UFOs are almost certainly not alien visitors buzzing through Earth’s skies, but NASA is funding a study that will look at unexplained sightings with an open mind.
During a presentation on Thursday to the National Academies of Science, 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 UAPs.
The study, which will cost less than $100,000 and will begin in the fall, “will focus on identifying available data, how best to collect future data, and how NASA can use that data to advance scientific understanding of UAPs,” Dr. Zurbuchen said during a telephone news conference on Thursday afternoon.
Dr. Zurbuchen said examining UFO reports could be “a high-stakes, high-impact kind of research,” possibly uncovering some entirely new scientific phenomenon — or possibly not presenting anything new or interesting.
For years, a military intelligence officer, Luis Elizondo, ran a little-noticed group inside the Pentagon called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The Pentagon said the program ended in 2012, but the program’s supporters said its work continued. In 2021, the Pentagon announced that it would form a new task force to look into the issue after a congressionally-mandated report found there was not enough data for many observed incidents.
At a House subcommittee hearing last month, Pentagon officials testified about military reports of unexplained phenomena, including a reflective spherical object passing a fighter jet. Authorities said there was no evidence that these phenomena were extraterrestrial in nature.
The NASA effort will be independent of the Pentagon and will be led by David Spergel, an astrophysicist who is currently president of the Simons Foundation in New York, which funds fundamental research work in math and science. NASA has not yet chosen the other scientists who will participate in the study.
The NASA study will also consider other explanations, such as natural phenomena or unknown advanced technology developed by Russia, China or other countries.
“Frankly, I think there is new science to be discovered,” said Zurbuchen.
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 implement,” he said.
While many scientists may regard UFO research as “not real science,” addressing controversial issues is important, said Dr. Zurbuchen.
NASA now has a robust program in astrobiology — analyzing life elsewhere in the solar system and galaxy — but it barely works 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 taxpayer money. In 1992, NASA started a radio astronomy program to look for radio signals from alien civilizations, but Congress canceled that effort the following year.
Since then, systematic searches for alien civilizations have been primarily privately funded efforts such as those conducted by the SETI Institute in California and Breakthrough Listen. This initiative at the Berkeley SETI Research Center is funded by Yuri Milner, a Russian-born billionaire technology investor who lives in the United States.
During the press conference, Dr. Zurbuchen pointed out to NASA research that he is trying to identify potential “technosignatures” – signs of a technological civilization – in astronomical observations. These signals could include air pollution in the atmospheres of distant planets.
“We have deliberately included this in our research portfolio,” said Dr. Zurbuchen.
However, Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, said he doubted NASA would ever 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 it believes it doesn’t have room in its budget for a program that was often seen as a metal duck in a shooting gallery,” Shostak said in an email.