A few weeks ago, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Defense came forward with details about a UFO he claimed to have seen during a trip in Ontario, Canada. There were strange lights. There was some sort of “blue plasma” coming off a “barbell-shaped” object in the sky. There was a sort of “defocused laser.” This witness, who happened to have real expertise in electromagnetic technology and lasers, seemed credible enough, but to whom?

Another report big report was issued just a few weeks after that, in which a meteorologist with the U.S. military reported seeing a “black triangle UFO.” darting around at maybe 500 miles per hour, nearly 1,000 feet up in the air in the canyons of Arizona. Again, the report was about as legitimate as a report can be. But who do you call?

Both reports were ultimately made to and followed up on by the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON. An organization dedicated to collecting reports on UFO sightings, MUFON’s engages in the “scientific study of UFOs for the benefit of humanity.” And it actually does a fairly remarkable job of systematically addressing reports of extraterrestrial incursion.

MUFON evolved out of work by a group of individuals affiliated with the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, or APRO. Thinking that UFO research should be crowdsourced or, at minimum, decentralized, the group started the Midwest UFO Network in 1969. They operated out of Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. As the organization grew, the membership expanded into other states and countries.

There are two major goals of the organization that fall out of the mission statement. The first, according to MUFON executive director Jan C. Harzan, is pretty simple: collect data. To accomplish the first goal, Harzan tells Inverse MUFON relies on members of the public reaching out to report sightings. There’s no statute of limitations on sightings, and the person reporting them does not necessarily have to have been the one who saw the UFO. Most people approach the organization through MUFON’s “Report a UFO” page.

“We get about 8,000 to 10,000 sighting reports a year,” says Harzan, adding that about 6,000 people have reached out over the last six months.

Once people have filled out their reports, MUFON sends investigators out to meet and talk with them to verify the facts and ask follow-up questions in order to evaluate whether there is a plausible explanation for what was observed (anything from aircraft, to celestial bodies or satellites, to strange weather events, to hoaxes, to anything else). Harzan says about 30 percent of reports can be explained away fairly easily. A significant number of the remaining reports are simply too vague to do much with.

But roughly 30 percent of all cases reported to MUFON get labeled with an unknown conclusion. That doesn’t mean they necessarily mean aliens — Harzan acknowledges the objects observed are likely of this world, but says a good portion seem to exhibit signs of technology far more advanced than anything humans have invented. Reports that fit that profile are published in the monthly MUFON Journal, which the organization has been putting out for 47 years. MUFON also holds events like symposiums, talks, and other things in an effort to engage both the scientific community and the public.

MUFON’s second major goal is to help humanity using ufology, which sounds odd until you consider the ramifications of real belief.

“If we actually studied [alien technology],” says Harzan, “and understood it, we could probably transfer that knowledge to ourselves, and do things like interstellar travel or instantaneous travel. It would really change the face of how we operated on the planet.”

In addition, Harzan says understanding the flight and power of UFOs would probably lead to breakthroughs in the energy sector. “These things don’t have rocket engines or fuel tanks. They’re not polluting the air. These things have very clean energy. They’re basically using some kind of field gravitational system that allows them to fly — and amazingly so.”

Harzan also believes that whoever is operating these ships are using forms of communication that stretch beyond the capabilities of humans — i.e. telepathy. “Many people who have come in contact with them have reported improved powers of the mind and cognitive thinking.”

“This is really pushing the boundaries for us,” he says. “If we really understood it all and could put it to good use, that would really push in the benefit of humanity.”

Harzan is quick to point out that MUFON is further from the fringe than it used to be because the scientific community is no longer dismissive of the idea of extraterrestrial life. Big names like Seth Shostak, head of the SETI Institute, are publicly mulling possibilities as exoplanet research becomes a priority for astronomers. “It’s becoming obvious to most scientists that there’s no way we’re alone in the universe,” says Harzan.

The question remains: Are we alone in not thinking we’re alone?