NASA has held its first public meeting with its panel investigating Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena. The panel will publish a full report in July.

a black dot against a grey background with two white lines on either side
This widely circulated clip from a video shot in 2015 by a Navy aircraft shows an unidentified aerial object, one which helped accelerate the trend of scientific investigations into such phenomena.
U.S. Department of Defense / Public Domain

NASA has held its first public meeting with the panel investigating Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs), also sometimes known as UFOs. Both the name change and the panel itself are part of a growing trend of taking the subject out of the realms of pseudoscientifc conspiracy theories and into the domain of active scientific study. It also widens the field from things that could be flying to anything unexplained in the sky.

The 16-expert panel, led by David Spergel (Princeton), will publish a report by the end of July. Their goal is to see what unclassified information is available on the subject and how much more is needed to understand what's causing the unexplained events. They will hold another public meeting after the publication of the report.

Many an eyebrow was raised when NASA became involved in what, it is safe to say, is a fairly controversial topic. To panel member Paula Bontempi (University of Rhode Island) it is not an unnatural step, however. She notes that NASA has always been “committed to exploring and understanding air and space.”

While imaginations may leap to extraterrestrials and flying saucers, the panelists revealed that only between 2 and 5% of sightings cannot be explained by either human activity or natural phenomena. But are they aliens? “To make the claim that we see something that is evidence of non-human intelligence — we have not seen that,” Spergel says. “That is important to make clear.”

Part of the problem in identifying anomalous phenomena to date has been the lack of a coherent system to collect information about sightings. Spergel called it “unsystematic and fragmented.” Panelist Karlin Toner (Federal Aviation Administration) says that scientists were reluctant to engage in the subject before. “There is a negative stigma with reporting or even researching such phenomena," she says. This extends to commercial airline pilots, too, who think they won't be taken seriously for reporting “flying saucers.”

Panel member Mike Gold (Redwire Space) called for a permanent office within NASA to support this activity, hoping it could help with that stigma. According to Jacob Haqq Misra (Blue Marble Space Institute of Science), who was not involved in the panel, having everything out in the open should help. “It was great to hear the full discussion in one place, in a publicly broadcast setting,” he says.

That said, as if to underline the challenges the panel faces in being taken seriously, the live YouTube feed of the discussion was littered with trolling comments. Daniel Evans (NASA’s Science Mission Directorate) referred to it directly, calling it “just the tip of the iceberg.” There's always someone insisting on a cover up. At one point a member of the public asked the panel directly: “What was NASA hiding?”

This controversy, combined with the lack of data, means  NASA won't be digging into any previous sightings. They want a fresh start.  New sightings  will be documented and investigated with the utmost scientific rigor. Physics professor Kevin Knuth (University at Albany), who was not on the panel, thinks this is a mistake. “I was disappointed that NASA decided not to carefully consider the 80 years of data and information that exists,” he says. “While it is true that it was not collected under careful scientific conditions, this does not preclude us from learning from it.”

There were more light-hearted moments. Panelist and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly recounted his own encounter with a UAP when he was a pilot. They flew back to investigate, only to find a Bart Simpson balloon.


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June 2, 2023 at 5:14 pm

I am not sure why the decision was made to not include any previous reporting and subsequent investigation by organizations like MUFON or video captures of such done by the US Navy or other Military agency’s .This is like saying that all the investigation done previously was worthless even though it’s was done by retired professionals and Navy Pilots. I believe that any panel member making comments about the validity of previous sightings should be prohibited and shows distinct lack of an open mind on the subject. Anything at this point should be considered possible until it’s PROVEN not to be.

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June 2, 2023 at 8:25 pm

The nation's defense and intelligence communities wisely assigned the task of public UAP (UFO) investigations and disclosures to NASA, the least involved agency with the phenomenon. Over the decades since WWII, it has been the Department of Defense, FBI, and other agencies that received, debunked, and controlled the "hot potato" of alien visitation. Handing the it over to NASA absolves them of any responsibility for future liabilities in falsehoods or accountability. Smart move on their part, sad move for the public, but expected.

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Andrew Fraknoi

June 3, 2023 at 2:08 am

It's good to see the panel clearly and carefully evaluate the fragmentary and often rushed observations that constitute most UAP reports. I hope they will hear not only from scientists and military personnel, but also from skeptical investigators who have spent a great deal of time already investigating and successfully debunking the "alien spaceships" hypothesis for many of the best-known sightings. Mick West is an excellent example of such careful investigators. I have put together a resource guide to some of the skeptical literature available on the Web, and you can see it at:

Andrew Fraknoi, Fromm Institute, University of San Francisco

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Andrew James

June 4, 2023 at 7:28 pm

UFO phenomenon investigated by NASA, is likely a grand distraction that is mostly propagated to make space exploration more palatable to the general public. For me, the biggest issue with space exploration is that it ebbs and flows in the minds of the people, and the general expense to conduct it from tax payer’s money. if NASA is serious about returning to our moon and colonise it. It needs to be relevant and advertised enough to be noticed. Ask anyone what intrigues them about space is the possibility of alien life elsewhere in the universe, or visiting our planet.
I am still a disbeliever that UFOs, or truly exist, only because of all the times I’ve spent looking at the skies I’d seen really nothing unusual. That would indicate strange flying objects. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but in my mind, the possibility that these are not based on earthbound phenomenon is highly improbable. [if anything, the rise of AI will be very soon the true alien lifeform that will be known to exist. Food for thought.]

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Holloman UFO Landing

June 6, 2023 at 4:37 pm

I think the strangest thing is not that NASA have finally brought the reality of ET visitaion out of the closet - when the rest of the worlds seems to just accept it as not a big deal these days - but that they, NASA, have decided not to discuss or even acknowledge the four huge elephants in the room, being Close Encounters of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th & 5th kind.

Even if one accepts that not *every* single person who reports these encounters are lying, it still leaves a small proportion that is true. And even if just 1 in 10,000 reports are true, that's enough to mean that ET life has been here. Said another way, for the phenomena - ET life coming here - to be untrue, every single report, every single piece of testimony, every single lie detector taken etc etc etc has to be untrue or otherwise explainable. That, for me, is a bigger, more crazy ask than simply opening one's mind and ego to accept that we are not alone in the Cosmos.

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June 7, 2023 at 4:11 pm

So was this panel NASA's idea, or was it something Congress put into a bill requiring them to take this on -- presumably with the necessary $$'s? I thought Congress passed a bill in 1993 prohibiting NASA from doing anything related to "little green men", like fund SETI conferences.

Also, is there a SETI person on the panel, or even a regular nighttime astronomer?

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