The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a new report Thursday on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) — a phrase that has replaced the term unidentified flying object (UFO).
UAP are likely a mixed bag, with most of them being human-made or natural terrestrial phenomena. The reason that they are unidentified is because the U.S. government does not possess data of sufficient quality to decipher their nature.
It is most natural for the U.S. government to report about UAP, because the day job of military and intelligence agencies is to monitor the entire sky above the United States. They are tasked with defending the nation against security threats or espionage and protecting the safety of military personnel. With that goal in mind, they would be first to identify unusual objects in the sky that potentially pose a threat. Astronomical observatories train their telescopes on distant objects at large distances and ignore fast-moving objects overhead.
The ODNI mentioned a total of 510 UAP reports as of the end of August 2022. Of that number, 171 are what ODNI calls “uncharacterized and unattributed UAP reports.” The report gets potentially interesting in making the statement that of the 171 unattributed reports, “Some of these uncharacterized UAP appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities, and require further analysis.”
The recently established All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), within the Department of Defense, will attempt to analyze all available data and conduct further research into the identity of UAP. Since the government data is collected by classified sensors, the most interesting information is likely to remain hidden from public view. But the good news is that the sky is not classified, and the study of extraterrestrial objects could be addressed through the scientific method by sharing open data and new knowledge with all humans, irrespective of their national identity.
Any drones that China reportedly uses to spy on the U.S. are of little interest to astronomers. And any knowledge about technological gadgets that started their journey tens of thousands of light years away long before the U.S. was established, should not be exclusive to ODNI or even the president of the United States. The first Ph.D. in astronomy at Harvard-Radcliffe was written by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She discovered that, contrary to popular view, the surface of the sun is made primarily of hydrogen and this knowledge was shared with all humans through scientific publications. If ODNI were to discover a new fact about the universe regarding extraterrestrial civilizations, the knowledge should similarly be shared with all of humanity and not confined to the perimeter of the White House.
Even if one object out of the 510 reported UAP is of extraterrestrial origin and if this object poses no threat to national security, its identification will be the most important discovery that humanity ever made. The ODNI report is therefore complementary to the work of scientists. It is intriguing in alerting the scientific community to anomalous objects, but it does not provide sufficient evidence about the nature of UAP which may be moving, accelerating or looking differently than our technological devices. The robustness of the conclusions depends on the quality of the data. For example, a swarm of drones that come in and out of view could give the false impression that one of them is moving at exceptional speed or acceleration when the truth is that the object appearing in consecutive snapshots is not the same object. Moreover, if the sensors are not well calibrated, they could show false positives or artifacts that do not reflect real objects.
Known physics should be used to corroborate the interpretation of the data. For example, the surface of a fast-moving object would heat-up from friction with air in predictable ways. Acceleration requires a propulsion system. Both phenomena would leave generic signatures on infrared images.
Physicists have been searching for new physics with great efforts over decades, and the only way to unravel it would be by ruling out beyond any reasonable doubt interpretations that are based on known physics. One cannot use sketchy data to argue for new physics. The bar on such a discovery is very high and requires a demonstration that conventional interpretations fail. Only the highest quality data could remove reasonable doubts.
Unfortunately, the 2022 ODNI report contains even less technical details about the UAP data than the previous report from June 2021. My guess is that the interesting new information is contained within the classified component of the report, to which we have no access. The fact that ODNI is unable to decipher the nature of -one-third of the reported UAP underlines the need for a scientific research program that is based on open data.
This is exactly the rationale behind the Galileo Project at Harvard that I lead. Last month, the project’s research team started to collect high-quality scientific data with a new well-calibrated observatory, which takes continuous video of the sky at infrared, optical, radio and audio bands. We plan to analyze the data with artificial intelligence algorithms and make it available to the scientific community and the general public through papers published in peer-reviewed journals. The Galileo Project is in the process of making copies of its first observatory and placing them in desired locations that are rich in UAP reports.
So, will the increase in the number of reports also increases the likelihood that some of them might be extraterrestrial? This is not necessarily the case because the increase may reflect the rise in the number of devices used by the foreign adversaries to spy on the U.S or the improved capabilities of ODNI to detect them — or the removal of the stigma associated with UAP reporting (especially as UFO reports were largely dismissed and not approached scientifically).
The only way to advance our knowledge on the nature of UAP is through the assembly of high-quality data from instruments that are fully calibrated and yield reproducible results. A million blurry images are worthless compared to a single high-resolution video that resolves an object as it maneuvers.
For example, an advanced extraterrestrial gadget might represent our technological future and appear to us as mysterious as a miracle. But eyewitness testimonies of unnatural events, like the old report of Moses on the “burning bush,” which was never consumed by flames, would gain scientific credibility by today’s scientific standards only if it is accompanied by data from high-resolution infrared cameras.
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project at Harvard University and founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. He is also director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and he is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar,” is scheduled for publication in August 2023.
Unidentified flying object
Unidentified flying objects