The U.S. defense and intelligence communities are taking unidentified flying objects, officially known as unidentified aerial phenomena, seriously. And some researchers think the scientific community should too.
On May 17, the U.S. Congress held its first public hearing about these objects in decades (SN: 6/26/71). Two Pentagon officials described efforts to catalog and analyze sightings, many by military personnel such as pilots, of the unexplained phenomena because of their potential threat to national security.
Scott Bray, the deputy director of naval intelligence, shared new details on a database of images and videos that now includes about 400 reports of sightings of unidentified phenomena from 2004 to 2021. While officials were able to attribute some of the sightings to artifacts of certain sensors or other mundane explanations, there were others the officials “can’t explain,” Bray said.
Bray stressed that nothing in the database or studied by a task force set up to investigate the sightings “would suggest it’s anything nonterrestrial in origin.”
Both Bray and Ronald Moultrie, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, identified “insufficient data” as a barrier to understanding what the unidentified phenomena are. “That’s one of the challenges we have,” Moultrie said.
That’s something that other scientists can help with, say astrobiologists Jacob Haqq Misra and Ravi Kopparapu.
Science News spoke with Haqq Misra, of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, and Kopparapu, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to learn more about how and why. Their answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are unidentified aerial phenomena?
Haqq Misra: “What are they” is the billion-dollar question. We don’t know what they are, and that’s what makes them interesting.
Unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP, is the term that the military has been using. It’s a little different from the term UFO in the sense that a phenomenon could be something that’s not necessarily a physical solid object. So UAP is maybe a more all-encompassing term.
Should we scientifically study them? Why?
Kopparapu: Yes. We conduct scientific studies of unknown phenomena all the time. This should not be any different. The most critical point to remember is that when conducting those studies, we should not let our speculations drive the conclusions. The collected data should do it.
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Haqq Misra: As scientists, what we should do is study things that we don’t understand.
With UAP, there seem to be some anomalous observations that are difficult to explain. Maybe they’re a sign of something like new physics, or maybe it’s just instrumental artifacts that we don’t understand or things that birds are doing.
It could be anything, but any of those possibilities, anything from the most extreme to the most mundane, would teach us something.
So there’s the scientific curiosity. And it’s also about safety for pilots too, especially if there’s something in the sky that pilots are seeing that they consider a flight safety risk.
How can we study these phenomena?
Haqq Misra: The problem with studying UAP so far is that all of the data are held by the government. From the hearing, there does seem to be a plan to declassify some data, once it’s been vetted for possible security risks, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen soon. It was nice to hear, though.
The reality is if you want to understand a particular set of data, you need to know something about the instrument that collected the data. Military instruments are probably classified for good reason, for our safety. I think we’re not going to get the kind of data from the government that we need to scientifically answer the question. Even if you had that data, from the government or commercial pilots or others, it has not been intentionally collected. These have been accidental, sporadic observations.
So what you would need is to set up a network of detectors all around the world. Ideally, you’d have ground-based sensors and you’d have satellite coverage. It’s not enough for someone to just see something. You need to measure a detection with multiple sensors and multiple wavelengths.
Kopparapu: Some of these are transient events. We need, for example, fast-tracking cameras and optical, infrared and radar observations to collect more data to find patterns in the events’ behaviors.
And we need to share such data with scientists so that independent groups can reach a consensus. This is how science progresses. There are some initiatives from academics in this direction, so that is a good sign.
What are some possible next steps for the scientific community for studying them?
And this was underscored in the hearing, but stigma has been a big problem. It seems like the military is trying to not only streamline the reporting process but also destigmatize it. That’s important for science too. If that starts to change more in the culture, that would go a long way.
Kopparapu: I think the scientific study of UAP should not be stigmatized. There should be open discussions, comments and constructive criticisms that can help further the study of UAP.
There should be discussions about how and which kinds of instruments are needed to collect data. The focus should be on collecting and sharing the data and then commenting on the topic.
How did you get interested in this topic?
Kopparapu: Over a couple of years, I read several articles either dismissing or advocating for a particular explanation regarding UAP. Then I started digging into it, and I found physicist James McDonald’s “Science in Default” report from 1969. That one particular report about UFOs changed my perspective. It was written similar to how we write our scientific articles. That resonated with me as a scientist, and I started to think that a science investigation is the only way we can understand UAP.
Haqq Misra: I got interested in this subject because I’m an astrobiologist and other people asked me about UFOs. UFOs are not necessarily an astrobiology topic, because we don’t know what they are. But lots of people think that they’re extraterrestrials. And I felt a little silly, being an astrobiologist and having nothing to say.
So I went to Carl Sagan’s files, and I realized that even though he lived decades before me, there are things in his files that we’re talking about now, that are related to airborne anomalies seen by pilots.
Ultimately, I realized for a scientist who wants to understand what’s going on with this UFO thing, there’s a lot of noise to sift through. There’s a lot of public discourse about other topics like crop circles, alien abductions and paranormal stories that muddy the waters, and the more we can be clear about the specific aerial anomalies that we’re talking about, the more we can actually solve the problem.
The researchers’ opinions are their own and do not necessarily represent that of their employers.