UFO data is honestly a mess, NASA panel says

Unsystematic, fragmented info and online abuse prevent experts from making hard conclusions on unidentified aerial phenomena.
An unidentified object makes an apparent atmospheric wake.
This unidentified object, captured in South Asia and analyzed by the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, may be a commercial aircraft. Department of Defense

After decades of the US government generally avoiding discussion of UFOs, NASA and the Department of Defense have embarked on investigations into mysterious, unexplained sightings, aerial or otherwise: what are now being dubbed unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs. NASA launched a nine-month UAP investigation in October. In the spirit of the space agency’s goal of transparency for that work, on Wednesday it live-streamed a public meeting of its independent UAP study team. The panel concluded it needed quality data, noting the fragmentary nature of what was available to analyze has restricted research into UAPs.  

The subject of UAPs “has captured the attention of the public, the scientific community, and the government alike,” said Daniel Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, at the meeting’s outset. “It’s now our collective responsibility to investigate these occurrences with a rigorous scientific scrutiny that they deserve.” 

The 16-person study group includes planetary scientist David Grinspoon, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, and science journalist Nadia Drake. It’s chaired by David Spergel, an astrophysicist and president of the nonprofit science organization the Simons Foundation.

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The NASA team will write a final report by sometime in July. The study team’s mission is not to render a verdict on the nature of UAPs, Spergel said, but to set the stage for later research. They aim to clarify how NASA can go about scientifically investigating UAPs. To that end, in Wednesday’s meeting, they discussed the current knowledge about UAPs (these are not extraterrestrial), standards of evidence for determining just what they might be, and the difficulty of obtaining high-quality human reports. 

“Our role here is not to resolve the nature of these events, but rather to give NASA guidance to provide a roadmap of how it can contribute to this area,” Spergel said. 

The team has sifted through available UAP data and found that many reports can be pinned down to known sources, such as distant aircraft, sensor artifacts, high altitude balloons, or atmospheric events. When it comes to learning more about the persistently unidentifiable phenomena on record, though, the team found the information lacking. 

“The current data collection efforts regarding UAPs are unsystematic and fragmented across various agencies, often using instruments uncalibrated for scientific data collection,” Spergel said. “Existing data and eyewitness reports alone are insufficient to provide conclusive evidence about the nature and origin of every UAP event.”

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It’s possible that more direct, targeted observations of UAPs could help, using everything from FAA radar installations to sensors on commercial aircraft to government spy installations. But as Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of the Department of Defense’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) told the team, “Most people, including the government, don’t like it when I point our entire collection apparatus to your backyard.”

“We’ve got to figure out how to do this only in the areas that I can get high confidence there’s going to be something there,” Kirkpatrick continued, “and high confidence I’m not going to break any laws.”

While AARO may deal with some classified UAP data, the NASA team is only working with unclassified information so that its report can be made fully public. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the data NASA has to work with is inferior to the Department of Defense’s information—many times, the classification of a UAP sighting has nothing to do with UAPs, according to Nicola Fox, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and everything to do with what snapped the photo.

“Unidentified anomalous phenomena sightings themselves are not classified. It’s often the sensor platform that is classified,” she said, to prevent foreign adversaries from understanding those sensor’s capabilities. “If a fighter jet took a picture of the Statue of Liberty then that image will be classified, not because of the subject in the picture, but because of the sensors on the plane.”

There are drawbacks for the NASA investigators working in public, however. Although he did not specify exactly what happened, Evans noted that members of study team “have been subjected to online abuse due to their decision to participate on this panel,” adding that “any form of harassment towards our panelists only serves to detract from the scientific process, which requires an environment of respect and openness.”

Harassment of NASA study team members also highlights another problem with seriously studying UAPs, according to Spergel: the stigma associated with reporting a UAP sighting, especially among some professionals. ”Despite NASA’s extensive efforts to reduce the stigma, the origin of the UAPs remain unclear, and we feel many events remain unreported,” he said. “Commercial pilots, for example, are very reluctant to report anomalies, and one of our goals in having NASA play a role is to remove stigma and get high quality data.”