WASHINGTON — NASA will commission a small independent study of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), a move the agency says is part of its desire to support risky research that has the potential for high returns.
The agency announced on June 9 that it will create an independent team of researchers who, starting in early fall, will spend about nine months examining what data is available on UAPs and making recommendations on what additional data to collect to better understand the phenomena. A final report will be publicly released at the end of the study.
Sightings of UAPs have attracted considerable attention in recent years, including studies by two groups established by the Department of Defense. However, there is no consensus to explain such sightings, especially by military aviators, with reasoning ranging from advanced weapons and extraterrestrial objects to natural phenomena or diverse objects, such as balloons.
The aim of the study, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in a call with reporters, is to “take a field that is relatively data-poor and turn it into a field that is much more data-rich, and therefore , worthy of scientific research. investigation and analysis”.
The study will be chaired by David Spergel, an astrophysicist who is president of the Simons Foundation. “Our plan is to conduct an open investigation that we hope will advance our understanding so that when that is done, we at least have a roadmap for how to move forward,” he said on the call.
He later said that the only preconceived notion he had about UAPs entering the study is that the data can be explained by a number of different phenomena. NASA, in its statement on the study, emphasized that “there is no evidence that UAPs are of extraterrestrial origin.”
“Never underestimate what nature can do,” said Zurbuchen. “Sometimes we have this claim that we understand the natural world and everything that is not explained with the laws of nature that we have now is somehow unnatural. I truly believe there is still a lot to learn.”
Dan Evans, deputy assistant associate administrator for research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the study team will include scientists, aeronautics experts and “data practitioners.” The study, he said, will be established like the committees NASA regularly establishes to review grant proposals and will have a similar budget that he says is unlikely to exceed $100,000.
With that limited budget and timeline, Evans said the focus will be on identifying existing data and data gaps rather than finding an explanation or explanations for the UAPs. “The first step in any scientific investigation is figuring out what data is at hand,” he said. “Actually, we will not be, within that budget, analyzing this data directly. This is just the first step: what data is there that can be used to address the problem.”
Earlier in the day, Zurbuchen announced the UAP study at a meeting of the Space Studies Council of the National Academies (SSB). He presented it as an example of “high risk, high impact” research that he believed the agency should do more of.
“Taking risks is necessary to create innovation and leadership,” he said at the meeting. “We affirm that failure, in fact, can be an option. We think about failure all the time and we are comfortable with that.”
He told the meeting that in discussions with scientists, 8 out of 10 told him the agency was not doing enough high-risk/high-impact research. Grant proposal reviewers found that 3% of these proposals fell into the high risk/high impact category. “My hunch is that it should be bigger.”
At both the SSB meeting and the call with reporters, Zurbuchen acknowledged the “reputation risk” associated with studying UAPs. “In a traditional kind of scientific environment, talking about some of these issues could be considered selling or not selling real science,” he said on the conference call. “I really am vehemently opposed to it. I truly believe that the quality of science is not measured by the results that come from behind it, but also by the questions we are willing to tackle with science.”
SSB members showed little interest in the UAP study he announced, using a question-and-answer session to surface issues such as research funding and demographics, as well as the status of specific missions and programs.