Last week, the US government released an unclassified report that concerns the assessment of the threat posed by unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs) — known in popular culture as unidentified flying objects (UFOs) — and the progress that the Department of Defense (DoD) Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF) has made in understanding this threat.
The report, which is largely inconclusive, looks at instances of apparent UFO sightings noticed between November 2004 and March 2021. While there is no evidence that the sightings were UFOs, there is no other explanation either for what these sightings were. Recently, former US President Barack Obama said on James Corden’s The Late Late Show that there is evidence of objects in the sky “we don’t know exactly what they are.”
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Do most Americans believe in UFOs?
The concept of “flying saucers” has captured the American imagination since the 1940s and 1950s. This has been connected to their ideas about life on the Moon, canals on the Red planet and Martian civilisations, notes an article published by the Library of Congress.
Such ideas inspired films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Steven Spielberg’s ET the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the more recent Arrival (2016), all depicting alien spacecraft visiting Earth. Before these, Warner Brothers’ series Looney Tunes had introduced an animated version of an extraterrestrial character, Marvin the Martian.
America’s fixation with flying saucers, aliens and UFOs is not limited to just films and literature. In September 2019, some 2 million people joined a Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us”. Area 51 is a heavily guarded Air Force facility in Southern Nevada that has been the subject of several conspiracy theories because of the secrecy it is shrouded in. Many Americans believe the government hid bodies of aliens and UFOs here, and held meetings with extraterrestrials.
According to a poll Gallup in 2019, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that the US government had more knowledge on UFOs than they claim to disclose, while one-third believed that some apparent UFOs were actual sightings of alien spacecraft. Yet 60% also believed that these sightings could be explained by human activity or natural phenomenon. One-sixth of Americans claimed they had personally witnessed something they thought was a UFO.
What is the scientific community’s view about aliens and UFOs?
NASA acknowledges that there is a possibility that life exists beyond Earth. One of its central goals, in fact, is to look for evidence of such life, but it has not found credible evidence yet. As of now, NASA does not actively look for UAPs.
What led to this new report?
In August 2020, Deputy Secretary of Defense David L Norquist authorised the establishment of the UAPTF. The purpose of this task force is to gain understanding of the nature and origin of various mysterious sightings that have been made, mostly around US military and air bases, in recent years.
These sightings, in videos taken by Air Force and Navy pilots, were of some unidentified objects that were travelling at considerable speed, surprisingly, without any propulsion, while others performed aerial manouveres that could not be explained. In April 2020, the DoD authorised the release of three Navy videos, one taken in 2004 and two in January 2015, and noted that the aerial phenomena seen in them remain “unidentified”
Therefore, UAPs were considered a threat to national security and finding out what they were became a priority.
And what does the report say?
It acknowledges that between 2004 and 2021, there have been sightings of various types of UAP that require different types of explanations based on their appearance and behaviour. Out of 144 sightings that the report analysed, it was able to explain only one of them (thought to be airborne clutter) and notes that “UAP clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to US national security.”
It says that while the limited data on UAPs is “largely inconclusive”, some patterns have still emerged. For instance, some UAP observations can be clustered on the basis of their shape, size and propulsion. Further, most of these sightings tended to be around US training and testing grounds. Only a handful of UAPs demonstrated advanced technology (18 UAPs described in 21 reports had unusual movement patterns and flight characteristics).
The report says there is probably not a single explanation that can explain all the sightings. But broadly, the sightings could be a result of airborne clutter — birds, balloons, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or airborne debris such as plastic bags that muddle a scene and affect an operator’s ability to identify true targets, such as enemy aircraft. Or, they could be natural atmospheric phenomena (ice crystals, moisture), industrial development programmes and foreign adversary systems.
“UAP pose a hazard to safety of flight and could pose a broader danger if some instances represent sophisticated collection against US military activities by a foreign government or demonstrate a breakthrough aerospace technology by a potential adversary,” the report says.
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