UFOs are certainly not alien visitors buzzing through Earth’s skies, but NASA is nonetheless funding a study that will examine unexplained sightings with an open mind.
In a presentation Thursday at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said the study would attempt to scientifically examine what the federal government calls Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAP.
The study, which is expected to cost less than $100,000 and begin in the fall, “will focus on identifying what data is available, how best to collect future data, and how NASA can use that data to make advance the scientific understanding of UAPs,” said Dr Zurbuchen. said in a press conference call Thursday afternoon.
Dr Zurbuchen said examining UFO reports could be “a high-risk, high-impact type of research”, perhaps uncovering an entirely new scientific phenomenon – or offering nothing new or interesting at all.
For years, a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, led a little-noticed group within the Pentagon called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The Pentagon said the program was shut down in 2012, but proponents of the program said its work continues. In 2021, the Pentagon announced it would form a new task force to look into the matter after a congressional-mandated report found there was insufficient data for many incidents that had been observed. .
At a House subcommittee hearing last month, Pentagon officials testified to military reports of unexplained phenomena, including a reflective spherical object speeding past a fighter jet. Officials said there was no evidence the phenomena were extraterrestrial in nature.
NASA’s effort will be independent of that of the Pentagon and will be led by David Spergel, an astrophysicist currently president of the Simons Foundation in New York, which funds basic research in math and science. NASA has not yet chosen the other scientists who will participate in the study.
The NASA study will also examine other explanations like natural phenomena or unknown advanced technologies developed by Russia, China or other countries.
“Frankly, I think there’s new science out there,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.
At the end of the nine-month study period, Dr. Zurbuchen did not expect definitive answers. But he said the effort would help catalog the available data and ask what other data should be collected.
“It’s for a research program that we can then implement,” he said.
While many scientists might consider UFO research “not real science,” it’s important to tackle controversial issues, Dr. Zurbuchen said.
NASA now has a robust program in astrobiology – examining life elsewhere in the solar system and the galaxy – but does little to work on the possibility of intelligent civilizations sharing our universe.
The vacuum reflects decades of congressional skepticism. In 1978, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin bestowed one of his “Golden Fleece” awards on NASA’s modest SETI program, highlighting what he called a waste of taxpayers’ money. In 1992, NASA launched a radio astronomy program to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, but Congress canceled that effort the following year.
Since then, systematic searches for extraterrestrial civilizations have been mostly privately funded efforts, such as those conducted by the SETI Institute in California and Breakthrough Listen. This Berkeley SETI Research Center initiative is funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian-born billionaire tech investor who lives in the United States.
During the press conference, Dr. Zurbuchen highlighted NASA research that attempts to identify potential “technosignatures” – signs of a technological civilization – in astronomical observations. Such signs could include air pollution in the atmospheres of distant planets.
“We deliberately included this in our research portfolio,” Dr. Zurbuchen said.
However, Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, said he doubted NASA would spend millions of dollars on SETI again, given the 1993 cancellation of its last program.
“NASA has stayed out of the SETI game ever since simply because they feel they don’t have room in their budget for a program that was often seen as a metal duck at a shooting range,” said the Dr. Shostak in an email.