NASA is searching for extra-terrestrial life every day, but UAPs are giving some of its experts agita.
Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP), the modern spin on the old Unidentified Flying Objects, have been back in the discourse since a 2017 New York Times story revealed videos and testimony from Navy pilots who saw strange things in the sky they couldn’t explain.
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Theories, including the inevitable alien hypothesis, abound for these sightings. For the record: There’s no evidence linking extra-terrestrial life to the UAPs. In Washington, the primary concern is security—are there potentially dangerous things in US airspace we don’t know about? To that end, lawmakers asked the Pentagon, home to the classified data about these sightings, what’s going on.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson put together a panel of outside experts to look into the UAP question using unclassified data, and they held the first public hearing on their work this week. Tellingly, it started with top NASA officials criticizing harassment of members of the panel and insisting that the agency will be transparent and forthright with its findings. Some UAP enthusiasts want to be taken seriously, right up until they encounter the scientific method.
For context, Sean Kirkpatrick, the head of the Pentagon office investigating these sightings who was present at the meeting, said that about 800 have been documented since 1996, but only between 2% and 5% contained anomalies—unusual or surprising features that can’t be explained. That’s mainly due to a lack of collected information.
“If I were to summarize in one month what we’ve learned, we need high-quality data,” David Spergel, an astrophysicist and the panel’s chair, said. “The lesson of my career is you want to address important questions with high-quality data and well-calibrated instruments.”
Many of these incidents are documented with eyewitness testimony and sensor data from US military aircraft. But those sensors are designed to find specific targets, Kirkpatrick said, not UAPs, and their data about other objects might not be accurate or simple to interpret. A panelist gave the example of one UAP video dubbed “GOFAST” because it appears to show an object moving at high speed over the ocean, but it is actually moving at 40 mph—and doesn’t provide enough information to determine what it is.
And it’s easy even for pilots to get confused. Retired astronaut and fighter pilot Scott Kelly, a member of the study team, recounted a story about astronauts in the Space Shuttlemistaking the International Space Station for a piece of space debris.
The purpose of this study is to determine ways that NASA can help solve the UAP mystery. The focus is on figuring out how to calibrate sensors; usefully combine different kinds of existing data, from satellite observations to air traffic control radar, for machine learning analysis; and encourage people to relay UAP sightings by reducing the stigma associated with reporting the unexplainable. The investigators plan to publish a comprehensive report in July.
At least one member of the group, Mike Gold, an executive at Redwire Space, sees a long-term role for NASA in this effort, saying after the hearing that tackling these issues seriously requires a permanent office at NASA.
Just don’t expect it to point to aliens, though not for lack of interest. David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist, noted that there’s a widespread belief in the scientific community that life in some form exists beyond Earth, given the vast number of planets in the universe. He suggested that just as NASA hunts for volatile chemicals that may point toward the potential of life, it might search for potential alien technological artifacts in the solar system.
There are still plenty of questions back on Earth. Kirkpatrick shared a video, taken by a US military drone in the Middle East in 2022, that showed a spherical object in flight. It’s an example of the most common type of reported UAP: An orb or sphere about 1 to 4 meters in diameter, moving overhead between 10,000 and 30,000 ft. He said his office is deploying dedicated sensors designed to hunt for objects like that.
Whether anyone will believe the government’s conclusions is another question. Most of the public questions at the hearing were some form of, “What is NASA hiding?” Agency officials emphasized their commitment to transparency, and Kelly noted that during his career as an astronaut, no one asked him to remain silent about anything, or even mentioned UFOs.
“We have a community of people who are completely convinced of the existence of UFOs, and a community of people who think addressing this question is ridiculous,” Spergel said after the public meeting. “To me, that’s the greatest roadblock we face.”
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