Throughout history, people have noticed mysterious effects or objects in the sky. Some claim that such “unidentified flying objects” or UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft. Others have shown that many UFOs have earthly explanations. Some may be airplanes, for example, or atmospheric phenomena. But not all of these mysterious effects are 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 the UAP in decades. Two US government intelligence officials described the effort to catalog and analyze the sightings. Many UFOs have been sighted by military personnel such as pilots. And the US government wants to know if such unexplained phenomena could pose a threat to national security.
At the hearing, Scott Bray shared new details about a government UAP 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 have attributed some of the sightings to sensor problems or other mundane explanations. But there are others that officials “can’t explain,” Bray said.
Bray emphasized that nothing in the database “suggests that it is anything [alien] by origin.” The same is true of UFO sightings investigated by a special government task force.
Ronald Moultrie is the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security. Both he and Bray said that “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 Haq Misra and Ravi Koparapu. 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 launch a UAP study. NASA is gathering a group of scientists and other experts to learn more about UAPs.
Scientific news (the sister publication of Science news for students) spoke with Haqq Misra and Kopparapu to learn how and why researchers should help study UAP. Their answers have been edited for clarity.
What are UAPs?
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 the military uses. This is slightly different from the term UFO. He allows for the possibility that the mysterious sights in the sky are not necessarily solid objects. So UAP may be a more inclusive term.
Should scientists study them? Why?
Koparapu: to Conduct scientific research on unknown phenomena all the time. This should be no different. But when we conduct these studies, we must not let our speculation drive the conclusions. The collected data should do it.
Haqq Misra: As scientists, what we should do is study things we don’t understand.
With UAP, there seem to be some strange observations that are difficult to explain. Perhaps they are a sign of something like new physics. Or maybe it’s just tool bugs we don’t understand. UAPs may even be things that birds do.
It could be anything. But each of these possibilities, from the most extreme to the most ordinary, would teach us something.
So that’s scientific curiosity. It is also about the safety of the pilots. This is especially true if there is anything in the sky that pilots consider a flight safety risk.
How can we study these phenomena?
Haqq Misra: The problem with studying UAP so far is that all the data is kept by the government. From [May 17] hearing, it appears there is indeed a plan to release some data. At least once officials have made sure it won’t pose a security risk. I’m not holding my breath for that to happen soon. Still, it was nice to hear it.
The reality is that if you want to understand a particular set of data, you need to know about the tool that collected the data. Military tools are probably classified for good reason. That is, for our safety. I doubt we will get the kind of government data we need to scientifically answer what UAPs are. Even if you have this data—from the government, commercial pilots, or otherwise—it was not intentionally collected. These are random, sporadic observations.
What you need is to create a network of detectors around the world. Ideally you will have ground sensors and satellite coverage. It’s not enough for someone to just see something. You need to confirm detection with multiple sensors looking at multiple wavelengths of light.
Koparapu: Some UAP observations are transient events. We need cameras for fast tracking, for example. We also need optical, infrared and radar observations to collect more data. This will help us discover patterns in the behavior of events.
And we need to share such data with scientists. In this way, independent groups can reach consensus. This is how science progresses. There are some efforts by researchers in universities in this direction. So that’s a good sign.
What are the possible next steps for the scientific community?
Haqq Misra: There are some groups now trying to create detectors. Fundraising is the hardest part. [The nonprofit] UAPx is one. The Galileo Project [at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.] is another.
Stigma is a big problem for the UAP investigation. It seems that the military is trying to reduce the stigma around them. This is also important for science. If this starts to change more in the culture, it will help a lot.
NASA’s announcement is a good step toward UAP being considered an important science problem.
Koparapu: I think the scientific study of UAP should not be stigmatized. Open discussions, comments and constructive criticism can help further the study of UAP.
There should be discussions about how and what types of tools are needed to collect data. The focus should be on data collection and sharing.
How did you become interested in this topic?
Koparapu: Over the course of several years, I have read several articles that either reject or support a particular explanation of UAP. Then I started digging into it. I found physicist James Macdonald’s 1969 paper Science in Default. This report on UFOs changed my perspective. It is written similar to how we write our research papers. This resonates with me as a scientist. I have come to think that scientific research 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 an astrobiology topic because we don’t know what they are. But many people think they are aliens. And I felt kind of stupid since I’m an astrobiologist and I have 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 anomalies in the air observed by pilots.
Ultimately, I realized that for a scientist who wants to understand UFOs, there is a lot of noise to sift through. There are many public discussions on topics such as crop circles, alien abductions and paranormal stories that muddy the waters. The more we can be aware of the specific air anomalies we’re talking about, the more we can actually solve the problem.