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Scientists call for serious study of 'unidentified aerial phenomena'

An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) caught on a U.S. Navy jet's Forward-looking Infrared (FLIR) camera system in 2004.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon (UAP) caught on a U.S. Navy jet's Forward-looking Infrared (FLIR) camera system in 2004.
(Image: © © DOD/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy recently admitted that, indeed, strangely behaving objects caught on video by jet pilots over the years are genuine head-scratchers. There are eyewitness accounts not only from pilots but from radar operators and technicians, too. 

In August, the Navy established an Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Task Force to investigate the nature and origin of these odd sightings and determine if they could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security. 

The recently observed UAPs purportedly have accelerations that range from almost 100 Gs to thousands of Gs — far higher than a human pilot could survive. There's no air disturbance visible. They don't produce sonic booms. These and other oddities have captured the attention of "I told you so, they're here" UFO believers. 

But there's also a rising call for this phenomenon to be studied scientifically — even using satellites to be on the lookout for possible future UAP events.

Related: 7 things most often mistaken for UFOs

Wanted: high-quality evidence

Philippe Ailleris is a project controller at the European Space Agency's Space Research and Technology Center in the Netherlands. He's also the primary force behind the Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena Observations Reporting Scheme, a project to facilitate the collection of UAP reports from both amateur and professional astronomers.

There's a need for the scientific study of UAPs and a requirement to assemble reliable evidence, something that could not be so easily ignored by science, Ailleris told Space.com. 

It is necessary to bring scientists objective and high-quality data, Ailleris said. "No one knows where and when a UAP can potentially appear, hence the difficulty of scientific research in this domain."

New tools

Recent years have seen rapid advances in information and communication technologies — for example, open tools and software, cloud computing and artificial intelligence with machine and deep learning, Ailleris said. These tools offer scientists new possibilities to collect, store, manipulate and transmit data. 

Ailleris points to another potent tool. "The location over our heads of satellites is the perfect chance to potentially detect something," he said. 

Working in the space sector, it occurred to Ailleris that Earth-observation civilian satellites could be used to search for UAPs. One avenue is tapping into free-of-charge imagery collected by the European Union's Copernicus satellites, an Earth-observing program coordinated and managed by the European Commission in partnership with ESA.

Also, there are more and more Earth-scanning spacecraft being launched to take the pulse of our globe. Such work is no longer limited to major countries or powers, Ailleris said; private actors have also entered the planet-viewing scene.

"This evolution will stimulate forward-thinking ideas across different domains, including controversial topics," Ailleris said. "And why not the UAP research field?"

Related: UFO watch: 8 times the government looked for flying saucers

The "Gimbal" UAP, observed off the U.S. East Coast by a Navy jet in 2015. (Image credit: DOD/U.S. Navy)

UAP expedition

Working with Ailleris to employ satellite imagery to detect and monitor UAPs is Kevin Knuth, a former scientist with NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. He is now an associate professor of physics at the University at Albany in New York.

"We are looking into using satellites to monitor the region of ocean south of Catalina Island where the 2004 Nimitz encounters occurred," Knuth said, referring to UAP sightings reported by pilots and radar operators based aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz.

That area will also be the target for a 2021 UAP expedition carried out by Knuth and other researchers. The goal of the outing is "to provide unassailable scientific evidence that UAP objects are real, UAP objects are findable and UAP objects are knowable," according to the website for the project, which is called UAPx. 

The UAPx team includes military veterans and physicists, as well as research scientists and trained observers that will use specialized gear to observe any would-be UAP.

"We are hoping to detect UAPs, determine their characteristics, flight patterns and any patterns in activity that will allow us to study them more effectively," Knuth told Space.com. "In addition to monitoring a region for UAPs, we are also looking into using satellites to obtain independent confirmation of prominent UAP sightings and to obtain quantifiable information about those UAPs." 

Related: 5 bold claims of alien life

The "GoFast" UAP, observed by a U.S. Navy jet in 2015. (Image credit: DOD/U.S. Navy)

Science problem

"I certainly think that UAP deserve to be studied, just like we would do with any other problem in science," said Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, Washington. 

In August, Haqq-Misra helped organize a NASA-sponsored interdisciplinary workshop, called TechnoClimes 2020, that sought to prioritize and guide future theoretical and observational studies of non-radio "technosignatures" — that is, observational manifestations of technology, particularly those that could be detected through astronomical or other means. 

Haqq-Misra said his knowledge regarding UAPs stems from the public domain, such as the recently released Navy videos and Department of Defense comments. But otherwise, he has not conducted any of his own investigations into the problem. 

"I also remain agnostic as to any particular hypothesis that might explain UAP, at least until we have more data to consider," Haqq-Misra said. "The non-human intelligence hypothesis is a popular one, but I don't necessarily have any indication that it is more probable than any other hypothesis at this point."

Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAPx) expedition logo.

Logo of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon expedition, or UAPx. (Image credit: UAPx)

'Outlaws' of physics

Ravi Kopparapu is a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who studies planetary habitability, climate modeling and chemistry in the context of exoplanet atmosphere characterization. He views the UAP/UFO phenomena as a scientifically interesting problem, driven in part by observations that seem to defy the laws of physics. 

That said, Kopparapu said he's wary of bringing the term "extraterrestrial" into the conversation. "That's because there is absolutely no concrete evidence that I know of that points to them as being extraterrestrial," he said. 

"There's a fundamental problem that we have right now to scientifically study UAP," Kopparapu said. "We do not have proper data collection of this phenomena that can be shared among interested scientists to verify claims and filter out truly unexplainable events."

Also, the entire UAP topic has been much maligned by being associated with ET, Kopparapu added. This association prevents a thorough scientific investigation by the science community, he feels, essentially because of a taboo surrounding ET claims. 

"I think people immediately think about 'aliens' when they hear UFOs/UAPs, and I want scientists to not fall for that," Kopparapu said. "Be strictly agnostic and don't let preconceived ideas cloud judgments. Have an open mind. Consider this as a science problem. If it turns out these have mundane explanations, so be it."

Kopparapu and like-minded colleagues are proposing a completely unbiased, agnostic approach to study UAP, he said: "Let the data lead us to what they are."

Leonard David is author of the recently released book, "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.

  • LowellFreeman
    Actually, no UAP's have ever been recorded or at least would not have been. But in 2050 at a Catalina demonstration of a time traveling hovering camera (used primarily on new Teslas to go back in time to record traffic accidents to determine fault), Elon Musk sends them back in time by tossing the devices in the air, assuring the audience that they would be undetectable even by fighter jets of the time. Unfortunately after 2 throws of the devices back in time, the audience chuckles looking at the big screen behind Elon as both are detected and recorded by F-18's thereby changing the time continuum leaving us to wonder what they were for over 30 years. "Guess we have some improvements to make before production" Musk replied.
    Reply
  • rbjones
    Why is it we only see the same old handful of grainy videos depicting UFOs? You'd think with all the modern high tech stuff we could do better.
    Reply
  • Booster
    rbjones said:
    Why is it we only see the same old handful of grainy videos depicting UFOs? You'd think with all the modern high tech stuff we could do better.

    Great question! The reason that the same "grainy videos" keep being circulated is because these specific videos are the most compelling pieces of evidence that we have so far. This is because of the videos verifiable chain of custody, and engineering analysis available from the F-18's cameras. Believe it or not, this is much better footage (in terms of authenticity) than if the same video had been captured with a civilian camera. We can determine a lot about these objects in terms of speed, temperature, maneuverability, etc. Which is why the scientific community is beginning to take this more seriously. I work for a major aerospace company and when I spoke with some of our brightest engineers about the vidoes, they were unequivocally convinced that they were not man-made. It wasn't even a question! Scientists may be harder to convince but the evidence is so powerful that they're finally being forced to give it serious consideration.
    Reply
  • herodes falsk
    rbjones said:
    Why is it we only see the same old handful of grainy videos depicting UFOs? You'd think with all the modern high tech stuff we could do better.
    Yes, it crossed my mind too until you think about how far away these objects usually are. Even with a high-end professional 24 Megapixel camera with a 28-120mm zoom lens, taking a photo of a passenger jet cruising at 38,000ft will produce a grainy result. Most of the photos today are taken by people using cellphones, that almost exclusively has fixed wide angle lenses and they aren't very good at producing detailed images of small objects far away; like if you use your phone to take a photo of a car or a big bus from a mile away. It gets even more tricky as the UFOs often seem to emit light, the camera will naturally overexpose the small dot of light against the usually darker background.
    Reply
  • LowellFreeman
    herodes falsk said:
    Yes, it crossed my mind too until you think about how far away these objects usually are. Even with a high-end professional 24 Megapixel camera with a 28-120mm zoom lens, taking a photo of a passenger jet cruising at 38,000ft will produce a grainy result. Most of the photos today are taken by people using cellphones, that almost exclusively has fixed wide angle lenses and they aren't very good at producing detailed images of small objects far away; like if you use your phone to take a photo of a car or a big bus from a mile away. It gets even more tricky as the UFOs often seem to emit light, the camera will naturally overexpose the small dot of light against the usually darker background.
    Not sure what you mean by "most of the photos". I don't see much of any photos being taken of UAP's worth really considering (since the obvious hoax photos of the 60' and 70's) . If there were at least a couple independent photos/videos taken at the same time and location and the eye witnesses gave corroborating accounts then it may be worth looking into. A plane at 38,000 feet would be over 7 miles away from sea level (assuming straight overhead). I don't think anything at that distance would be noticed especially some silent small craft. Any encounter close enough to be noticed by the unaided eye should surely have been captured with enough resolution by today's cell phones and cameras by now. If they are so far away as to be grainy blobs then how can anybody give testimony as to what they are. The military videos at least show peculiar movement to garner some interest and I think those may be worth pursuing as long as it is done with an abundance of skeptical analysis.
    Reply