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What will NASA’s new UFO committee unveil?

Scientists hold mixed views about “unidentified aerial phenomena”

Workers on scaffolding repaint a NASA logo on the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in May 2020. Associated Press/Photo by John Raoux, file

What will NASA’s new UFO committee unveil?

The one-third of Americans who say they believe in alien visitations to Earth may soon get some answers. That is, if NASA’s new initiative to investigate unidentified flying objects bears any fruit.

Announced on June 9, the study’s goals are to gather available data on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), the official term for UFOs, and determine how to optimize future data collection. NASA defines UAPs as observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or natural phenomena.

At first glance, it sounds like the respected U.S. space agency is on the hunt for Star Trek’s Vulcan race. But NASA cautioned in a press release that “there is no evidence UAPs are extra-terrestrial in origin.” And while some scientists well-versed in UAP sightings are hesitant to jump on the ET bandwagon, others are more willing to entertain the possibility of alien encounters.

Projected to cost under $100,000 and last nine months, the study is slated to start this fall. NASA appointed astrophysicist David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation in New York City and former chair of Princeton University’s astrophysics department, to lead the team of independent researchers. (Asked in an interview a few years ago whether he believed alien life existed, Spergel said, “I still don’t know.”)

It may not be a coincidence that NASA’s announcement comes on the heels of the Department of Defense’s May congressional hearing revealing nearly 400 reports of military personnel run-ins with UAPs. Mark Rodeghier, director of the Center for UFO Studies in Chicago, Ill., speculates NASA is responding to internal pressure from the military and Congress.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a media teleconference that the UAP task force aligns with the agency’s mission to explore the unknown in air and space. He pointed to additional reasons to study UAPs, including national security and air safety.

The U.S. government has certainly investigated UAP sightings before. The Air Force studied UAP reports under Project Blue Book between 1952 and 1969. The Department of Defense secretly conducted its own probe into UAPs between 2007 and 2012. The New York Times exposed DOD’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program in 2017, drawing public attention to videos of military pilots encountering strange, fast-moving aircraft.

Zurbuchen doesn’t rule out the possibility of alien UAPs, but emphasized that mysterious events are sometimes ahead of our scientific understanding. “There’s been many times where something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect,” he said.

In the same teleconference, Spergel said the committee plans to work with government officials, nonprofits, companies, and civilians to compile existing UAP data. He noted a high volume of information about our atmosphere exists from sources including air traffic management data and satellites. He believes the committee can use this information to create a road map for how to analyze UAPs moving forward.

Seth Shostak, director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, Calif., is skeptical NASA’s efforts will strengthen the case for alien UAPs. He doubts that extraterrestrials would be interested in visiting us. “How reasonable is it that aliens would come, who knows how many light years, to Earth, and spend all their time teasing Navy pilots?” he asked. Shostak also pointed out that there are thousands of satellites photographing Earth every day without turning out any snapshots of ETs.

Both Shostak and Bill Hartmann, scientist emeritus at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscon, Ariz., have experience examining photos of alleged UFOs. Shostak said people send him photos every day, none of which he’s found compelling to date. Hartmann, who analyzed photographs in the late 1960s for the University of Colorado’s UFO project, the Condon Committee, was able to disprove UFO claims in many instances.

Hartmann recalled a barber who used two photos he claimed were of a flying saucer to attract more customers. But the Condon Committee found his account of the time lapse between the two photos was inaccurate. Analysis of shadows in the two photos proved the time interval between them was over an hour, contrary to the barber’s claim that they were taken less than two minutes apart.

Both Hartmann and Rodeghier are open to the possibility of ETs visiting Earth. Hartmann joked about the science fiction concept of an intergalactic organization flying around and visiting other planets, but said he couldn’t rule out the possibility.

Rodeghier remains convinced that some UFO incidents he’s investigated cannot be explained via natural phenomena. He recounted the 1973 Coyne case, in which four men in a military helicopter flying over Ohio saw a cigar-shaped object heading toward them. They reported that the object affected their helicopter, making it rise into the air. Witnesses on the ground also saw the helicopter and the strange object. “No skeptics have been able to come up with any viable explanation of this case,” he said.

But Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist and founder and president of the Christian organization Reasons to Believe, isn’t convinced of alien visits. In his experience processing UFO reports, Ross found that 99 percent of the cases could be explained by natural phenomena, military activity, or hoaxes. In an emailed statement, he said he and his organization believe the final 1 percent are encounters with the occult.

Ross backed his view by referencing six nontheistic scientists who came to a similar conclusion, describing the 1 percent as due to “interdimensional phenomena.”

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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