Gaining any new clarity about surging reports of unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, will take time, better data gathering and diagnostic tools and, perhaps most importantly, a hale and hearty dose of nit-picking scientific scrutiny. It may also require a better, sharper definition of what “anomalous” even means in the context of recent sightings.
At least, that’s the emerging conclusion of a NASA-chartered, blue-ribbon panel of 16 independent experts who span a number of scientific and technical communities. The team, which was convened last year, is continuing to work toward a report to be published later this summer. But in a recent public briefing, it offered its first-cut verdict on ways to empirically grapple with the slippery subject of UAP.
Astrophysicist David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, chairs the effort, which is officially called the Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study. At the outset of the May 31 meeting, Spergel set the tone: today’s existing data and eyewitness reports are insufficient to yield conclusive evidence about the nature and origin of every UAP event, he said, primarily because of a lack of quality control and poor data curation.
One idea already bandied about by the panel is a permanent office within NASA to collate and archive UAP information.
The group’s overall goal is to craft a where-to-go-from-here roadmap on how NASA can contribute to UAP studies, tapping its unique position as a civilian agency that handles data from the heavens and Earth alike in an open and transparent manner. “NASA’s responsibility is to listen to our advice, take it seriously and then assess which aspects of it they want to follow,” Spergel said at the meeting.
Many of the UAP events can be attributed to commercial aircraft, drones and research balloons, as well as weather and ionospheric phenomena, Spergel stated. “That said, there remain events that we do not understand. But these events tend to be characterized by poor quality and limited data,” he added.
Novel Physical Phenomenon
Might there be riches untold awaiting anyone who successfully cracks the nature of UAP?
At the meeting, Spergel said the history of fast radio bursts is instructive. When these brief, powerful blips were first seen in data from radio telescopes, many skeptics suspected they would be traced to mundane, terrestrial electromagnetic interference of one kind or another. Instead further examination confirmed the bursts were cosmic in nature, emerging from astrophysical cataclysms scattered across the universe. “Sometimes anomalies are really interesting and point to novel physical phenomenon. I think there’s a number of interesting lessons learned there,” he said.
Likewise, Spergel singled out sprites—mysterious sprawling flashes of light that commercial pilots have reported seeing above intense thunderstorms. Early on, to some extent, sprites were simply dismissed as illusory before being found as authentic, albeit very strange. Spergel pointed out that it ultimately took high-speed imaging data, often from orbital assets such as the International Space Station, to learn about the true nature of these intriguing ionospheric occurrences: they are essentially upward-moving discharges of lightning.
“I think this is one of the fascinating things about the UAP phenomenon,” Spergel said. “If it’s something that’s anomalous, that makes it interesting and worthy of study.”
Spergel added that panel members have suggested ways to engage citizen scientists. For example, given that several billion cell phones are in use around the globe, those devices not only record sounds and images but also gauge local magnetic fields and provide good geospatial and temporal calibration via GPS.
NASA could enlist private companies to develop software apps designed to allow smartphones to record more and better UAP data, Spergel said. Such apps could then upload the crowdsourced data to a central repository for subsequent analysis. This and other ways of casting a wider net for UAP data help “eliminate the normal, then identify anything interesting,” he said.
Similar in thought was panel member Federica Bianco, an astrophysicist and data scientist at the University of Delaware. At the meeting, she advocated crowdsourcing, harnessing a large and decentralized group of people to help dig into UAP, to tackle the issue.
Bianco cautioned, however, that the application of the scientific method to discovery requires that the UAP data meet rigorous standards—especially if any of that analysis will rely on automated processing by artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools.
Separate Fact from Fiction
The “Why now, why NASA?” question was underscored by Daniel Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He serves as the space agency official responsible for orchestrating the study.
Another goal of the group is to assess whether UAP pose any risks to safe operations in air and space, Evans explained. “And we’re doing it using science,” he said. “NASA believes that the tools of science apply to the study of UAP because they allow us to separate fact from fiction. And that’s all part of NASA’s commitment to exploring the unknown.”
Evans said he wanted to emphasize loudly and proudly that “there is absolutely no convincing evidence for extraterrestrial life associated with UAPs.” Nevertheless, trying to come to grips with the UAP enigma has sparked a predictable and palpable backlash.
Evans wouldn’t get into specifics but did say that there has been online harassment of several study team members. Labeling it “disheartening,” he said a NASA security team is actively addressing the issue. “If we are truly to approach UAP with an unwavering commitment and dedication to the scientific process, then harassment of any nature only serves to detract from that process,” Evans said.
Sean Kirkpatrick is director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), established in 2022. Speaking before the panel, he emphasized that a very small percentage of UAP reports could reasonably be described as anomalous. The majority of unidentified objects reported to AARO and in its holdings—now a collection of more than 800 incidents—demonstrate everyday characteristics of readily explainable sources, such as aircraft, balloons and even litter wafting through the atmosphere.
But there are head-scratching UAP reports, Kirkpatrick added, primarily because of a lack of data associated with those cases. “Without sufficient data, we are unable to reach defendable conclusions that meet the high scientific standards we set for resolution,” he said.
Meanwhile Kirkpatrick said that for the few objects that do display potentially anomalous characteristics, “AARO is approaching these cases with the highest level of objectivity and analytical rigor.” To that end, he reported that the office is deploying “purpose-built surveillance systems” to understand “what’s normal and what’s not normal” in the perplexing world of UAP.
Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb is on the same UAP page as the NASA panel, which he isn’t a part of. Loeb is leader of the Galileo Project, an effort focused on finding and carefully studying anomalous objects using the best scientific tools available. That initiative has designed, built and fielded sensitive sensor gear—often mated to sizable telescopes—to opportunistically capture sonic, spectral and radar data from UAP.
“Government agencies and academia should be working collaboratively towards the scientific collection of evidence-based knowledge on truly anomalous objects near Earth,” Loeb wrote in a post-NASA-panel-meeting essay. He added that, overall, the panel’s outcome was a “win-win” development and that a hunt for out of the ordinary objects should be based on “seeking new data agnostically with well-calibrated and controlled instruments.”
Mick West, a former video game programmer and noted skeptic, who is also not a panel member, says he was heartened to see detailed looks of purported UAP caught on video.
“There was a strong emphasis on the need for calibrated data. This means that they don’t think the existing videos [of UAP] are particularly useful, as they were not captured with calibrated instruments,” West says. He concurs with those taking part in the NASA UAP study who see eyewitness accounts as not very useful beyond establishing patterns of event locations—and agrees that, as of yet, none of the available evidence points to extraterrestrial origins for any UAP.
Robert Powell gives a thumbs-up to the idea of a permanent NASA UAP program. Powell is an executive board member of the nonprofit Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), a think tank of scientists, past military officers and other professionals, and is not on the panel. SCU was formed in August 2017 and has been steadfast in studying the enigma of UAP and calling for more rigorous research on the phenomena since that time.
UAP investigations should not fall exclusively under the auspices of the DOD, Powell contends. The agency has a different set of fundamental interests that do not include open data and public science, he advises.
“If a portion of what we call UAP is caused by an unknown intelligence of unknown origin, I can think of no more qualified group than NASA to make that determination,” Powell says.
Eager to provide guidance, Powell does sense a need to tighten up UAP terminology. One of the first steps that NASA should take is to describe exactly what is meant by “anomalous maneuvers” and precisely what is meant by “evidence of an extraterrestrial presence,” he says.
“Until criteria are established that state exactly how measuring equipment will determine an aerial object is controlled by an extraterrestrial intelligence, then no claims as to the existence or lack of existence of extraterrestrials should be made,” Powell says. “There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘We don’t yet know.’”
Does the term UAP tarnish long-held folklore that swirls around unidentified flying objects (UFOs)—stories of crashed flying saucers, recovered hardware and even occupants, all secreted by government cover-ups? Do UAP perhaps have nothing to do with the possibility of other star folk visiting Earth?
In an interview with Scientific American, panel member Mike Gold, chief growth officer at Redwire Space and former associate administrator for Space Policy and Partnerships at NASA, said the use of “UAP” was intended to get away from the assumptions and baggage that are part of the term UFO.
Speaking as an admitted “recovering attorney,” Gold told Scientific American, “I believe words matter.... Words have power. What we’re trying to do with this group is to be agnostic, to be objective and to look at this issue purely from a scientific perspective, without bias.”
Given that prescriptive outlook, the NASA-commissioned Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study is raising a “we’re from the government, and we’re here to help” flag while sanctifying a scientific look at aerial weirdness. It does so at a time when skeptical forces hold tight to their view that, at least when it comes to aliens, a long and checkered history of confirmed or rumored cover-ups renders any official statement from the U.S. government inherently untrustworthy.
In the end, how the panel’s report is publicly embraced may, just like UAP, be up in the air.