What can be learned from the NASA panel that investigates observations that so far it was not clear what was seen in them
By Christopher Pattison, Researcher at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth
A committee set up by NASA examined about 800 reports of unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs), or what most of us would call UFOs (unidentified flying objects). NASA defines these events as sightings "that cannot be identified as aircraft or as known natural phenomena from a scientific point of view".
The establishment of this committee shows that NASA takes the possibility of extraterrestrials very seriously. On Wednesday, May 31, 2023, the committee held its first public meeting to discuss what it is doing and what it has found so far, in preparation for the publication of the full report later this year.
The interim report revealed as expected that a large part of the reports were easy to explain and involved boats, planes or phenomena related to the weather, some were comical, such as the lunch incident we will report on later, and only a few remained a mystery.
The committee is chaired by astrophysicist David Spergel and is made up of a team of experts that ranged from university professors to former astronauts. The study used classified reports and images to try to explain some of the mysterious reports, which come from a variety of sources, including military personnel and commercial airline pilots.
Sean Kirkpatrick, director of the Defense Department's All-Area Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), which also investigates such claims, says he receives between 50 and 100 new reports of UAPs every month.
While UAPs are actually just another name for UFOs, they don't particularly have to be in the air. Any unusual phenomenon is included, whether it's on land, sea, air or space, so it's a slightly broader definition than just unidentified flying objects.
Kirkpatrick also says that most UAPs are easily explained — for example, low-on-the-horizon boats that fool pilots from certain vantage points. Only about 2-5% of the pool is truly unusual and still cannot be explained.
There are many examples of such events that at first seem mysterious but have innocent explanations. One example occurred at an observatory in Australia, where strange radio signals were detected. The confusing signals had strange characteristics, but the researchers noticed that they were mostly seen around lunchtime. It turns out that the devices monitored microwaves leaking out of the dining room while the radio observatory's employees and guests heated up their food.
Some of the data being researched by NASA has been removed. The question of whether the photographs are classified or not is determined by who and what took them, and not according to their content, for example, if a fighter plane took a picture of the Statue of Liberty, the picture would be classified not because of the subject, but because of the device that took the picture. The US does not want to show its imaging capabilities to the whole world.
Another amusing revelation came from Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut with an impressive resume who is also a member of NASA's UAP committee. He has decades of experience as a Navy pilot, spent an entire year on the International Space Station, and now sits on the UAP board.
At the last panel meeting, he described a flight near Virginia Beach during which he and his co-pilot were convinced they had flown right by a UFO. Upon re-examination, it turned out to be something much more mundane. Kelly said: "I didn't see it. We turned around, went to look at it, it turns out it was a balloon in the shape of Bart Simpson."
This highlights the difficulty of analyzing photographs and reports that come from such a wide variety of sources. Most of the data is of low quality, making it difficult to decipher the mysteries it may contain. As a result, the committee hopes to remove the stigma around reporting sightings to encourage more people to come forward with their unusual sightings.
In particular, she hopes commercial pilots will be less quick to report strange encounters. Reports from the planes may help explain more than the photographs the commission receives, especially if they provide high-quality and reliable data.
The Pentagon recently released several videos of unexplained phenomena, including a round object identified as a military drone.
Indeed, the quality of the documentation was the biggest problem facing the panel in its initial analysis. These were usually sightings of both objects that appeared small and often moved in strange ways. According to committee members, the fundamental problem was that these sightings or "encounters" are often recorded on cameras or sensors that are not designed to accurately capture these strange events.
An apparent UFO sighting could actually be the result of an old camera malfunctioning, or the perspective of a person seeing an illusion created by strange lighting and distant objects.
These confounding factors prove difficult to disentangle. The other big issue that the UAP committee members have faced is online harassment, which adds to the stigma of doing work in this area. "It's really disheartening to hear about the harassment our panel members have faced online because they're studying this topic," said Nicola Fox, NASA's science chief. "Harassment only leads to more stigmas."
Since this public meeting, an American whistleblower with a background in government intelligence has claimed that the US may have even more concrete evidence of UAPs. NASA has not responded to this claim, although no further evidence has yet been presented by the whistleblower.
While the research so far has not found anything that can be declared extraterrestrial, the public meeting shows an interesting change in NASA's attitude towards UFO sightings. In the past, the agency has mostly tried to refute claims, but now it investigates reports very publicly and discusses the findings live on television.
Later this year, a full report will be published with additional details and findings from these investigations. No UFOs or aliens yet, but NASA is now taking the UAP claims very seriously and seems determined to figure them all out.
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