NASA scientists are now taking unexplained anomalies seriously. How will they identify worthwhile incidents?

NASA scientists are now taking unexplained anomalies seriously. How will they identify worthwhile incidents?

Alex Dietrich was on a routine flight when suddenly everything changed. The US Navy lieutenant commander was flying a F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft over the calm Pacific Ocean near San Diego on a training flight with a fellow pilot. The radio started to crackle, and then a voice spoke.


An operations officer on the USS Princeton requested an investigation into a mysterious flying object that had been sighted many times at a height of 80,000 feet (24.2 km) before abruptly descending into the sea and seemingly disappearing.


Near its last known position, the two jets found the ocean surface to be almost boiling. A little while later, Dietrich saw it: an elongated, white object, about 40 feet (12 metres) in length, floating still just over the water, like a Tic Tac without wings. As they got closer, it disappeared, rocketing out into the sky at an unbelievable rate of speed and leaving behind just the normal, smooth water.


After a video taken by high-tech monitoring equipment on one of the aircraft was released to the New York Times, the 2004 “Tic Tac” event became well known. The US Department of Defence ultimately validated the authenticity of the clip showing an oblong shadow against a brilliant sky that abruptly lurches off-camera to the left at incredible speed.


It’s just one of hundreds of odd occurrences that have made it into the hands of authority figures in the last several years. First, there was the 2021 report on UFOs from the United States government, which was renamed “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (UAPs) with a more serious tone. Now, the US Congress’s Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs is conducting a hearing in anticipation of Nasa’s first-ever examination into Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena, the space agency’s own spin on the historically questionable label.


The scientific world is starting to take control of the UFO/alien phenomenon about 76 years after the public became obsessed with aliens because of stories of flying saucers, strange lights, and the secrets of Area 51. However, the question arises as to how one can differentiate the wild speculations of conspiracy theorists from actual events that need further inquiry. What characteristics distinguish a real abnormality from a peculiar cloud or Chinese lantern? And what has prompted scientists to take notice just now?


Observable tendencies


In the summer of 1947, a peculiar new kind of mass hysteria gripped the United States. People all around the United States, from California to Maine and Michigan to Texas, reported seeing strange, disc-shaped objects in the sky.


It all started with an Idahoan aviator and entrepreneur. On a June day, while flying above the Cascade Mountains in Washington in his single-engine CallAir A-2, Kenneth Arnold observed a brilliant flare at 10,000ft (3,048m). He had been looking for a crashed military aircraft. The nine objects, which looked like enormous reflecting “pie-pans,” flipped, banked, and weaved around each other in the sky. Arnold saw them zoom from peak to peak and deduced that they must have been travelling at an amazing rate: perhaps in the neighbourhood of 1,200mph (1,931km/h), which is more than redoubled as fast as the current record holder. This sparked widespread interest in UFOs in the United States.


According to the newspaper archives of the US Library of Congress, prior to that time, there had been no reports of UFOs or flying saucers in Earth’s atmosphere. Experts first discounted Arnold’s allegation as a “tall narrative,” but within a month, there had been tens of sightings throughout the country.


The first difficulty in evaluating UAPs is that the more we try to find them (or even just think about them), the more we find them.


Consider the current outbreak of Covivirus D19. Researchers looking at the UAP sightings in the United States discovered significant increases during municipal lockdowns when individuals were forced that they have to stay inside their houses. Maybe more people were spending time outdoors, looking up. However, the researchers also present an alternative theory, which is that the gains are the consequence of increased focus on the topic at hand.


The fact that the uptick in sightings started slowly following each lockdown lends credence to the theory that curiosity grew in the vacuum of inactivity. This is consistent with the observation that UAP sightings track broader economic movements like recessions. When we’re bored or need a diversion, our thoughts naturally turn to strange items.


UAP sightings have increased dramatically since the first report appeared in 2021, with over 350 reports coming in from pilots and other personnel in just one year, compared to 144 for the entire 17-year period covered by the first report. A “new era of UFO frenzy,” as some pundits have put it.


Changing one’s point of view


However, only a small percentage of UAPs turn out to be actually unusual. So yet, only around 2–5% of the nearly 800 sightings that NASA has looked into have been completely puzzling. Simons Foundation president and Nasa UAP study head David Spergel says many may be placed neatly into one of two groups.


The first category includes commonplace things and occurrences, including balloons, drones, weather, and camera abnormalities. For Spergel, the most plausible explanation for any incidence involving mysterious flashing lights is aircraft. So when the Ukrainians are hitting Russian trenches or when the Russians are bombing Ukrainian towns, neither the drones nor the military aircraft have flashing lights, as he puts it.


An incident involving British astronaut Tim Peake in 2015 is an example of the second kind of mistake. While on a 186-day mission onboard the ISS, he was gazing out one of the portholes and saw a formation of lights. Later, on a BBC talk programme, he revealed how he was “perplexed,” certain that he was seeing extraterrestrial spacecraft, after seeing three and then four of them.



In 1998, it all began. Researchers in New South Wales, Australia, found interference with their telescope due to mysterious radio bursts coming from the atmosphere. Something strange was taking place, and it kept doing so for the following 17 years. Then one day, they decided to improve the technology they used to detect and avoid interference. (Discover the details in the next box…)


Peake, however, quickly discovered that the small drops he had been studying were not faraway things at all. It turned out to be Russian pee spilling from a nearby probe vehicle, which would have otherwise recycled the liquid back into drinking water, and instead promptly froze into light-reflecting crystals.


Simple optical illusions, such as the reality-shifting power of perspective, may sometimes turn the mundane into the interesting, as was the case with Peake. This has the potential to transform Venus, a planet almost the size of Earth but located 70 million kilometres (44 million miles) distant, into a flier in space. Like the crystallized water and insulation flakes that were once mistaken for alien invaders outside the ISS, “space dandruff” has been known to cause similar panic.


To clarify their nature, however, a second picture from a different camera is sometimes necessary. Without it, it may be impossible to distinguish whether the objects are little items up close or bigger ones at a further distance. “I suppose the first thing we’re doing is advocating that Nasa encourage the gathering and distribution of better-quality data,” adds Spergel.


Spergel thinks this will work out. “We have three to four billion mobile phones dispersed around the world; they capture excellent images; they can record the local time, the GPS location, local magnetic fields, and gravitational fields; they are a treasure trove of data,” he explains. According to Spergel, having many cameras capture the same picture of an item simultaneously is optimal. Researchers might then use triangulation of the cameras’ data to establish its existence, rule out the possibility that it was a trick of the light, and estimate its distance, location, and velocity. This is crucial since many reports of UAPs also include reports of sudden, inexplicable acceleration.



Spergel says, “And ideally, if you could complement this with radar data, then you can get multi-wavelength data and learn more about the properties of the object.” Again, most of the time, as you get more data, it will turn out to be something conventional, but the exciting possibility is that it [could be] something we don’t understand.


Something that seems fishy


The Pan-Starrs1 telescope on Hawaii’s Haleakala mountain was working normally in October 2017 until its operators spotted an anomaly. An unidentified flying object, subsequently determined to be either a round pancake or a cigar-shaped object, was travelling at a breakneck pace, more than fast enough to have originated from another star system.


By the end of November, “Oumuamua” had accelerated to a speed of about 85,700mph (38.3km/sec) from its initial speed of roughly 70,000mph. Because comets generally speed up as they approach the Sun, thanks to the vaporized ice in their tails, this was all the more puzzling.


Researchers didn’t know what to make of it. Could it have simply been a weird comet? Or is there maybe another explanation? It was speculated that it may be a probe sent to Earth by an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization by eminent theoretical physicist Avi Loeb, a professor of physics at Harvard University who has subsequently developed a reputation as a controversial “alien-hunter.” (For more on the Loeb’s quest for an extraterrestrial meteor underwater and other interplanetary visitors to our Sun, check out BBC Future.)



Oumuamua had all the hallmarks of a genuine UAP. However, it is now believed that it was a natural object, a very peculiar comet. Still, according to Spergel, there isn’t sufficient proof of an alien civilization. To really wow him, you’d need to show him something so rapid that it defies our present knowledge of how comets and asteroids behave.


Spergel notes that Earth’s velocity is barely a 10,000th of the speed of light, so if we observed anything that enters the Solar System at half the speed of light and then slows down, it would be fairly spectacular.


Spergel considers this issue in terms of possible futures. Most of the stars in our neighbourhood are at least a billion years younger or older than the Sun. If other worlds took as long as Earth did to produce intelligent apes capable of space travel, then alien life could resemble either the complex microorganisms found in rocks from Australia’s outback that are billions of years old or civilizations so technologically advanced that we could never hope to understand them.


A thousand years is a big step in technology, and a hundred million years is 100,000 steps like that, so it’s good to think about what [even] 100 million years mean, says Spergel. “If you took someone from the year 1023, they would think we were all witches. A thousand years is a big step in technology,” he explains.


A recent finding


Though it’s still possible, Nasa isn’t planning on finding proof that aliens with intelligence have visited Earth. Instead, the report might serve as a means of conducting a kind of “sky audit,” or an examination of recent occurrences in Earth’s orbit. Examples of this include recently verified extreme weather events that had previously only been the subject of tempting whispers.



For example, “sprites” are huge electric discharges that produce red blobs and streaks in Earth’s upper atmosphere, giving the impression of glowing sky jellyfish. Over a century after they were first mentioned, in 1886, they were eventually photographed in 1989 as they formed above thunderstorms. The root of the problem is yet unknown.


Even though there have been anecdotal tales of sprites, scientists were first doubtful of their existence, as Spergel explains. High-speed cameras, he believes, were necessary for people to trust his claims.


Not because of idle curiosity but because unknown airborne occurrences pose a threat to satellites and aircraft. According to Spergel, “one thing startled me is that there are a lot of balloons and drones out there,” with the latter seeing a rapid increase in deployment. Some of them may be a threat to aviation; therefore, it’s important to keep tabs on them.



In January 2015, researchers at Australia’s Parkes Observatory picked up on a more narrowly focused signal. The microwave’s traditional trademark wavelength was 2.4 GHz. Subsequent investigation revealed that the interference with the researchers’ telescope occurred only when directed in the direction of this equipment and only during the day when workers were cooking their lunches. Someone opening the microwave door before the timer went off would let out an alarming surge of radio waves. There were no extraterrestrials engaged in solving the case.


It all boils down to having high-quality data, whether dealing with unusual weather occurrences or tales of suspected extraterrestrial spaceships. Hopefully, we won’t have to strain our eyes much longer to make out details in fuzzy videos purportedly showing flying saucers or other mysterious objects in the sky. However, NASA is well aware of the critical need to normalize talk about UAPs.


Later, Dietrich’s coworker said that by the time their jet landed back at their ship following the Tic Tac incident, everyone on board had already heard the tale and considered it quite humorous. Eventually, they were both caught up in a wave of interview requests that stretched on for years, making them renowned for their sighting despite the fact that most of the attention was unwelcome. This kind of thing happens often.


Nicola Fox, associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate, expressed her dismay at the first public meeting on UAPs, saying that the study panellists had already received online abuse for their research, which would impede scientific progress and discourage others from getting involved in the field.


According to Spergel, one of the goals of the research is to “reduce the perception of conspiracy.”


This may be the way things should have been from the beginning, according to some people. In June 1947, Kenneth Arnold told the press, “If I were leading the nation and someone reported anything unexpected, “I’d surely want to know more about it.”


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