What exactly is Harvard theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb doing co-founding a $1.755-million academic effort to look for UFOs? In July 2021 Loeb revealed the Galileo Project, which aims to develop an artificial-intelligence-powered network of telescopes that can search for evidence of technological alien civilizations on or near Earth.
The project has received mixed criticism from outside researchers, who maintain that although there is no harm in at least looking for such things in a rigorous manner, the possibility of finding anything seems slim.
Galileo is an outgrowth of Loeb’s particular passion—making the case that ‘Oumuamua, the first interstellar comet ever discovered, might actually be a probe from an intelligent species looking to learn about our solar system. For the past few years he has been trumpeting the idea both in the scientific literature and in a nonfiction book, Extraterrestrial.
While on a publicity tour for the book, Loeb says, he was contacted by many people interested in UFOs—which are now more politely referred to as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs. Several of those people turned out to be both wealthy and generous, gifting him with large sums of money to use for further, more formal, investigations.
“I always emphasize the fact that it’s not a philosophical question whether an object is an artifact from a technological civilization,” Loeb says. “It’s very easy to answer by taking a high-resolution photograph.”
That is what he and his research partners at Galileo hope to do by building small arrays of instruments that would continuously scan the skies to capture data about anything out of the ordinary. The project also intends to develop sensors to hunt for any unusual, artificial and potentially alien satellites orbiting Earth, as well as to look for other ‘Oumuamua-like interstellar objects to study in greater detail.
Despite the project’s outlandish focus, scientists not associated with the group think Galileo can provide useful information. “In the sense that this could serve to legitimize those kinds of investigations, it can be a very positive thing,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
“I’m glad to see Avi and others not being afraid of silly associations,” says Jason Wright, a Pennsylvania State University astrophysicist who works on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). “So much of UFO stuff is far from the way we actually do science; it’s hard to associate yourself with it and still be taken seriously. I appreciate that Avi is going to do some systematic data collection and study it with a clean sheet.”
Both Walkowicz and Wright emphasize that they don’t believe UAPs to have exotic extraterrestrial explanations, considering them much more likely to be mundane things such as planes, birds, insects, meteors or atmospheric phenomena. Given their highly random nature—most eyewitness accounts describe them appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly—building detectors to monitor them might be quite difficult.
“It’s really hard to see how you establish a search strategy that would have a chance of seeing one,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. “I suspect there are more well-motivated SETI projects, or even UFO-search projects, that could be funded for less money.”
UAPs have been having something of a cultural moment. The Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a highly anticipated report in June 2021 on their own investigations into the phenomena. The government concluded that most of the events were likely terrestrial in origin—things such as weather balloons and foreign drones—but added they merited further study.
Galileo is intended to do that beyond the confines of classified military information collection, producing openly accessible data that will be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. “The Pentagon has a $22-million budget to study UAPs, and I’m not sure what that produced,” says astrophysicist Amir Siraj, also at Harvard, who works on the project. “The hope is that with less money we will be able to produce better results.”
A modern one-meter telescope capable of resolving pinhead-size details on a human being from a kilometer away can be ordered off-the-shelf for as little as $500,000, Loeb says. He has secured enough money for a few such instruments, although he hopes to eventually raise 10 times more funding and place multiple sensors at various still to be chosen locations that will be aided by detectors using infrared and radar.
The project has assembled a wide array of technicians, instrumentalists and other scientists as part of its research team. It is currently backed by affluent individuals who mainly made their money developing industrial equipment for chemistry applications, among them chemist and entrepreneur Frank H. Laukien. Loeb says the funding comes with “no strings attached in a way that allows me complete freedom,” although several early supporters had seats on a philanthropic advisory board for Galileo.
How long such funders will stay with the project, and whether Loeb will convince others to donate additional capital, remains to be seen. Given that it will take time to develop and test software that can filter out the multitude of objects constantly whizzing overhead, it appears unlikely that Galileo will have much to show anytime soon, says Mick West, a skeptical investigator who produces explanatory films about UAP videos.
“The issue with UFOs is they exist in the low-information zone,” West adds. “They have historically always been just too far away to resolve what they are, and every time you have a better camera, they get farther away.”
Still, West welcomes more investigation. “Right now we don’t have the evidence, and when we do have the evidence, it’s quite contentious,” he says. “I would prefer things to be less ambiguous.”
Galileo is not entirely novel in its proposals. A project called Sky Hub sought to use civilian-owner sensors and machine learning to catalog events in the sky that might have placed limits on whether any given occurrence indicated visitors from another planet. Instruments such as the upcoming Vera C. Rubin telescope already are planned to look for new interstellar comets and asteroids, and the European Space Agency is developing its Comet Interceptor mission, which could launch in 2029 to wait for a possible rendezvous with some as yet undiscovered suitable interstellar target.
As far as potential alien objects in low Earth orbit, there is already an enormous military and civilian array dedicated to monitoring the space around our planet, which is littered with more than 20,000 known satellites and other entities. Loeb “basically has to replicate the entire space-surveillance network and look for the outliers,” McDowell says. “It’s a very hard and expensive project to do right, and the chance of finding something seems remote.”
Finally, there is the issue of Loeb’s personality. In recent years he has increasingly alienated himself from the astronomical community, painting himself as a brave free thinker challenging the closed-minded dogmas of the broader scientific world.
The Galileo Project’s tagline—“Daring to Look through New Telescopes”—is meant to evoke the scientist Galileo Galilei, who helped to upend the geocentric model of the universe with his observations. But Loeb himself is not exactly a marginalized outsider.
“Avi does this thing where he implies that he’s this iconoclast who’s pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in science,” Walkowicz says. “But he has nothing at risk. He’s a tenured Harvard professor.”
In a February 2021 Zoom call, Loeb grew extremely confrontational toward SETI pioneer Jill Tarter, berating her and the rest of the community for not giving greater support to his proposals. (He has since apologized both publicly and privately to Tarter.)
Few academics, including those working with the project, think they will discover aliens here on Earth. “If we were actually being visited by extraterrestrials, then I would expect we’d be seeing a lot of ‘museum artifacts,’” says Abel Méndez, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico, referring to the four billion years of prior history in which aliens could have landed something like a Mars rover, with its heat shield, casing and parachutes, on Earth’s surface.
Whether Galileo will ultimately yield anything of interest remains to be seen. Loeb has brought together a large group to help him in his quest, yet it is always possible that his own viewpoints hinder him in certain ways.
“Is he a voice crying out the truth in the wilderness, or is he a bit of a crank?” West asks. “Time will tell.”