the window, and almost directly across from the window (perhaps a bit lower). Then as it moved, it got lower and went off to the right. So that suggests to me that the source of the light started at roughly the same height as my window, then moved up and away to the left.

My wall is at a 45° angle and is perpendicular to the alley and road. My room is about 60' away from the alley and 115' away from the road. The alley doesn't get a whole lot of action. You can see my window clearly on google maps. I'm not ruling out car headlights, but I've never seen car light through that window before.
posted by phunniemee at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2011

Did you lose some time? Mulder says you should lose about 9 minutes.

It could have been the tinley park lights, or just a dream.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:06 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe there was a guy with a lantern walking around on the roof next door. Perhaps he was inadvisably researching holiday light placement in the wee hours, or checking for a leak during the only time he had free. He walked up and over the peak of the roof, and when you got up to look he was on the other side.
posted by chazlarson at 11:16 AM on November 14, 2011

Kid with a flashlight? We used to do that in NYC, shine flashlights through our neighbors' windows late at night. I have no idea why we thought this was amusing.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:29 AM on November 14, 2011

I had a similar thing happen to me once: I was watching TV late at night and saw bright images of two small windows on the wall sweep across the floor. The angle was wrong for headlights. Turns out it was the 2004 Washington Bolide.
posted by The Tensor at 12:19 PM on November 14, 2011

I had a similar thing happen to me once: I was watching TV late at night and saw bright images of two small windows on the wall sweep across the floor.

We are coming up on the Leonids Meteor Shower, which peaks around Nov. 17th. And there certainly have been bright meteors visible in the City of Chicago. Indeed, there was apparently a bright meteor that day.

However, if the meteor was moving west-to-east, the spot should have moved left, and this was about 10PM, not 3AM.

I suspect helocopter. Several helo routes around O'Hare meet over the Edens/Kennedy Merge and continue down the Kennedy, and helicopters will break off the route and head east to get where they're going. Both Swedish Covenant and WGN have pads, and there are several more near the lakefront.
posted by eriko at 12:39 PM on November 14, 2011

Flight paths can change due to crosswinds and the like. For the airport I lived near it was common for approaches and departures to be different in the morning and night. It usually said something about wind direction and/or speed. In general, the wind is calmer at night so it might force a different approach/departure. They can also change them to route around neighborhoods during night hours due to noise restrictions. Call the airport.

Do you have an SLR camera? Try an extended exposure all night and see what you get. Lowest ISO and Highest F. I've never tried it, but it might tell you how regular it is.

Also, for reference, Venus was on the other side of the planet and the moon was too high in the sky.
posted by jwells at 12:45 PM on November 14, 2011

So that suggests to me that the source of the light started at roughly the same height as my window, then moved up and away to the left.

I second this. So: airplane, helicopter, or ....
posted by exphysicist345 at 12:45 PM on November 14, 2011

It usually said something about wind direction and/or speed. In general, the wind is calmer at night so it might force a different approach/departure.

In this particular case, ORD will be landing and departing 14R, with long-haul departs on 28 unless the weather is extremely uncooperative, because of nighttime noise regulations, and these approaches/departures aren't over the city .

There is a plan that allows departures from runway 9R, these planes would be well north of her location -- they fly west along the Kennedy until 3000' AGL, then they turn onto course.
posted by eriko at 1:01 PM on November 14, 2011

Those search lights on police helicopters are pretty bright. You could have caught one, but with da choppa far enough away that it wasn't audible. (They aren't very loud, either.)
posted by ErikaB at 1:34 PM on November 14, 2011

Some police cars still have those bright spotlights on them. They tend to move kind of erratically. That was my first thought
posted by GilloD at 2:17 PM on November 14, 2011

After many years in this house, I eventually realised that a strange light I sometimes saw was due to the sun reflecting off a window a hundred yards away. It's an oddity, but not really unusual if you think about it.

I expect you will soon figure out what it is that caused this light.
posted by zingzangzung at 2:39 PM on November 14, 2011

zingzangzung has a good point. The moon illumination was at 90% last night. Was it partly cloudy?
posted by desjardins at 3:16 PM on November 14, 2011

A car pulling into a driveway? The dip going down into the gutter part, then up again as it drives into the driveway proper?
posted by deborah at 3:56 PM on November 14, 2011

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