After several decades in the dark, in the last few years, the U.S. government has ramped up its efforts to investigate a third-rail research area: Unidentified aerial phenomena (aka UFOs). On Thursday, June 9, NASA announced it was throwing its hat in the ring, too. Importantly, at this point, NASA positions the study as prospective for a larger-scale investigation based on any initial findings.
The space agency will study existing data from its own sky- and ground-based observatories in search of anomalies that can’t be easily explained by existing scientific knowledge.
“The output from this particular study is not to sift through all the data and do all this research, it’s to make a proposal for a research program that we can then implement based on the influence of principles that are there,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said in a press conference held on June 9.
What’s new — The announcement comes on the back of U.S. congressional hearings into a report published last year on UAP sightings documented by military personnel.
The study will be led by David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation and an astrophysicist. NASA expects the study to take nine months, flagging archival research from both NASA and National Science Foundation observatories, but not addressing individual anomalies. Daniel Evans, Science Mission Directorate assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA, said in the press conference the agency will spend “no more than $100,000” on the initial research.
After all, this is just the groundwork.
Just don’t call it alien-hunting
“Frankly, I think there’s new science to be discovered,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, says in a press conference held on June 9.
“There’ve been many times when something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect,” he adds.
Bill Nelson, a former United States Senator turned NASA administrator under President Joe Biden, made comments in October 2021 indicating NASA’s interest in investigating reports of these unidentified phenomena. Nothing official was announced at the time — but this study will, according to NASA personnel, lay the groundwork for moving forward.
“What I expect the final product to look like is to really address the questions that relate to, what are the data we should be looking at, how should we do that, (and) are there data we should get that are not currently there,” Zurbuchen said.
“NASA is uniquely positioned to address UAP.”
Here’s the background — In case you haven’t heard, the once-fringey idea of UFOs roared back into the public consciousness. The trigger for the mainstream interest was a 2017 investigation by The New York Times, which revealed the existence of a Pentagon-led reporting effort called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The program was meant to look into military personnel reports of objects in the sky seemingly beyond explanation.
A few military videos of these objects — nicknamed the Tic-Tac, Gimbal, and GOFAST videos — floated to the surface, too. In turn, it was unclear whether or not these were classified leaks. (The Pentagon has maintained they were not.)
In 2020, a congressional appropriations bill included an amendment directing the Pentagon to investigate unidentified aerial phenomena, with a preliminary report released in mid-2021. After the report dropped, the U.S. Congress convened hearings on UAPs this year.
Investigating the unknown
“NASA is uniquely positioned to address UAP, because who other than us can use the power of data and science to find out what is happening in our skies,” Evans said.
“We have the tools and teams that can help us improve our understanding of the unknown,” Spergel said at the press conference.
“We are prepared to use these powerful tools of scientific discovery in this case … using the same kind of approach we always use.”
Spergel’s ultimate ambition for the study?
“Take a field that is relatively data-poor and make it into a field that is much more data-rich and therefore worthy of scientific investigation and analysis.”
Zurbuchen repeatedly alluded to natural, but unexplainable, phenomena in the press conference, but it’s worth noting that NASA is now hunting for intelligent life in the universe after years of delays. In the 1990s, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan canceled an expansive NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program. Only in recent years has NASA become open again to aiding the hunt for technosignatures — signs of intelligent alien technology.
“We’re looking at several different phenomena.”
The agency is also looking for Solar System life, like ancient alien microbes on Mars and potential present life on icy moons like Europa and Titan (the subject of upcoming NASA missions). Another tantalizing target is Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus, which harbors a large ocean under its surface.
What’s next — Understanding the wide variety of phenomena in the sky — including the three-letter acronym that’s almost a four-letter word — can help scientists better understand our own planet. We might learn about new and exotic weather or energetic phenomena — these are the kinds of things NASA expects to find long before it will even begin to suggest the idea of “aliens.”
“It’s clear that in a traditional type of science environment, talking about some of these issues may be considered selling out or talking about things that are not actual science,” Zurbuchen says.
“I just really vehemently oppose that. I really believe the quality of science is not only measured by the outcomes that come behind it, but also the questions we’re willing to tackle with science.”
As such, the Spergel is keeping an open mind.
“The only preconceived notion I have going into this is the idea that we’re looking at several different phenomena,” Spergel says.
Spergel, once he has a team fully assembled, will begin work in the fall of 2022.