BOULDER, Colo. — NASA says it’s going to play a bigger role in studying what’s behind unidentified anomalous phenomena, the newfangled name for what we used to call UFOs. But exactly how should NASA step into that role? The astrophysicist who helped get the ball rolling last year as NASA’s associate administrator for science is suggesting a quick and easy way to get started.
Thomas Zurbuchen, who left NASA at the end of 2022 and is now director of ETH Zurich Space in Switzerland, says his old employer could add unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs, to a list of targeted research topics that’s due to be released in four months or so.
“You basically say, ‘Here’s opportunities,’ and you squeeze them in,” Zurbuchen said Oct. 7 in Boulder at the ScienceWriters 2023 conference. “Generally speaking, I think it’s a lot easier to do that.”
The alternative could be to create a separate UAP program, but that might get more complicated.
There’s precedent for taking the quick and easy way. Zurbuchen noted that NASA’s science directorate took a similar approach in 2017 when it made the search for technosignatures — including scans for radio signals from alien civilizations — part of its research and analysis program.
“We added it in part because of an authorizing bill that told us that looking for life elsewhere was one of the purposes of NASA,” he explained. “The way we did it is, we just added it to calls [for research proposals] that were already there.”
Raising the profile for UAP research was one of the key recommendations in a 36-page report that was delivered to NASA by an independent panel in June, at the end of a months-long process initiated under Zurbuchen’s watch.
The roots of the report
Zurbuchen said the spark for convening the independent panel came from a convergence of multiple factors — ranging from the Department of Defense’s campaign to destigmatize UFO reporting by fighter jet pilots, to the personal interest of politicians and policymakers including NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“He started talking about it in a public fashion, and frankly, I had a really hard time figuring out what to do,” Zurbuchen said.
Zurbuchen said he decided to go ahead with the independent study for three reasons. “The first reason is that I really believe — after I looked into it and did a lot of briefings, some of them classified — that what’s flying in the airspace needed to be better understood,” he said. “We don’t actually understand at the level that we should.”
Zurbuchen also saw UAP research as an opportunity to add artificial intelligence to NASA’s analytical toolkit for more down-to-earth purposes. “Doing an AI strategy for Earth science and space science data was a good thing to do,” he said. “And using that as an excuse was fine with me.”
The third reason had to do with Zurbuchen’s deeply held belief that NASA shouldn’t shy away from doing high-risk, potentially high-impact research. “Just because you feel embarrassed asking the question, you should still do it,” he said. “Reputation should not be the major reason you don’t do something.”
The members of the panel faced a wave of criticism — from those who felt NASA was taking the UFO phenomenon too seriously, as well as from those who felt the panelists should have delved more deeply into UFO lore. The online harassment and threats got so bad that NASA security had to be put on the case, said Nadia Drake, a science journalist who was one of the panelists.
“I was unprepared for how nasty it was,” Drake said. “I certainly was not the only panel member who was getting a lot of harassment and hate from online, but with me, it was a little bit different in tenor because I am a woman.”
Flying saucers vs. firm science
Although unidentified anomalous phenomena have been the subject of government-backed studies since Project Sign in the 1940s, and Project Blue Book in the ’50s and ’60s, Drake said UAP research has consistently fallen short of scientific standards. “The science that we need is just not there,” she said.
“We decided that if NASA wanted to go ahead and pursue this question, the first thing that needed to happen was that we needed to actually approach it scientifically — because as I said, there just was not enough useful data there,” Drake said. “We need to figure out how to actually collect data that’s informative, that can be analyzed, that can be interpreted in ways that actually answer the questions that we wanted to answer.”
In their final report, the panelists laid out a set of recommendations that included making use of assets such as Earth-observing satellites and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, harnessing the power of crowdsourcing and citizen science to collect data about UAPs, and using AI to look for significant patterns in those UAP reports.
NASA responded to the report by appointing a director of UAP research and endorsing the idea of employing new tools to collect and analyze data. The research director is Mark McInerney, who previously served as NASA’s liaison to the Pentagon on the UAP issue and specializes in Earth science data analysis.
What will it take to bring solid science to flying-saucer sagas? Mick West, a retired software engineer who specializes in analyzing UAP reports, said it won’t be an easy task.
“The problem with writing about the science of UFOs is that there’s very little science to write about,” West said. “UFOs have always been a bit of a fringe topic for a variety of reasons, but it shouldn’t be that way, because UFOs represent some very real issues for flight safety, national security and scientific inquiry.”
To show how difficult it can be to dissect the data, West recounted a recent case involving a video that showed an array of lights moving around in the night sky.
“We recognized this as looking like Starlink satellites, briefly reflecting the sun near the horizon,” West said. “But the video was anonymous, without an accurate date and without a location, so it remained unsolved for several months.”
He and his colleagues at Metabunk.org painstakingly sifted through geospatial databases — including one database that listed the locations of wind turbines across the country, and another that documented the occurrence of lightning storms — to figure out where and when the video was taken. The results lined up perfectly with Starlink satellite flashes.
Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who serves as the director of the Center for National Security Initiatives, recommended setting up a well-documented catalog about UAPs, including Starlink streaks.
“If some catalog could be developed where ‘if it looks like this, it’s almost certainly that,’ I think that would be great,” Boyd said. “And build it up over time, so that we narrow down to the very, very unusual events. But to go beyond that — to be able to explain in real time every single event — I mean, it’s not doable.”
Boyd suggested that the resources required to solve all of the mysteries surrounding UAPs would be available only to a civilization more advanced than our own.
“In the end, we have to do a careful evaluation and wrap and stack and prioritize what are the key challenges, the key risks, the things that may endanger flight … because it really is a ‘needle in the haystack’ kind of problem,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford to do much more than what we’re already doing.”
Looking beyond the budgetary and technical limitations, Zurbuchen said it might be too much to expect NASA to settle the mysteries surrounding anomalous phenomena to the satisfaction of the UFO community’s true believers, even if the space agency supported a full-scale research program.
“There’s never been anybody that was convinced by any argument to move away from their initial beliefs,” Zurbuchen told an audience consisting primarily of science journalists. “I would really spend a lot of time thinking about engaging in that fringe before you do. I just think it could be a huge waste of time. I think what’s better is to focus on the principles of science, focus on actual in-depth reporting … not looking away, but focusing on what are the most important and most exciting stories, and getting them out.”