A panel of independent experts took a first-ever look at what NASA could bring to the study of UFO sightings — now known as unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs — and said the space agency will have to up its game.
The 16-member panel’s chair, David Spergel, said he and his colleagues were “struck by the limited nature of the data.”
“Many events had insufficient data,” said Spergel, an astrophysicist who is the president of the Simons Foundation. “In order to get a better understanding, we will need to have high-quality data — data where we understand its provenance, data from multiple sensors.”
During today’s public hearing, panelists said NASA could contribute to the UAP debate by setting standards for sighting data, creating a crowdsourcing platform for sightings, and reducing the stigma that has discouraged people from reporting and studying anomalous sightings. Some of that stigma was experienced by the panelists themselves.
“It’s disheartening to note that several of them have been subjected to online abuse due to their decision to participate on this panel,” said Daniel Evans, NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator for research, who served as the space agency’s liaison to the panel. “A NASA security team is actively addressing this issue.”
The panel was set up last year to make an independent assessment of NASA’s resources relating to unidentified anomalous phenomena — previously known as unidentified flying objects, or unidentified aerial phenomena — and to draw up a roadmap for future action.
Spergel emphasized that the panel hasn’t yet reached its official conclusions. “Everything we say now represents really preliminary observations,” he told reporters during a post-hearing teleconference. The panel is expected to issue its report by the end of July.
NASA’s interest in UAPs isn’t motivated primarily by the search for extraterrestrial life. Instead, the space agency’s effort parallels the Department of Defense’s campaign to encourage UAP reporting. The Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States in February provides a prime example the security and safety concerns raised by UAPs. “The presence of UAP undoubtedly raises concerns about the safety of our skies, and it’s our responsibility — again, working together — to investigate whether those anomalies, those phenomena pose any risk to airspace safety,” Evans said.
How more data can help
Sean Kirkpatrick, who heads the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, said his office has encountered some of the same challenges that NASA is now facing. “The stigma exists inside the leadership in all our buildings,” he said.
Kirkpatrick said his office has been receiving more and more UAP reports, thanks in part to more open attitudes toward reporting. AARO now has more than 800 cases, with “50 to 100-ish reports” coming in every month, Kirkpatrick said. Most of those cases have eventually been explained, either as natural phenomena or as sightings of artificial objects such as drones or balloons. Kirkpatrick said “2 to 5-ish percent” are still considered anomalous.
Joshua Semeter, director of Boston University’s Center for Space Physics, said it’s important to have as much data as possible about the circumstances of a sighting, ranging from altitudes and angles to the environmental conditions and the capabilities of the sensors involved.
Semeter pointed to a well-known sighting in 2015, reported by Navy fighter pilots and nicknamed the GOFAST incident, as an example. The data recorded by the fighter jet’s instruments helped investigators determine that a parallax effect made the object appear to be traveling faster than it actually was.
“It’s not our task to conjecture what this object is,” Semeter said. “But it’s an example that illustrates the type of data needed to determine critical parameters that will help us identify such objects going forward.”
A similar parallax effect may well explain a 2022 UAP report that was based on imagery from a drone flying over an unspecified location in the Middle East.
How NASA can help
Thanks mainly to national security concerns, investigating UAPs has become a multi-agency initiative. Evans said that a NASA manager, Mark McInerney, would be working with the Pentagon’s AARO as a liaison officer. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is currently receiving three to five UAP reports per month from air traffic controllers across the U.S., is also in on the initiative.
Several panelists suggested that NASA could create a crowdsourcing platform to give citizen scientists an outlet for reporting UAPs, and that artificial intelligence and machine learning could help researchers sift through archived data.
Kirkpatrick seconded the idea of enlisting AI. “We have a whole bunch of calibrated, large-scale scientific data from all these different instrumentations around the world,” he said. “Taking a look at how can you apply some AI / ML tools to search through that data for anomalous signatures that may correlate to things that we’ve got reporting on — that would be an interesting study.”
NASA doesn’t have a permanent program office that focuses on UAPs — but Mike Gold, a former NASA executive who is now chief growth officer at Redwire Space, said it might be worth creating one. “I’ve been a part of far too many panels and studies that end up sitting on the shelf,” Gold said. “I don’t want this to be one of those exercises.”
Space anomalies have been the stuff of science fiction for decades, as well as science fact: In recent years, extraterrestrial phenomena such as interstellar asteroids and fast radio bursts have captured the imagination of professional researchers and amateur UFO fans alike.
Panel member David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist at the Planetary Science Institute, said the study of UAPs could take a page from the playbook that he and his colleagues use in the search for anomalous technosignatures in other star systems. “If NASA applies the same rigorous methodology toward UAPs that it applies to the study of possible life elsewhere, then we stand to learn something new and interesting, whatever the ultimate explanation is for those phenomena,” he said.