NASA clears the air: No evidence that UFOs are aliens

Storm clouds move past NASA's VAB, or Vehicle Assembly Building, at the Kennedy Space Center in Houston.
Enlarge / NASA’s UAP study team and the newly appointed director of UAP research represent growing efforts to study and release UFO-related data.

NASA’s independent study team released its highly anticipated report on UFOs on September 14, 2023.

Partly to move beyond the stigma often attached to UFOs, in which military pilots fear ridicule or sanctions if they report them, UFOs are now referred to by the U.S. government as UAPs, or unidentified anomalous phenomena.

Conclusion: The study team found no evidence that the reported UAP observations are extraterrestrial.

I am a professor of astronomy and have written extensively about astrobiology and the scientists searching for life in the universe. I have long been skeptical of the claim that UFOs represent alien visits to Earth.

From sensationalism to science

During a press conference, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that NASA has scientific programs to search for traces of life on Mars and traces of biology in the atmosphere of exoplanets. He said he wanted to shift the UAP discussion from sensationalism to science.

With this statement, Nelson alluded to some of the more outlandish claims about UAPs and UFOs. At a congressional hearing in July, former Pentagon intelligence officer David Grusch testified that the American government had hidden evidence of crashed UAPs and alien biological samples. Sean Kirkpatrick, head of the Pentagon office tasked with investigating UAPs, has denied these claims.

And the same week the NASA report came out, journalist Jaime Maussan showed Mexican lawmakers two tiny, 1,000-year-old bodies that he claimed were the remains of “non-human” creatures. Scientists believe this claim is fraudulent and say the mummies may have been looted from graves in Peru.

Conclusions from the report

The NASA study team’s report provides little insight into whether some UAPs are extraterrestrial. In his comments, the study team’s chair, astronomer David Spergel, said the team “saw no evidence that UAPs were of extraterrestrial origin.”

Of the more than 800 unclassified sightings collected by the Defense Department’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office and reported at the NASA panel’s first public meeting in May 2023, only “a small handful cannot be immediately classified as known man-made or natural phenomena are identified.”, according to the report.

Many recent sightings can be attributed to weather balloons and airborne disturbances. Historically, most UFOs are astronomical objects such as meteors, fireballs and the planet Venus.

Some sightings represent surveillance operations by foreign powers, which is why the U.S. military considers it a national security issue.

The report provides NASA with recommendations on how to advance these studies.

Most of the UAP data considered by the study team comes from U.S. military aircraft. Analysis of this data is “complicated by poor sensor calibration, lack of multiple measurements, lack of sensor metadata, and lack of baseline data.” The ideal set of measurements would include optical imaging, infrared imaging, and radar data, but very few reports include all of these Data.

The NASA study team described in the report the types of data that can shed more light on UAPs. The authors note the importance of reducing the stigma that can create feelings among both military and commercial pilots that they cannot freely report sightings. The stigma stems from decades of conspiracy theories surrounding UFOs.

The NASA study team proposes using the Federal Aviation Administration to collect commercial pilot sightings and combine them with classified sightings not included in the report. The team members did not have security clearance and were therefore only able to view a portion of the unclassified military sightings. There is currently no anonymous nationwide UAP reporting mechanism for commercial pilots.

With access to these classified sightings and a structured mechanism for commercial pilots to report sightings, the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office — the military office tasked with leading the analysis effort — could have the most data.

NASA also announced the appointment of a new research director for UAPs. This position will oversee the creation of a database of resources to evaluate UAP sightings.

Looking for the needle in the haystack

Parts of the briefing resembled an introduction to the scientific method. Using analogies, officials described the analysis process as looking for a needle in a haystack or separating the wheat from the chaff. Officials said they needed a consistent and rigorous methodology for characterizing sightings to pinpoint anything truly unusual.

Spergel said the study team’s goal is to characterize the hay — or everyday phenomena — and subtract it to find the needle, or potentially exciting discovery. He noted that artificial intelligence can help researchers sift through massive data sets to find rare, anomalous phenomena. AI is already being used in this way in many areas of astronomical research.

Speakers highlighted the importance of transparency. Transparency is important because UFOs have long been associated with conspiracy theories and government cover-ups. Similarly, much of the discussion during the UAP hearing before Congress in July focused on the need for transparency. All scientific data NASA collects is posted on various websites, and officials said they intend to do the same with the unclassified UAP data.

At the start of the briefing, Nelson expressed his opinion that there may be a trillion life outside Earth. So it’s plausible that there is intelligent life out there. But the report says that extraterrestrial life must be the hypothesis of last resort when it comes to UAPs. It quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This evidence does not yet exist.The conversation

Chris Impey, Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.