What’s Out There? NASA Sets Up Independent Study on UFOs

Apollo 16 image of strange object
This image from the Apollo 16 mission to the moon shows what may look like a flying saucer. In 2004, NASA said it was the spacewalk floodlight/boom that was attached to the Apollo spacecraft. (NASA Photo)

NASA has dipped into the debate over UFOs for decades, but today the space agency said it’s commissioning an independent study team to survey a wide range of what are now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.

“The most exciting things in science are things we don’t understand, and my starting point — I think all our starting points for this — is that there are phenomena that we don’t understand,” astrophysicist David Spergel, who’ll lead the study team, told reporters. “How do we start to make progress? We have a very limited set of observations right now with these UAPs. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions. So we start by trying to figure out what data is out there. We’re going to be working with government, nonprofits, companies, civilians, and try to identify what data is already there, then start to think about what data should we collect in the future.”

NASA’s independent study will start early in the fall and run in parallel to the Pentagon-led effort to analyze UAP reports from aviators, which was the focus of a congressional hearing last month.

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Congressional UFO Hearing Brings a Few Answers and More Questions

Glowing green triangle
Lead image: Pentagon officials say they’ve figured out what caused a flashing night-vision triangle sighted by the U.S. Navy. Source: Department of Defense via YouTube.

For the first time in more than half a century, Congress conducted a public hearing into the state of the Pentagon’s study of unidentified aerial phenomena — which is the new name for mysteries once known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, told a hearing organized by the House Intelligence subcommittee on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and counterproliferation that military reports about UFOs — sorry, I mean UAPs — have been “frequent and continuing.”

Today’s hearing follows up on a Pentagon report that was issued last year and listed 144 UAP sightings that have been reported since 2004. The report pledged to take such sightings more seriously than in the past. “Since the release of that preliminary report, the UAP task force database has now grown to contain approximately 400 reports,” Bray said. “The stigma has been reduced.”

However, the hearing also made clear that the Department of Defense is still keeping mum about the detailed workings of its UAP detection and assessment process due to national security concerns. Bray and the hearing’s other witness — Ronald Moultrie, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security — deferred a fair number of lawmakers’ questions to the closed session that followed the open hearing.

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Long-Awaited UFO Report Opens the Door Wider to Sharing Strange Aerial Sightings

UFO encounter video
Cockpit video shows an anomalous aerial encounter in 2015. Credit: U.S Navy Video

After months of anticipation, U.S. intelligence experts have released a report citing 18 incidents since 2004 in which unidentified flying objects — or unidentified aerial phenomena, to use the Pentagon’s term — appeared to demonstrate breakthrough technologies.

The nine-page, unclassified version of the report doesn’t describe the incidents in detail, and doesn’t attribute them to aliens. But it suggests they’re not linked to existing U.S. military technologies.

The point of the report, produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to a congressional mandate, is to assess the potential threat posed by the anomalous aerial phenomena reported by U.S. military fliers over the years, whether you call them UFOs or UAPs.

Intelligence experts said they didn’t have enough data to get a firm fix on the nature of 143 out of 144 UAP reports that were filed between 2004 and this March. The one case they said they could resolve “with high confidence” was attributed to a large, deflating balloon.

Their conclusion was that UAP sightings should get more attention.

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Thousands Saw a UFO in New Jersey. It was the Goodyear Blimp

Screencapture of video of New Jersey UFO, which turned out to be the Goodyear Blimp. Video via @DRoyFlor

It was like the opening scene from a movie: cars pulled over on a busy freeway, with everyone gawking in disbelief at what they were seeing.

Drivers in New Jersey this week thought a flying saucer was hovering above them. But in reality, it was just another day in 2020 and the UFO was an aircraft from planet Earth: the Goodyear Blimp.

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We’re Not Saying It’s Aliens Because It’s Not Aliens. But Check Out These UFO Data Visualizations

The number of UFO sightings per year, Credit: Sam Monfort
The number of UFO sightings per year, Credit: Sam Monfort

When it comes to conspiracy theories and modern preoccupations, few things are more popular than unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and alien abductions. For over half a century, there have been rumors, reports, and urban legends about aliens coming to Earth, dabbling with our genetics, and conducting weird (and often invasive) experiments on our citizens.

And while opinions on what drives this popular phenomenon tend to differ (some say hysteria, others that it is media-driven), a few things are clear. For one, sightings appear to take place far more in the United States than anywhere else in the world. And in recent years, these sightings have been on the rise!

Such are the conclusions of a series of visualizations based on the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC). Established in 1974 (and located in Davenport, Washington), the National UFO Reporting Center is “dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data”. Since that time, they have been monitoring UFO sightings worldwide and have maintained careful logs about the 104,947 sightings that have taken place since 1905.

The geographic distribution of UFO sightings. Credit: sammonfort3

Using this data, Sam Monfort – a Doctoral Candidate from the department of Human Factors & Applied Cognition at George Mason University – produced a series of visuals that illustrate the history of UFO sightings. And based on the visualized trends, some rather interesting conclusions can be drawn. The most obvious is that the geographical distribution of sightings is hardly even. For starters, reports in the USA were equal to about 2500 sightings per 10 million people.

This is almost 300 times higher than the global average. Based on individual states, the concentration of sightings was also quite interesting. Apparently, more sightings happen (per 10 million people) in the West and Northwest, with the highest numbers coming from Washington and Montana. Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico also made strong showings, while the Great Lakes and Midwestern states were all consistent with the national median.

On the opposite coast, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire all had a good number of sightings per capita, though the state of New York even as New York was beneath the national median. Texas actually ranked the lowest, and was followed by the Southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. But as Monfort told Universe Today via email, this may be slightly skewed because of who is collecting the information:

“[I]t’s worth mentioning that the NUFORC is an American agency (“N” stands for “National”). They make an effort to record international sightings (phone banks staffed 24/7), but I’d guess that sightings in the USA are still over-represented. Honestly, I’d bet that the NUFORC being based in Seattle is the main reason we see so many more sightings in the States. A more thorough analysis might cross-reference sightings from other agencies, like MUFON.”

The geographic breakdown of annual UFO sightings (per 10 million people) in the US. Credit: sammonfort3

Canadians did not do much better, coming at second place after the United States with 1000 sightings per 10 million people. And according to a recent article by Allan Maki of The Globe and Mail, its becoming more common – with a record 1982 sightings reported in 2012. He also suggests that this could be due to a combination of growing interest in the subject and reduced stigma.

Iceland, the UK, Australia, the Virgin Islands and Cyprus all ranked a distant third, with between 250 and 500 sightings per 100 million people per year. New Zealand, Mexico, Israel and the Gulf States also produced considerable returns, as did the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Danemark, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

From this distribution, one might make the generalization that more developed nations are more likely to report UFOs (i.e. better record-keeping and all that). And this is a possibility which Monfort explored. In another visualization, he cross-referenced the number of sightings in a respective country with amount of internet access it has (per 100 people), and a limited correlation was shown.

Nations like Israel and the Gulf States have a higher number of sightings than neighboring countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, while South Africa has more reported sightings than several North African and Sub-Saharan African nations surveyed. However, fast-developing nations like Russia, China and India showed a lower than average level of sightings, while Guyana and Suriname showed a higher than average level.

The number of UFO sightings per year, subdivided based on the type of object reported. Credit: sammonfort3

France, Italy and the Czech Republic also lagged behind many of their European counterparts, and Germany and Spain were only slightly higher than the average. So much like distribution by state within the US, internet access does not seem to be a consistent determining factor. Another interesting visualization was the one which broke down the sightings per decade based on the nature of the sighting.

As you can see from the table above, when UFO sightings first began in the early 20th century, they reportedly took the form of either a sphere or a cigar-shaped object. This differs from the 1920s, when “flying saucers” began to appear, and remained the dominant trend throughout World War II and the Cold War era. And ever since the 1990s – what Monfort refers to as “post-internet” era – the most common UFO sightings took the form of bright lights.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it was a combination of factors,” said Monfort. “Like I mentioned in the blog, it seems a lot more plausible that someone would see strange lights in the sky than a flying object with a concrete shape (like a saucer). Seeing a shape implies that the object is pretty close to you, “and if it’s that close why didn’t you take a video of it?”

As for other factors, Monfort considers the possibility of fireworks and (as one comment on his blog suggested) Chinese lanterns. “Those are the little paper balloons you light a candle in and let fly. Some of the bright light sightings could be those, especially since I’d bet most Chinese lanterns are released in groups, with several people going out in groups to release them together. (Often people report formations of lights.)”

Naturally, the data does not support any ironclad conclusions, and plenty can be said about its reliability and methodology. After all, while UFO sightings are documented, they are famous for being routinely debunked. Nevertheless, visuals like these are interesting in illustrated the patterns of sightings, and can allow for some insightful speculation as to why they take place.

Further Reading: Visualize This

Chilean Government Releases Declassified UFO Video

The term UFO has a way of stirring up speculation and controversy. Even though this bland acronym refers only to an airborne object who’s appearance hasn’t been explained yet – with no references whatsoever to “aliens” or “extra-terrestrials” – one cannot mention it without inspiring talk of little green men and massive conspiracies.

This has certainly been the reaction to a video that was recently released by the Committee for the Study of Anomalous Air Phenomena (CEFAA), the Chilean government agency responsible for investigating UFOs. Originally captured by a helicopter belonging to the Chilean navy two years ago, the release of this 10-minute video coincided with the conclusion of the Committee’s investigation into the anomaly.

Such is the procedure of the CEFAA whenever a UFO – or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) as they call them – comes to their attention. And once an investigation into the sighting is concluded, the details are released to the public. Interestingly, this particular encounter – which took place on November 11th, 2014, in the coastal region between San Antonio and Quinteros – had them stumped.

A Chilean Navy version of the Europcopter Airbus Cougar AS-532, which was being flown by the aircrew that spotted the UFO. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Evogol

According to their report, a Chilean navy helicopter (an Airbus Cougar AS-532, like the one pictured above) was conducting a daytime patrol when a technician aboard spotted an object flying in their airspace. The technician then directed the helicopter’s infrared camera towards it and began filming. As the CEFAA recently indicated on their website:

“At 1:52 pm, while filming the terrain, the technician observed a strange object flying to the left over the ocean. Soon both men observed it with the naked eye. They noticed that the velocity and the altitude of the object appeared to be about the same as the helicopter, and estimated that the object was approximately 35 to 40 miles (55-65 km) away. It was traveling W/NW, according to the Captain. The technician aimed the camera at the object immediately and zoomed in with the infra red (IR) for better clarity.”

Further details from the investigation revealed that the officers reported the sighting to the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC) in Santiago. The DGAC reported that no air traffic was authorized to be in the region, and that they could detect no trace of the object on their radar. They also confirmed that their attempts to communicate using the standard radio frequencies (which the helicopter crew had also attempted) yielded no response.

What was even more strange was the way the object appeared as two “hot spots”, which looked to be connected. In addition, on two occasions, the object threw off some kind of trail before finally disappearing into the clouds. According to the technician who filmed it, the plume of material appeared to be very hot, which was indicated from the footage that showed how the stream glowed bright in the infrared band.

The route of the helicopter, based on the displayed geographic coordinates displayed on the camera. Credit: CEFAA

Much like the object itself, the CEFAA investigation was hard-pressed to explain the appearance of these hot plumes:

“Some analysts have suggested the hypothesis that it is a medium-sized line aircraft and that the stelae of the detachable element may be the reserve water inside the apparatus, thrown by the crew. However, meteorology asserts that neither the altitude at which the object moved, nor the ambient temperature of that moment, allowed such a wake of condensation.”

After the encounter, the Chilean Navy submitted the footage to the CEFAA, which has spent the past two years looking into it. However, their investigation proved inconclusive. As General Ricardo Bermúdez, Director of CEFAA during the investigation, told Leslie Kean of the Huffington Post, “We do not know what it was, but we do know what it was not.”

In essence, they ruled that the anomalous object could not have been a military or civilian aircraft. They also ruled out the possibility that the clouds it emitted were caused by the expulsion of waste water, and that the object was too low to emit contrails. In the end, the CEFAA cataloged this object as an UAP, which is standard practice whenever a particular sighting merits that designation.

Image captured from the footage shot by the Chilean Navy helicopter, showing the thermal trail cast by the object, and its two bright spots. Credit: CEFAA

However, since the video went public, one UFO hoax-buster has come forward with what he believes to be a sound explanation for the sighting. According to Mick West, an administrator at Metabunk.org – a website dedicated to debunking unscientific theories – what was seen in the video was actually the result a four-engine airplane leaving flying out of Santiago and leaving aerodynamic contrails in its wake.

Using online flight records, West tracked down two flights that were in the same airspace at the time – LA330 (from Santiago to La Serena) and IB6830 (from Santiago to Madrid). After examining the flights GPS data and conducting a 3D analysis, West concluded that the four-engine IB6830 was the likeliest culprit. The thermal plumes were engine exhaust, and its failure to show up on radar was because the radar operators were looking in the wrong place.

As West explained in his write-up about the incident:

“At the time this was spotted (the very first sighting on the video, at 13:52:34) IB6830 was actually around 35 miles away. However it would very quickly get further away. By 13:57 IB6830 would be 65 miles away. This explain why it was not seen on radar (IB6830 was on radar, just not where they thought it was).”

Image captured from the video showing two connected white circular lights, or “hot spots”. “Envoltura” means “envelope”, refers to the glow surrounding the two spots. Credit: CEFAA

In addition to being in exactly the right position (according to West), aerodynamic contrails explains the thermal flare and the two “thermal spotlights” on the object itself (see image above). Basically, the pilots were looking at the plane’s engine glow, which was caused by its two engines on either side of the fuselage glowing hot and giving the appearance of two connected hot spots.

As the plane climbed, its engine exhaust created hot trails that looked like plumes when viewed through an IR camera. Given the fact that the plane was at a higher altitude than originally reported, the presence of contrails would therefore be a possibility, which is something the CEFAA had ruled because the object was believed to be too close to the ground for those to form.

As William of Ockham famously said, “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In this case, it would seem that West’s hypothesis accounts for all the knowns and unknowns in this case, and is therefore the correct one. In the coming weeks and months, the Chilean government may choose to revisit their ruling and reconsider designating this a UAP.

But in the meantime, UFO enthusiasts are likely to interpret this however they want. And many (not all) may indeed see this video as further confirmation that extra-terrestrials are already among us!

Cue the theme music from X-Files! And be sure to watch West’s video explaining his conclusions:

Further Reading: CEFAA, Huff Post, Metabunk

Report: Two Objects Crash to Ground in Mongolia

One of the objects that crashed in Mongolia. Image: MUFON

Two objects reportedly crashed to the ground near Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia on Feb. 19, 2010. The first object, according to the report on the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) witness database, weighed 10 kg, while the second larger object weighed approximately 2 tons. Other than that, there’s not a lot of information available about the objects. But of course, UFOers are having a field day, calling the image, above, that accompanied the report a “leaked UFO crash” picture. But the object looks suspiciously like a rocket or jet engine, or perhaps a rocket nose cone. Objects that crash to Earth likely have a very terrestrial origin. We’ll provide an update when any news becomes available. But if you are looking for a few laughs, check out the comments on Io9.

Report: UFO Sightings Coincide with Popular Sci-Fi Films, TV

Scene from the movie "Independance Day." Credit: 20th Century Fox

The British Ministry of Defense released 4,000 pages of documents detailing hundreds of UFO sightings between 1981 and 1996. A summary of the documents by UFO expert David Clarke comes as no surprise to scientists and skeptics: many of the sightings coincide with the release of popular sci-fi movies or television shows.

609 UFO sightings in 1996, compared with 117 in 1995 correspond with the rise in popularity of the “X Files” television show and the release of the alien blockbuster film “Independence Day.” “Obviously, films and TV programs raise public awareness of UFOs and it’s fascinating to see how that appears to lead more people to report what they see to the authorities,” Clarke said.

The documents released include sightings reported by police officers and fighter pilots as well as young children, the Daily Mail reported Monday. 90% of the sightings could be explained by mundane objects such as bright stars and planets, meteors, artificial satellites and airship advertising.

The other 10% were listed as “unexplained,” mainly because of insufficient information.

For an excellent overview of what really happened in one of the most famous UFO stories of all, the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico alien spaceship crash, listen to Brian Dunning’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast on the subject.

Source: Reuters, UPI

Morristown UFO? Hoaxers Tell Their Story

Was this what all the 2008 UFO fuss was about? Credit: Skeptic.com

If you follow UFO sightings at all (and even if you don’t) you probably heard about the Morristown, New Jersey UFO’s from earlier this year. Reports of the sightings in January 2009 were covered extensively in newspapers around the country, on CNN, several national talk radio shows, and even was featured in the History Channel’s new show, UFO Hunters. Well, yesterday two New Jersey residents Joe Rudy and Chris Russo revealed something big: its was all a hoax. The two created the entire five-night spectacle by tying flares to helium balloons. Everyone should read their account over at Skeptics.com (and the Bad Astronomer beat me to the punch by posting about it before I could, so read his take on it, too.) Why did they do this? “We set out on a mission to help people think rationally and question the credibility of so-called UFO “professionals,” write Rudy and Russo, “We delivered what every perfect UFO case has: great video and pictures, “credible” eyewitnesses (doctors and pilots), and professional investigators convinced that something amazing was witnessed. Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.”

The article provides links to videos of how they created the hoax, and provides all the extensive media reaction. Most of the media includes quotes from “experts” including a pilot who saw UFO lights. But the two “hoaxers” call into question the validity of so-called UFO investigators and shows like the History Channel’s UFO Hunters, as well as eye-witness accounts even from so-called experts. They make some great points in their article: “This begs an important question: are UFO investigators simply charlatans looking to make a quick buck off human gullibility, or are they alarmists using bad science to back up their biased opinions that extraterrestrial life is routinely visiting our planet? Either way, are these people deserving of their own shows on major cable networks? If a respected UFO investigator can be easily manipulated and dead wrong on one UFO case, is it possible he’s wrong on most (or all) of them? Do the networks buy into this nonsense, or are they in it for the ratings? How can a television network that has pretensions of providing honest and factual programming be taken seriously when the topic of one of their top rated shows deals with chasing flares and fishing line?”

Check it out.