5 explanations for 144 mysterious flying objects in the government UFO report

"We will go wherever the data takes us."

After weeks of buzz, on Friday the US government finally unveiled its much-anticipated UFO analysis. The report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, outlines 144 incidents involving “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAP, spanning from 2004 to 2021. Only one of those incidents has a concrete, verifiable explanation that the government could confirm with high confidence (“a large, deflating balloon”). But that doesn’t mean the other 143 were alien spacecraft.

“We have no clear indications that there is any non-terrestrial explanation for them—but we will go wherever the data takes us,” a senior government official told NBC News in advance.

In its statement, the Pentagon avoided outright denying any UFO activity. “Incursions into our training ranges and designated airspace pose safety of flight and operations security concerns, and may pose national security challenges. The Department of Defense takes reports of incursions—by any aerial object, identified or unidentified—very seriously, and investigates each one.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which called for the analysis, went a step further. “For years, the men and women we trust to defend our country reported encounters with unidentified aircraft that had superior capabilities, and for years their concerns were often ignored and ridiculed,” he said in a statement. “This report is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step.”

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The report, in case you’re getting your hopes up, is short in length and spare on details. It’s really just a placeholder while the government decides how best to collect information on and study these mysterious events, which have only been reported in a standardized way by the US Navy for the last two years. But it does conclude that UAP as we currently know them fall into five categories. Here’s how the government breaks down its UAPs. 

Airborne clutter

The one UAP with a confirmed explanation was due to a large, deflating balloon of some sort. But sky trash, while not particularly exciting, is far from an idle threat. According to the government’s report, various forms of flying debris—birds, recreational drones, and even trash bags—might “muddle a scene and affect an operator’s ability to identify true targets, such as enemy aircraft.” 

Natural atmospheric phenomena

Not all UAPs involve objects spotted with the naked eye. Infrared and radar systems have also been known to pick up unexplainable signals. According to the government’s UFO report, it’s possible that natural weather phenomena such as ice crystals, changes in moisture levels, and temperature fluctuations could cause strange blips. 

USG or US industry developmental programs

Rather vexingly, the US government has to acknowledge that any unexplained aircraft seen by military personnel could, in fact, be under the purview of US military personnel. The UAP report notes that some observations “could be attributable to developments and classified programs by US entities,” but adds that the team behind the analysis was unable to pair the 143 incidents to any known systems. 

Foreign adversary systems

According to the government report, there were 18 incidents where observers noted unusual UAP movement patterns or flight characteristics—where UFOs appeared to remain stationary in winds aloft, move against the wind, maneuver abruptly, or move at considerable speed, without a discernible means of propulsion. While the government claims to need more data to actually confirm that any of these bizarre motions occurred, if they did, then that means the flying objects in question used technology that’s beyond our current capabilities.

In those hypothetical incidents, the most likely explanation is that a UAP belongs to another country—the report names China and Russia as possibilities—that is testing military tech. But the report failed to confirm this in any of the 144 UAP incidents. 

“Other”

The UAP report clarifies that most of the UFOs that have remained unidentified are almost certainly due to a lack of available data. But it does note that some incidents may “require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze, and characterize” their causes. 

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Even if the findings are wishy washy, the Department of Defense is, at least, taking them seriously. The Pentagon statement hints at new protocols to collect and study UAP data across the nation’s military and intelligence offices. “It is critical that the United States maintain operations security and safety at DOD ranges,” Katherine Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, wrote in a memo shortly after the report was published. “To this end, it is equally critical that all U.S. military aircrews or government personnel report whenever aircraft or other devices interfere with military training. This includes the observation and reporting of UAPs.”

Rachel Feltman
Rachel Feltman

is the Executive Editor of Popular Science and the host of the podcast The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. She's an alum of Simon's Rock and NYU's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program. Rachel previously worked at Quartz and The Washington Post. Contact the author here.