An independent study shows how NASA can help understand unidentified anomalous phenomena, more colloquially known as UFOs.
NASA has announced the results of a independent study commissioned to determine how the agency can contribute to understanding unidentified anomalous phenomena. UAPs are defined as objects or events that can’t (yet) be traced back to known objects such as aircraft, balloons, drones, or known natural phenomena including aurora or special types of lightning.
It’s worth noting that the panel in charge of this study was not commissioned to evaluate existing reports of UAPs (or UFOs, as they are more commonly known). The panel determined early on that they simply don’t have the data to evaluate past events, nor do they have any firm evidence indicating anything truly alien, and they confirmed that in yesterday's press conference. “We find no evidence to suggest that UAP are extraterrestrial in origin,” says David Spergel (Simons Foundation), who chaired the panel.
Rather than evaluating past reports, NASA’s goal is to evaluate future ones. The panel was therefore charged to see what resources NASA can bring to bear on systematic and scientific investigations of UAPs.
“UAPs are one of our planet's greatest mysteries,” says Nikki Fox, who heads NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, “and it's really due to the limited number of high-quality data surrounding such incidents that often renders them unidentifiable.”
The issue is three-fold: First, UAP reports are typically single sightings and lack multiple measurements. Those individual reports also often lack sensor metadata, such as the exact time of the event, the type of sensor, its noise characteristics, and other details. Finally, there’s a lack of baseline data to help understand whether an event is truly unusual.
The panel thinks NASA can help with that. The agency has Earth-observing satellites that are always monitoring our planet, but their images don’t have the sharpness to resolve UAP events. They can, however, monitor background conditions and provide the missing baseline data.
Meanwhile, commercial satellites do offer imagery with resolution from several meters to even under a meter. They are thus capable of providing a second measurement of a reported event. Those satellites, though, do not observe everywhere all the time, so detections would need to involve either rapid follow-up or serendipity.
Part of NASA’s efforts are aimed at destigmatizing the reporting of UAPs. When the U.S. Department of Defense began encouraging military aviators to report UAPs, the number of reports went up from 263 reported over a period of 17 years to 247 new reports over 1½ years (between March 5, 2021, and August 30, 2022). The DoD now has collected more than 800 reported events.
The panel suggests NASA could also help provide the framework for civilians to report UAPs. There’s no standardized system in place to do that now — the Federal Aviation Administration directs civilian reports to local law enforcement or to non-governmental organizations, leading to unreliable data.
Once data are collected in a scientific way, the panel then advocates two possible approaches to identifying UAPs. First, the panel rejects the idea of looking for UAPs specifically, because we simply don’t know enough about what they would look like. Instead, the approach they advocate is to understand the background properties of an environment, and then to search for unusual events that deviate from those expected conditions.
Some events, for example sunlight glinting off a drone or the appearance of a balloon, aren’t all that unexpected. Once we know what those events look like, the focus can turn to truly unusual events.
Another possibility is to follow up on the locations and times of individual reported UAPs using NASA’s extensive databases. This could even be done after the fact, using archival data, and such studies could be applied systematically, across an extensive list of UAP reports.
In the report, the panel writes, “It is increasingly clear that the majority of UAP observations can be attributed to known phenomena or occurrences.” So the first step to understanding UAPs will be to explain what can be explained, before turning attention to the unexplained.
Identifying UAPs goes beyond the possibility of extraterrestrials. The panelists also reports a desire to learn whether these objects or events pose a threat. “The presence of UAPs raises serious concerns about the safety of our skies,” says Dan Evans, NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator for research. “Let's not forget that the first ‘A’ in NASA is aeronautics.”
The panel that wrote this report, composed of 16 experts from diverse backgrounds, was independent of NASA, so the agency will now have to review the report. Already, NASA has decided to create a new position to oversee the study of UAPs, appointing Mark McInerney as director of UAP research.
In other words, this panel’s report is only the beginning. We can expect to hear a lot more about UAPs from NASA.