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NASA Didn’t Find Aliens—but if You See Any UFOs, Holler

Seventy-six years after the infamous Roswell incident, when a high-altitude balloon—or something—crashed in southeastern New Mexico, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has now officially weighed in on UFO sightings. Don’t get too excited: They haven’t proven, or disproven, the existence of aliens. Instead, the report released today by the agency’s independent study team describes how NASA should assess new reports of “unidentified anomalous phenomena” (UAP), a term that federal agencies use in place of UFOs (unidentified flying objects). It stresses that the agency should make use of machine learning and artificial intelligence as analytical tools, but that first it needs higher quality data to analyze.

“NASA searches for the unknown in space. It’s in our DNA,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson, speaking at a press conference this morning. “The top takeaway from the study is that there is a lot more to learn. The NASA study did not find any evidence that UAP have an extraterrestrial origin, but we don’t know what these UAP are.” Nelson described the team’s project as part of a broader effort “to shift the conversation about UAP from sensationalism to science,” to reduce the stigma associated with making UAP reports, and “to make sure that information is shared transparently around the world.”

The main problem, Nelson and the report’s authors stressed, is that while there are plenty of eyewitness accounts of strange lights in the sky, very little high-quality, standardized data has been collected from these incidents. Most sightings involve a fleeting encounter—and perhaps only a single opportunity for photographs. As the report puts it: “The nature of science is to explore the unknown, and data is the language scientists use to discover our universe’s secrets. Despite numerous accounts and visuals, the absence of consistent, detailed, and curated observations means we do not presently have the body of data needed to make definitive, scientific conclusions about UAP.” Analysis, it continues, “is hampered by poor sensor calibration, the lack of multiple measurements, the lack of sensor metadata, and the lack of baseline data.”

NASA announced the 16 members of this team last fall, which includes astrophysicists, a former astronaut, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, a commercial aerospace executive, an oceanographer, an electrical engineer, and a science journalist. Agency officials made it clear that astrobiology (the hunt for biological signs of life on other planets) and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, were beyond the scope of this initiative. Rather, they want to figure out how to handle possible future evidence. During a lengthy public meeting and press conference on May 31, Dan Evans, a research administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, stressed that they’d be using previous UFO claims not to open new investigations, but rather to figure out how best to address new reports as they come in. “The primary objective is not to look at grainy footage, but to provide a roadmap for the future,” he said.

The team’s new report lays out specific recommendations for how to improve data collection. Among them: using sensors aboard NASA’s fleet of Earth-observing satellites that monitor atmospheric and oceanic conditions to look for corroborating evidence and to rule out natural causes, using Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites to “provide critical validation of any truly anomalous properties, such as rapid acceleration or high-G maneuvers,” and using the NEXRAD Doppler radar network “for distinguishing interesting objects from airborne clutter.” Nelson also announced that NASA will name a director of UAP research to oversee the agency’s future efforts.

The report points out that NASA currently has no standardized system for collecting civilian reports, and suggests the agency could crowdsource that data via smartphone apps. (Earlier this year, the private company Enigma Labs launched a mobile app that lets people report UFO sightings, then analyzes that data with algorithms.)

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The team was also tasked with evaluating any possible risks to public safety. “Let’s not forget that the first A in NASA is Aeronautics,” Evans said at today’s press conference. “By understanding the nature of UAP we can ensure our skies remain a safe space for all.” The report recommends collecting data from the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which pilots and air traffic controllers use to report incidents within US airspace to the FAA—both to spot potential flight hazards, and because it could provide reliable data for UAP sightings.

The 36-page report only twice refers to “aliens.” First, the authors describe citizen scientists’ discovery of Boyajian’s Star, whose strangely fluctuating brightness some people attributed to a possible sign of alien technology—but which turned out to be due to disrupted comets. Second, it mentions that the search for signs of alien technology, known as “technosignatures,” is an important field of astronomy that’s outside the scope of their report.

To NASA, determining the significance of a sighting means systematically examining whether it could be explained by something mundane. Speaking at today’s press conference, the independent study team’s chair, David Spergel, said that in any investigation of anomalies, the first step is “to eliminate the chaff of conventional events” before attempting to identify novel phenomena. “We find no evidence to suggest that UAP are extraterrestrial in origin,” he said. “Most events are explainable as planes, balloons, drones, weather phenomenon, and instrument features.”

But while the report splashed some cold water on hopes of UFO revelations, Nelson stressed that in a universe that contains billions of galaxies and is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old, the odds of finding other planets like Earth—rocky bodies with atmospheres that could support carbon-based lifeforms—are good. “If you ask me, ‘Do I believe there’s life in a universe that is so vast that it’s hard for me to comprehend how big it is?’ my personal answer is yes,” he said. He cited NASA’s ongoing efforts to use the James Webb Space Telescope to search for habitable exoplanets, and the use of the Perseverance rover to find signs of early life on Mars, as part of the agency’s mission to try to find life in the universe.

NASA’s effort is unlikely to clarify the murky political and cultural waters surrounding UFO sightings anytime soon. The American public is evenly divided about whether UFO reports by people in the military are evidence of life outside Earth, according to a 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center. That divide was on display at a US House of Representatives hearing on July 26, where lawmakers drew attention to what they say is a lack of government transparency. Two former military pilots spoke about encounters with UFOs, while former intelligence officer and self-described whistleblower David Grusch reiterated his claims of a UFO crash site that allegedly included “nonhuman biologics,” plus claims about what he called “a multi-decade UAP crash retrieval and reverse engineering program, to which I was denied access.” NASA’s new report comes just a day after ufologist and television personality Jaime Maussan claimed to show “alien” corpses to Mexico’s Congress.

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The day before the House hearing in July, researchers at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, released a paper called “Not the X-Files” mapping more than 100,000 public reports of UFO sightings across the US between 1998 and 2022. They came to a prosaic conclusion: Many of those sightings were probably of military aircraft. They found that the most common factor among the reports was that they’d often cluster within 18 miles of military operations areas, or MOAs—places that aren’t always near major military installations yet have airspace set aside for non-hazardous flight activities, like for pilots to practice air combat maneuvers or air intercepts. “People don’t always realize that they live, work, and travel near a MOA. They might see something that looks fishy, but in reality it’s actually something from us—meaning the US military,” says Marek Posard, a military sociologist and lead author of the report. He also says today’s new report aligns with RAND’s recommendations for increasing public engagement, seeking high-quality crowdsourced data, and using machine learning tools to analyze it.

In July, US senators appended an amendment to the nation’s annual defense bill that would require the military to collect and declassify UFO-related records. And in fact, the Pentagon already released its own UAP report in 2021, overviewing 144 unexplained sightings between the years 2004 and 2021. The report was only able to nail down the cause of one of them with high confidence: a weather balloon. But it concluded that the causes for the others were likely to be terrestrial: airborne clutter like balloons and drones, natural atmospheric phenomena, government or industry development programs, and foreign adversary systems. Later that year, the Department of Defense established a new office, now called the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, tasked with focusing on national security issues, such as keeping watch for flying objects that could be Chinese and Russian aircraft or spacecraft.

The difference between NASA’s effort and all others is that it’s a civilian agency that collects and presents data publicly, involving nothing classified or proprietary, Spergel said in May. Posard suggests the agency is to some extent responding to public concern. “I think there’s been growing interest in the federal government because there’s been pressure from the public on elected officials,” including criticism that the government is hiding things, he says.

Government interest in UFO sightings is nothing new, although in the past it has often been less open—and NASA’s public-facing project seems to be part of an effort to mobilize many agencies throughout the government, says University of Pennsylvania historian Kate Dorsch, who specializes in scientific knowledge production. She notes that data reliability and replicability, which are crucial to any scientific enterprise, are eternal challenges when it comes to UFO sightings. “These reports are coming from people who are, God love us, not great judges of our own experience. Human vision becomes extremely unreliable after about 100 yards, when it comes to identifying the size, speed, and even color or shape of aerial objects,” Dorsch says. But most people who make UFO reports have real experiences they can’t explain, she says, and it’s worth investigating them.

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Skeptics say the causes of most of these experiences will turn out to be ordinary. “There are two kinds of UFOs: ones we know a lot about and ones we don’t know a lot about,” says Andrew Fraknoi, a retired astronomer and member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which promotes critical investigation of extraordinary claims. Many UFOs ultimately become “IFOs” —or identified flying objects—which Fraknoi says are “explainable when you have enough information and appropriate research.” As an example, he cites the “Lubbock lights,” a mysterious V-shaped light formation spotted in Texas in 1951, which he argues was later explained as light reflected off a flock of birds.

Most astronomers would absolutely love to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, but they want to see clear evidence, says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on the origins of—and the search for—alien life. “We shouldn’t jump to conclusions, assuming that, because we don’t know what all of these things are, that’s somehow evidence of alien visitation. That’s an argument from ignorance,” he says. “That isn’t to say there isn’t alien intelligence out there. There could be a trillion planets in the Milky Way, and if one in a million is able to spawn life, that means there are a million worlds with life out there.”

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