On June 9, with only hours notice, NASA held a press conference to announce a study it was commissioning on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The acronym is a new branding of what are more commonly known as Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs, a subject commonly associated with alleged alien visitation and government conspiracy theories. The question in the minds of the public was why one of America’s major scientific agencies was getting involved in something often considered to be at the furthest limits of respectability.
Yet the statement also fit with the suddenly more open zeitgeist regarding UAPs. Last year saw the release of a long-awaited report into the Department of Defense’s own investigations into the subject, following the publication of first-person accounts and videos of American fighter pilots claiming to show encounters with strange objects in the sky. High profile coverage in the mainstream media and public Congressional hearings on the NAPs allowed the case to flow into the public domain. A month after the release of the Pentagon report, theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb, former chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department, announced a private initiative called Project Galileo, which seeks to search for potential evidence of the alien technology here on Earth.
What NASA can bring to this discussion is still unclear. The agency has set aside $100,000 for the nine-month study, less than the usual funding it provides for exploratory studies of unconventional technologies such as space telescopes with mileage mirrors or powered interstellar probes. by giant laser beams. Led by highly respected Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel, the survey aims to identify existing and future datasets that scientists could use to advance their understanding of UAPs. Although it reveals little interest, the existence of the study suggests that something the agency once avoided talking about at all costs is about to become a suitable subject of investigation.
“There’s no question you have a lot more voices in scientific and academic circles who are willing to go public and say this is a legitimate business,” says Greg Eghigian, a historian at the State University of Pennsylvania, who is writing a book on UFO sightings.
NASA’s unexpected UAP announcement is perhaps a little less surprising in hindsight. The agency’s current administrator, former astronaut and Senator Bill Nelson, told reporters last year that he was sure American pilots who reported mysterious encounters “saw something, and their radars locked on it”. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Office of Naval Intelligence officials behind the Pentagon’s UAP task force had previously talked about involving multiple branches of government in their investigations, Eghigian said. “NASA was one of the agencies mentioned,” he adds.
Still, exploring enigmatic incursions into American airspace arguably makes more sense as a project for the military than for a civilian space agency. After all, these unidentified objects – if they exist – could be of Earth origin, possibly constituting evidence of advanced Russian or Chinese aerospace technology rather than anything beyond Earth. The NASA study aims to categorize data from Earth observation satellites and other monitoring instruments that may have collected relevant information on such phenomena to see if there is anything that the agency can say about their nature. NASA already collects a lot of information about the atmosphere using a suite of orbiting probes such as Terra, Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (NPP) and CloudSat, each of which may have collected accidental data that could help identify UAPs.
“We have the tools and the team that can help us improve our understanding of the unknown,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, said in an official statement. “It’s the very definition of what science is. This is what we do.”
In this, Zurbuchen is unlike Loeb, the most prominent researcher currently pursuing such investigations. Loeb had actually approached NASA to investigate UAPs and sent Zurbuchen a proposal last summer to use telescopes and other instruments to search for transient celestial events that might be relevant to the existence of aircraft. unknown. He expressed his displeasure upon learning that the agency had set up its own independent commission in which he was not involved.
“For me, it’s really a contradiction,” says Loeb. “If there’s someone pursuing the research program you’re trying to study, why wouldn’t you collaborate with that person?”
Since he is the head of the Galileo project, which has overlapping goals, Loeb was told by NASA that it would be a conflict of interest to bring him on board the agency’s new venture. He finally made peace with the problem. “What matters is the truth,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who says it. I’m glad I’m not alone.
The Galileo project recently finished assembling its first telescope instruments on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory, which will begin capturing data in the coming weeks that could speak to the reality of UAPs (or not). Earlier this month, the collaboration held its first in-person conference, where Loeb outlined the team’s first year of progress and its plans for the future. There are also 10 scientific papers in the works from various members of the team regarding the operation of their telescope, which will be publicly available after undergoing peer review.
Loeb is currently raising funds to pursue fragments of a breadbox-sized meteor named CNEOS 2014-01-08 that crashed off Papua New Guinea in 2014. According to the speed at which it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, a howling 162,000 kilometers per hour, Loeb and his student Amir Siraj proposed that the space rock came from another star system (a hypothesis supported by satellite data American spies subsequently declassified). The fact that pieces of such a small object did not fully burn suggested to Loeb and Siraj that it was made of a stronger material than iron.
“That makes me wonder if it was natural or man-made,” Loeb says. He would like to lead an expedition to scour the ocean floor with a magnet in an effort to pick up pieces of what he thinks is an alien spaceship.
The fact that there are now multiple research projects dealing with a once despised topic shows how much the scientific landscape has changed in recent years. “The way NASA has approached the UFO/UAP subject over the decades, I think a generous, polite word would be ‘prudent,'” says Kate Dorsch, science historian at the University of Pennsylvania. The agency has gone to great lengths to clarify that there is no credible evidence for a link between UAPs and putative extraterrestrials, and even the level of funding dedicated to its new study implies that it does not is not ready to do more than dip a toe in troubled waters. around this case. “$100,000 is a pittance,” Eghigian says. “I don’t know, for a serious project, what you can do with $100,000.”
At the same time, talking about the possibility of life elsewhere in the cosmos no longer seems as far-fetched or dishonorable as it once did. Scientists of all stripes regularly make plans for probes to search planets and moons of the solar system for microbes, and they have used their telescopes to search for chemical evidence of living ecosystems on worlds orbiting stars. distant.
“I think the UAP stuff is emerging in a climate where we’re already discussing life in the universe in a new way,” says Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. “Now that the ‘laugh factor’ for the scientific search for life in the universe has diminished, it is possible that this will also facilitate the discussion of UAPs.”
Accounts of unidentified phenomena often include claims associated with extremely low standards of proof, such as out-of-body experiments, alien abductions and crop circles, says Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. “When you put it all together, I understand why some scientists dismiss it all,” he adds. But focusing on eyewitness accounts from pilots believed to have seen something — accounts often backed up by sensor data — allowed him to recognize that there might be something concrete scientists could think of. investigate, even if the culprit ends up being mundane instrumentation issues.
“If you don’t personally care as a scientist, that’s fine.” said Haqq-Misra. “But pretending it’s not something interesting doesn’t help.”
Some might worry that NASA’s reputation will be tarnished by associating itself with a notoriously pseudoscientific subject or that nothing the agency says about it will ever satisfy true believers. “The danger is that NASA won’t find anything, and people will say, ‘Oh, NASA is in on the conspiracy. NASA isn’t telling us what’s true,'” Frank says. But he also thinks that there is an opportunity for study to trigger a teachable moment about the process of science and how it studies the world.
“Science only works because we have this rigorous way of assessing our own biases,” which involves being willing to examine “your claim that you know what you know,” he says.
By their very nature, UAPs point to events slightly beyond our comprehension. They exist at the edge of the known, an area that science is particularly adept at tackling. The proliferation of NAP study projects suggests that some researchers may be ready to take a more relaxed attitude toward a topic that was previously off limits. But even a thorough examination seems unlikely to entirely get rid of the questions surrounding them.
“Until someone builds a perfect system that captures all data at all times at all levels of detail,” Dorsch says, “some of these UAPs are just going to slip away from knowledge.”