UFOs have been in the news a lot lately. I am a research astronomer who has written and edited books and created a free online course on the search for life in the universe. While I believe we are making progress in detecting life beyond Earth, I view UFOs from a skeptical point of view, as the evidence that they represent extraterrestrials visiting Earth is not convincing.
Last month a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence fell on Congress. He described 144 sightings by military personnel over a 17-year period, preferring to use the term UAP, for an unidentified aerial phenomenon, in part to avoid the stigma attached to UFOs.
For those like me who were waiting for final statements, the report was a big disappointment. He declined to draw any conclusions, saying the available data is “largely inconclusive” and noting that it is limited and inconsistently reported. The report was concerned about the increase in “air clutter” and left open the possibility that some UAP sightings represented advanced technologies from foreign adversaries, with important implications for national security.
As for UFOs as alien spaceships, the report was agnostic. He scrupulously avoided using the words extraterrestrial or extraterrestrial. It will do little to discourage “true believers”. Almost half of all Americans think aliens are visiting Earth, and the UFO phenomenon has become entangled in a web of conspiracy theories that include accounts of abduction by aliens and crop circles. These conspiracy theories were undoubtedly fueled in part by the military secretly investigating UFOs for decades. Any rational debate about UFOs must take into account that they have deeply rooted in the public consciousness.
Will the military’s report and increased transparency make a difference? Will this help attract scientists like me to serious study of the phenomenon?
Scientists will have to overcome their reluctance to engage in observations. We are in a delicate position. Rapid advances in the search for planets orbiting other stars have led to a projection of 300 million habitable planets in our galaxy. It has been a long time for life on some of these planets to evolve intelligence and technology. We are not denying the possibility of aliens traveling from their star system to ours. We are just not convinced by the data presented so far. Most observations can be attributed to weather balloons or astronomical phenomena such as meteors, fireballs and Venus. There is many resources giving trivial explanations for UFO sightings.
There have been academic studies of UFOs before. In 1968, the Condon Report said no scientific knowledge had been gained in two decades of studying the phenomenon. But 20 years later, a see again led by Stanford professor Peter Sturrock concluded that some sightings are accompanied by physical evidence that warrants investigation. It is telling that after decades of study and hundreds of thousands of observations, UFOs have not reached the gold standard in science to confirm a hypothesis: reproducible evidence.
For their part, the military and intelligence communities will need to engage more actively with scientists and ask for their help and expertise to understand the observations in the report, and many others that have not been made public. There are signs it could happen. Under Avril Haynes, the DNI Office relied on its expert group of 500 scientists who consult intelligence agencies on scientific issues. A model for this type of collaboration is the two panels scientists and medical experts recently appointed to understand the “Havana Syndrome” that has plagued American diplomats since 2016.
What would a collaboration with scientists look like and what kind of data would it take to “move the needle” on understanding the PAN phenomenon?
The recent report shows how difficult it is to interpret the sightings, even with expert observers and data from multiple sensors. In all 144 cases, except one, there was too little information to even comprehensively characterize the event. Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks acknowledged this gap when she called for faster and more consistent data collection on NAPs. The Department of Defense has a little over two months to develop a new strategy and report to Congress.
Sensor malfunction and even expert observers can be fooled when they see something outside their area of experience. With optical and infrared imaging, it is extremely difficult to assess the distance, size and speed of an object. For example, the three navy videos that have been widely disseminated on the internet seem impressive and inexplicable, but they could easily be artifacts optics of cameras and tracking systems.
The military should invite a select group of experts to review all evidence (with appropriate permission given when the sensing technology involved is classified). It should be a interdisciplinary team, composed to address all the observational characteristics of phenomena. Ideally, data should be shared among our allies, as PSUs are emerging on a global scale. Scientists can also bring their assets to solve the problem. For example, civilian satellites are used to detect and monitor UAPs, and machine learning can be used to filter data for abnormal events.
Scientists are curious, and they like difficult problems. I would lend my hand to the effort if asked. Hopefully the government will harness scientific expertise to shed light on this decades-long mystery.
Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of Research papers on observational cosmology and education, and he has written popular books on black holes, the future of space travel, teach cosmology to Buddhist monks, how the the universe has started, and how the the universe will end. His open and massive online courses have registered more than 300,000 people.
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