“We don’t know what these UAP are (but they’re not aliens), says NASA

NASA will make a concerted push into Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena research following the release of an independent report that found no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence behind unexplained sightings.

UAP (previously known as UFOs) have been reported for decades, capturing the imaginations of writers, the media and the public. Often, the most credible reports of unusual phenomena come from military or civilian pilots. In June, NASA’s independent UAP study panel found most sightings of strange aerial objects could be explained without reporting that it was an “alien” encounter.   

On Thursday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson again emphasised this point, saying the independent study team could find no evidence of extraterrestrial origins of UAP.

Nasa administrator bill nelson attends a press conference at nasa headquarters on september 14, 2023 in washington, dc.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

But that doesn’t mean all UAP could be explained either.

“There is a lot more to learn,” Nelson said.

“The NASA independent study team did not find any evidence that UAP have an extraterrestrial origin. But we don’t know what these UAP are.”

Opportunities for more public, commercial involvement in UAP study

In releasing its 33-page report, NASA highlighted data and science deficits as chief setbacks to understanding UAP.

The independent study panel assessed existing UAP data to build a future roadmap for NASA involvement in the field. This data isn’t merely grainy photographs of strange shapes in the sky, but rather detailed ocean, land surface and atmospheric data to understand the environmental conditions when UAPs appear.

Stigma related to reporting possible UAPs was identified by the panel as a barrier to improving data quality.

While detailing what he described as NASA’s “scientific approach of systematic data collection” across all its scientific missions, the panel’s chair Dr David Spergel lamented the lack of quality UAP data available to the agency. NASA’s role, he said, should be to introduce greater rigour to the process.

“One of NASA’s contributions to the broader [US] governmental effort … is to bring these methodologies a great data set that’s both reliable and extensive,” Spergel said.

“Once we have a large sample of well-characterised events, AI and [machine learning] tools, which are proving to be powerful in some of the other applications, will likely prove helpful in identifying interesting anomalies.”

Spergel said once the “chaff” of explainable or conventional phenomena is removed from NASA’s work, it could focus on the unknown.

The report emphasises the role of structured data to provide a “rigorous and evidence-based framework” to improve UAP knowledge. It proposes using NASA’s satellite fleet, commercial remote sensing technology, AI and machine learning as tools to improve data collection and curation. It also recommended improving data collection from civilian aviation.

For his part, Nelson wants NASA’s public foray into UAP investigations to begin a process of destigmatisation and transparency. The panel envisages public contributions – citizen science initiatives – and working with commercial pilots to improve UAP reporting.

While NASA confirmed it’s yet to complete its evaluation of the report, it has moved to set up a dedicated UAP research stream, which will be overseen by NASA’s former US Defense Department liaison officer Mark McInerney.

“From sensationalism to science”

During their press briefing, Nelson and his panel repeatedly emphasised the importance of science and evidence-based research in NASA’s approach. As Nelson put it, he was keen to see the subject move from sensationalism towards scientific rigour.

It comes amid recent controversies over objects being presented as potential evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Last month, Harvard-based astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb presented yet-to-be peer-reviewed data from meteor specimens he suggests came from interstellar space – the cosmos outside our solar system. His claims, including the suggestion the samples could be fragments from an alien craft, have been met with widespread caution and scepticism.

Among them, planetary scientist Professor Andrew Tomkins from Monash University told Cosmos the concentrations of Beryllium, Lanthanum and Uranium found in Loeb’s samples could be explained by Earth’s planetary activities, including volcanic eruptions and lightning strikes.

He also suggested it would be difficult to trace individual samples to a possible interstellar meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere a decade before, as suggested by Loeb. UK-based planetary scientist Professor Monica Gray echoes the difficulty connecting possible meteor fragments to a space object zipping through the sky, saying while Loeb’s analysis of the samples used well-known techniques and best-practice equipment, “none of the evidence he presents is sufficiently convincing to infer that the materials are either connected with [meteor] IM1, or are from an alien spaceship”.

While Tomkins believes new ideas are important in scientific processes, he’s wary of big claims where “the evidence is extremely weak”.

“Scientists should be free and encouraged to suggest creative new ideas, other scientists will test new concepts and sometimes they are shown to be wrong,” Tomkins says.

“This lets science advance quickly. When people are blocked from, or heavily criticised for, suggesting new ideas, science can’t advance. However, scientists tend to get annoyed when people try to aggrandise weak science that makes extraordinary claims because it gives science a bad name.”

Nasa's science mission directorate, david spergel speaks during a press conference on unidentified anomalous phenomena (uap) at the nasa headquarters in washington, dc on september 14, 2023. Nasa on september 14, 2023, officially joined the search for ufos -- but reflecting the stigma attached to the field, the us space agency wouldn't identify the director of the new program tasked with tracking mystery flying objects. The official's appointment is the result of a year-long nasa fact-finding report into what nasa calls "unidentified anomalous phenomena (uap).
David Spergel speaks during a press conference on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) at the NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. Credit: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

For NASA’s part, its UAP report strengthens mechanisms in favour of ‘good science’ driven by evidence and data, made available to other scientists for scrutiny.

Its timing was impeccable – coming days after a Mexican congressional hearing into unexplained phenomena was presented with mummified objects purported to be ‘aliens’ by local journalist and UFO enthusiast Jaime Maussan. He claims the statuesque bodies were recovered from Peru in 2017. These claims have been widely criticised as potential thefts of pre-colonial mummified remains, and outright fabrications.

Another witness at the hearing, former US Navy pilot Ryan Graves, dismissed their appearance as a stunt.

“After the U.S. Congressional UFO hearing, I accepted an invitation to testify before the Mexican Congress hoping to keep up the momentum of government interest in pilot experiences with UAP,” Graves wrote in a statement posted to X.

“Unfortunately, yesterday’s demonstration [in Mexico] was a huge step backwards for this issue. My testimony centered on sharing my experience and the UAP reports I hear from commercial and military aircrew through ASA’s witness program. I will continue to raise awareness of UAP as an urgent matter of aerospace safety, national security, and science, but I am deeply disappointed by this unsubstantiated stunt.”

For his part, Spergel was candid when asked for his views on sensational claims on alien life.

“When we have unusual things, you want to make data public,” he said.

“NASA has one of the most valuable samples from outer space – lunar rocks. What do we do? We make them available to any scientists who want to work on this.

“We don’t know the nature of those samples that were shown in [Mexico]. If I was the Mexican government, I would make a recommendation to the Mexican government… if you have something strange make samples available to the world scientific community and we’ll see what’s there.”

As Spergel’s NASA counterpart Dr Dan Evans observed on claims of alien specimens, “One of the main goals of what we’re trying to do here, is to move conjecture and conspiracy towards science and sanity”.

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