The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a new report Thursday on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP), a phrase that replaced the term unidentified flying object (UFO).
UAPs are likely to be a mixed bag, with most of them being natural or human-made terrestrial phenomena. The reason they are not identified is because the US government does not have data of sufficient quality to decipher their nature.
It is more natural for the US government to report on UAP, because the daily job of military and intelligence agencies is to monitor the entire sky over 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 the first to identify unusual objects in the sky that potentially pose a threat. Astronomical observatories point their telescopes at distant objects great distances away and ignore fast-moving objects overhead.
The ODNI listed 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 becomes potentially interesting by stating that, of the 171 unattributed reports, “some of these uncharacterized UAPs appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities, and require further analysis.”
The newly established All Domains Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) within the Department of Defense will attempt to analyze all available data and conduct further investigations into the identity of UAP. Since 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 unclassified and the study of extraterrestrial objects could be approached through the scientific method by sharing open data and new knowledge with all humans, regardless of their national identity.
Any drone that China allegedly uses to spy on the US is of little interest to astronomers. And any knowledge about technological devices that began their journey tens of thousands of light-years long before the US was established should not be the preserve of 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 opinion, the sun’s surface is composed mostly 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 be similarly shared with all of humanity and not confined to the perimeter of the White House.
Even if one object of the 510 reported UAPs is of extraterrestrial origin and if this object does not pose a threat to national security, its identification will be the most important discovery humanity has ever made. Therefore, the ODNI report is complementary to the work of the scientists. It is interesting to alert the scientific community about anomalous objects, but it does not provide enough evidence about the nature of UAP that may be moving, accelerating or looking different from our technological devices. The strength of the conclusions depends on the quality of the data. For example, a swarm of drones appearing and disappearing from 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. Also, if the sensors are not well calibrated, they could show false positives or artifacts that do not reflect real objects.
Familiar physics should be used to check the interpretation of the data. For example, the surface of a fast-moving object would heat up from friction with air in a predictable way. Acceleration requires a propulsion system. Both phenomena would leave generic signatures on infrared images.
Physicists have been searching for new physics with great effort for decades, and the only way to unravel it would be to rule out beyond any reasonable doubt the interpretations that are based on known physics. One cannot use incomplete data to argue for a new physics. The bar for such a discovery is very high and requires a demonstration that conventional interpretations fail. Only the highest quality data could remove reasonable doubt.
Unfortunately, the 2022 ODNI report contains even less technical detail about the UAP data than the previous report from June 2021. My guess is that the interesting new information is contained in the classified component of the report, which we don’t have access to. The fact that ODNI cannot decipher the nature of one third of the reported UAP underscores the need for a scientific research program that is based on open data.
This is exactly the logic behind the Galileo Project at Harvard that I lead. Last month, the project’s research team began collecting high-quality scientific data with a new, well-calibrated observatory, which takes continuous video of the sky in 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 articles 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 increase the likelihood that some of them are aliens? This is not necessarily the case because the increase may reflect the increase in the number of devices used by foreign adversaries to spy on the US or ODNI’s improved capabilities to detect them, or the removal of the stigma associated with UAP reporting. (especially since UFO reports were largely dismissed and not addressed scientifically).
The only way to advance our knowledge about the nature of UAP is by assembling high-quality data from instruments that are fully calibrated and produce reproducible results. A million blurry images are worthless compared to a single high-resolution video resolving an object as it maneuvers.
For example, an advanced alien device could represent our technological future and seem as mysterious as a miracle to us. But eyewitness accounts of unnatural events, such as Moses’ ancient report of the “burning bush” which was never consumed by flames, would gain scientific credibility by today’s scientific standards only if accompanied by data from infrared cameras from high resolution.
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project at Harvard University and founding director of the Harvard Black Hole Initiative. He is also director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and past chair of the department of astronomy at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology and past chair of the National Academies Board of Physics and Astronomy. He is the best-selling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and 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.