Some scientists want serious UFO research. here’s why

Throughout history, people have spotted mysterious effects or objects in the sky. Some have claimed that these “unidentified flying objects,” or UFOs, are extraterrestrial spacecraft. Others have shown that many UFOs have terrestrial explanations. Some could be airplanes, for example, or atmospheric phenomena. But all these mysterious effects have not been explained. That’s why the US government takes them seriously. And some researchers think the scientific community should too.

Unexplained sightings in the sky are officially known as “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” or UAPs. On May 17, the US Congress held its first public hearing on UAP in decades. Two US government intelligence officials described efforts to catalog and analyze the sightings. Many UFOs have been spotted by military personnel such as pilots. And the US government wants to know if such unexplained phenomena could pose a threat to national security.

During the hearing, Scott Bray shared new details about a UAP government database. Bray is the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence. The database he described contains about 400 UAP sightings from 2004 to 2021. Many of these sightings include images or video. Officials linked some of the sightings to sensor issues or other mundane explanations. But there are others that officials “can’t explain,” Bray said.

This image shows a still from a video of an unidentified aerial phenomenon, more commonly known as a UFO, that was shown during a congressional hearing on May 17. Officials stressed that there was no suggestion that the object or others like it in a military database are extraterrestrial.Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Bray pointed out that nothing in the database “would suggest that it was anything [alien] originally. The same goes for UFO sightings being investigated by a special government task force.

Ronald Moultrie is the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. Both he and Bray have said “insufficient data” is a barrier to understanding UFOs. “That’s one of the challenges we have,” Moultrie said.

That’s something scientists can help with, say Jacob Haqq Misra and Ravi Kopparapu. These researchers are astrobiologists. They study the potential for life beyond Earth. Haqq Misra works at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, Washington. Kopparapu is based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

NASA also takes UFOs seriously. On June 9, the US space agency announced that it would begin a study of UAP. NASA is gathering a group of scientists and other experts to learn more about UAP.

Scientific News (the sister publication of Science news for students) spoke with Haqq Misra and Kopparapu about how and why researchers should help study UAP. Their responses have been edited for clarity.

What is UAP?

Haqq Misra: “What are they?” is the billion dollar question. We don’t know what they are. That’s what makes them interesting.

“Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or UAP, is the term used by the military. It’s a bit different from the term UFO. This allows for the possibility that mysterious sights in the sky may not necessarily be solid objects. Thus, UAP may be a more global term.

Should scientists study them? Why?

Koparapu: Yes. We are constantly conducting scientific studies on unknown phenomena. It shouldn’t be any different. But when we conduct these studies, we must not let our speculation dictate the conclusions. The data collected should do that.

Haqq Misra: As scientists, what we should be doing is studying things that we don’t understand.

With UAP, there seem to be some weird observations that are hard to explain. Maybe they’re a sign of something like new physics. Or maybe it’s just instrument errors that we don’t understand. UAP could even be things that birds do.

It could be anything. But each of these possibilities, from the most extreme to the most banal, would teach us something.

So there is scientific curiosity. And it is also a question of safety for the pilots. This is especially true if there is something in the sky that pilots consider a risk to flight safety.

How to study these phenomena?

Haqq Misra: The problem with the UAP study so far is that all the data is held by the government. From [May 17] hearing, there seems to be a plan to make some data public. At least, once officials made sure it wouldn’t pose a security risk. I’m not holding my breath for this to happen soon. It was nice to hear, though.

The reality is that if you want to understand a particular set of data, you need to know the instrument that collected the data. Military instruments are probably classified for a good reason. That is, for our safety. I doubt we’ll get the kind of data from the government that we need to scientifically answer what UAPs are. Even if you had this data – from government, commercial pilots or others – it was not purposely collected. These are incidental and sporadic observations.

What you would need is to set up a network of detectors all over the world. Ideally, you would have ground sensors and satellite coverage. It’s not enough for someone to see something. You must confirm a detection with multiple sensors examining multiple wavelengths of light.

Koparapu: Some UAP observations are transient events. We need, for example, fast tracking cameras. We also need optical, infrared and radar observations to collect more data. This would help us find patterns in event behaviors.

And we need to share that data with scientists. In this way, independent groups can come to a consensus. This is how science progresses. University researchers are making efforts in this direction. So that’s a good sign.

What are the possible next steps for the scientific community?

Haqq Misra: There are groups trying to build detectors now. Fundraising is the hardest part. [The nonprofit] UAPx is one. The Galileo project [at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.] is another.

Stigma has been a big issue in investigating ANP. It seems the military is trying to reduce the stigma surrounding it. It’s important for science too. If it starts to change more in the culture, it would go a long way.

NASA’s announcement is a step in the right direction for UAP to be considered an important scientific problem.

Koparapu: I think the scientific study of UAP should not be stigmatized. Open discussions, comments and constructive criticism can help deepen the study of the NAP.

There should be discussions on how and what types of instruments are needed to collect data. Emphasis should be placed on data collection and sharing.

How did you become interested in this subject?

Koparapu: Over the past few years I have read several articles rejecting or arguing for a particular explanation of UAP. Then I started digging into it. I found physicist James McDonald’s “Science in Default” report from 1969. This UFO report changed my perspective. It was written the same way we write our scientific papers. It resonated with me as a scientist. I started thinking that scientific investigation is the only way to understand UAP.

Haqq Misra: I’m an astrobiologist and other people have asked me about UFOs. UFOs are not necessarily a subject of astrobiology, because we don’t know what they are. But many people think they are aliens. And I felt a bit silly, being an astrobiologist and having nothing to say.

So I went to Carl Sagan’s files. [Sagan was a famous astronomer and astrobiologist in the 20th century.] I realized that even though he lived decades before me, there are things in his records that we are talking about now. Specifically, things related to airborne anomalies seen by pilots.

Ultimately, I realized that for a scientist who wants to understand UFOs, there’s a lot of noise to sift through. There’s a lot of public discussion on topics like crop circles, alien abductions, and paranormal stories that muddy the waters. The clearer we can be about the specific aerial anomalies we are talking about, the more we can actually fix the problem.

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