Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane—or a weather balloon or a rocket or a satellite! No, wait! It’s—an interstellar probe from elsewhere in the galaxy?
As always, there is no shortage of mysterious things to see in Earth’s skies—and no shortage of potential explanations for them that don’t invoke alien civilizations frolicking between the stars. So it has been throughout history, from biblical tales of angelic encounters to more modern accounts of flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
But leaving aside the recent rebranding of UFOs to the more neutral term “unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), not everything about the perennial matter of airborne oddities is the same as it ever was. Overlapping waves of technological innovation have made flying machines—remote-operated drones, especially—much more capable and abundant, while also making smartphones and other sophisticated data-gathering equipment near-ubiquitous. Today pilots, military personnel and civilians alike have more ways than ever before to observe and record strange occurrences in the sky—and more reasons to take any unexplained sightings seriously. It should be no surprise, then, that there seems to be an interlinked uptick in UAP reports and in organized efforts to study them.
In the U.S., the upsurge of UAP encounters and government interest is palpable—underscored by the January 12 release of the unclassified version of an Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report on UAPs to Congress. Future ODNI reports will appear annually, as required by a recently passed law from UAP-savvy legislators. “This increased reporting allows more opportunities to apply rigorous analysis and resolve events,” ODNI’s recently released report states. The agency coordinated it with the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), which the Department of Defense formed last year to synchronize all its various efforts to study past and present reports of “anomalous, unidentified space, airborne, submerged and transmedium objects” and their associated implications for national security.
Beyond the realm of defense, other parts of the U.S. government are also increasing their investigations of UAPs. Last year NASA created a 16-member blue-ribbon UAP study team, which seeks to improve the scientific understanding of UAPs by scouring the space agency’s vast archives and assets, as well as other civilian and commercial data sources, for relevant sightings. The team’s nine-month Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study is well underway. It aims to generate a roadmap of recommendations for potential further NASA UAP studies to follow, as well as a subsequent public report that will detail its findings.
Add to this a diverse, ever expanding mix of active private research efforts, and one might conclude we are witnessing a bold new era of UAP studies, in which robust scientific investigation at last supersedes decades of fruitless speculation and stigmatization. Then again, success is far from guaranteed. If the push for more and better studies yields no meaningful breakthroughs, this “bold new era” could instead be remembered as the time when a serious reengagement with UAPs went nowhere fast.
A Million Blurry Images
“A million blurry images are worthless, compared to a single high-resolution video that resolves an object as it maneuvers,” contends Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb, former chair of the university’s astronomy department and current head of the Galileo Project. Launched in July 2021, the latter endeavor has already built and deployed sensitive astronomical gear to snag scientific measurements of UAPs.
Last December, Loeb says, the project’s research team began collecting high-quality scientific data with a custom-built observatory that was temporarily located on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory. (It has since been moved to another location.) Assembled at a total cost of about $300,000, the observatory can capture continuous video of the sky at infrared, optical, and radio bands and can record ambient sound as well. The plan is to analyze the data with artificial intelligence algorithms before making the results available to the scientific community and the general public, Loeb says. As a first step, the team has drafted and submitted papers to peer-reviewed journals describing the project’s methods and goals.
“We are planning to make three copies of this system over the spring of 2023 and to then place them in desired locations while we continue to test the first system at Harvard,” Loeb says. “In the coming years, we need funding at a level of tens of millions of dollars to get 100 such systems to obtain enough statistics on UAP.”
The Galileo Project’s likely UAP haul, he says, will prove to be “a mixed bag,” with most events being linked to human-made or natural terrestrial phenomena.
“The reason that they are unidentified is because the U.S. government does not possess data of sufficient quality to decipher their nature,” Loeb adds. “The only way to advance our knowledge on the nature of UAP is through the assembly of high-quality data from instruments that are fully calibrated and yield reproducible results. ”
That need for rigor goes hand in hand with the wildest notions about the most anomalous observed UAPs—namely, that regardless of their origins, they are somehow a product of “new” physics beyond what defines our scientific understanding of reality. Sketchy data simply cannot be used to test such a profound possibility, Loeb maintains. “The bar on such a discovery is very high and requires a demonstration that conventional interpretations fail,” he says. “Only the highest-quality data could remove reasonable doubts.”
That demand for impeccable data, however, may increasingly find itself in tension with a growing armada of amateur, citizen-sky-sleuthing efforts to document UAPs.
For example, UAPx is a Florida-based nonprofit organization dedicated to the scientific study of UAPs. Its team includes physicists, engineers and other specialists. And like the Galileo Project, it deploys customized, sensor-laden gear in its quest for more data. UAPx’s instruments include infrared, visible, and ultraviolet cameras and spectrographs. In July 2021 UAPx team members trucked their sensors to the Catalina Channel, a purported UAP hotspot off the coast of California. Data gathered during the five-day outing revealed “potential anomalous activity,” UAPx team members say, but the group has not yet released its full results.
Like other relatively grassroots UAP study efforts, the organization’s non governmental nature and the “giggle factor” associated with its research topic have proved challenging for establishing UAPx’s pedigree as a steady source of high-quality data and analysis.
Matthew Szydagis, a UAPx team member and an associate professor in physics at the University at Albany, State University of New York, characterizes the problem as a lack of cohesion. “All organizations, be they governmental, military, scientist, civilian, have their own reporting methods and standards, and those taking their own data all use different technologies,” he observes. How is anyone supposed to make headway against such a hodgepodge?
“With UAPx, our solution is to only look at our own data,” Szydagis says. “Countless other non governmental organizations look at witness reports and other data, making UAPx’s mission a complementary one in nature.”
Another data-driven approach comes from Enigma Labs, a private company based in New York City that is developing a mobile platform for crowdsourcing UAP reports. The company’s newly launched smartphone app offers both a repository for some 270,000 historic sightings from the past century and ways for users to record, upload and rate new ones. Each observation is subject to an “Enigma Score,” a 1–100 rating that is dependent on a variety of factors, such as the number and distribution of witnesses, as well as the notional quality of the collected data.
“By ingesting hundreds of thousands of sightings reported in every country and learning from historical sightings, we’ve been able to build a standardized reporting model that will make sightings comparable, queryable and accessible across the world,” says Mark Douglas, chief operating officer of Enigma Labs.
One of the company’s most important objectives, Douglas says, is to educate the public around what UAP are not by highlighting cases of mistaken identity where observers were flummoxed by balloon-toting lanterns, overflying satellites, falling space debris, even pyrotechnic-wearing skydivers showboating their aerial acrobatics. “That way, we are hopefully improving the quality of reporting overall,” he concludes.
According to Leslie Kean, a veteran investigative reporter who has spent decades covering UFOs and UAPs, the most important near-term progress on the topic is likely to come out of Capitol Hill rather than any science lab or smartphone app. The next year and a half should be a heady time for UAP revelations, she says, thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023. Among other things, that act includes arrangements for a better, more secure process for “whistleblowers” to come forward.
This process has already begun, Kean says, with some whistleblowers having met with congressional staff and/or members of AARO. “Those who have signed secrecy agreements related to UAP are now free to reveal that previously protected information to AARO and to Congress, without fear of retribution or prosecution,” Kean explains.
Congressional committees could then make an effort to verify the information provided by the whistleblowers, some of which may concern the recovery of materials from crashed UFOs and involve legacy investigative programs going back decades, Kean foresees. “Of course, we don’t know how much of the information provided will be made public,” she adds. “Some of it may have national security implications and will have to be withheld.” But ideally, the new process will both bring more valuable UAP data to light and help validate earlier reports from reputable eyewitnesses who already came forward.
More Money, Please
Ultimately, of course, legislation alone cannot be the most crucial element for resolving any UAP mystery. Better data are required. But when or if those data will ever arrive is something no one can really predict.
“History has shown us that obtaining strong evidence related to UAP is not a trivial matter,” notes Robert Powell, an executive board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, an organization advocating for more rigorous UAP investigations. Understanding the phenomena will require much more than hoping for loads of data when a UAP sighting occurs by chance, he says.
“A solution to the UAP enigma is going to require Congress to allocate funding to the scientific community,” Powell concludes. “It will not be easy. The military has been investigating the phenomenon on and off for 75 years. Where have we gotten? We need a change.”
Thanks to the ongoing proliferation of scientific studies and data-collection projects, as well as the efforts of U.S. whistleblowers and legislators, perhaps 2023 will finally be when Powell and his peers get that change they hunger for.