Call them UFOs or UAPs, scientists need better data, according to weekend panel

Scientists shouldn’t be afraid to talk about, or even study, those mysterious objects flying in the sky—maybe just don’t call them UFOs.

That was one of the conclusions of a panel discussion this weekend at ScienceWriters2023, an annual gathering of hundreds of science journalists and communicators from around the country and abroad. CU Boulder and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus hosted this year’s events.

On Saturday morning, the talk was all about unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs—a relatively new name for the strange blips that zoom across the instruments of fighter jets or flashing lights amid the stars. During a session called “Look! Up in the sky! It’s not a UFO … it’s a UAP,” a panel of journalists and scientists tackled a tricky question: How should serious scientists approach a topic that has, for decades, been the butt of so many jokes? 

CU Boulder’s Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives and professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, took part in the panel.

The group got the most obvious topic out of the way early: “UFOs are almost certainly not alien visitors,” said writer and UFO investigator Mick West, who joined the session remotely. Other panelists included moderator Dan Vergano, senior opinion editor for Scientific American; Nadia Drake, physics editor for Quanta magazine; and Thomas Zurbuchen, director of ETH Zurich Space and former chief scientist at NASA.

But that doesn’t mean researchers shouldn’t investigate them more closely, the speakers agreed. 

“Behind all of this, there’s a really important contribution to be made from the scientific community and the scientific communications community,” Boyd said.

In 2022, NASA convened an independent study team to begin the process of exploring UAPs from a scientific perspective. The group’s report, released in September, lays out a path for the research community to collect more data about unknown and strange things high above Earth. 

Getting to the bottom of these sightings—no matter their causes—could help governments keep military or commercial aircraft safe, the panelists said. UAPs could also lead scientists toward discovering new natural phenomena they hadn’t known about before.

As Drake, an author of the NASA report, put it: “When something is stigmatized, it really hampers data collection, so you don’t get the types of observations that are going to be useful.”

The (alien) elephant in the room

And there are good reasons for collecting data on UAPs, Boyd said.

In part, that’s because there are a lot of human-made objects flying around in the skies at any moment in time, and governments don’t always know what they are. They include drones, high-altitude balloons and more. He pointed to the case of a Chinese balloon that floated over Alaska and much of the United States in early 2023 before it was ultimately shot down by the U.S. Air Force.

“In a time of enhanced tensions internationally, leadership has to make difficult decisions,” Boyd said. “Do we shoot this thing down? Do we let it fly over the U.S.?”

Military pilots have to make even quicker and potentially more dangerous choices if they encounter something eerie in their paths, Boyd said.

The panelists noted that, for decades, scientists have shied away from exploring UAPs—in part because of their popular association with little green men and flying saucers. But Zurbuchen, at least, hopes that researrchers can begin to shed that stigma. 

“There are a number of things that used to be UAPs that are now well-recognized science phenomenon because somebody actually said, ‘Wow, these clouds really look weird. What happened there?’” Zurbuchen said.

True science

In many cases, researchers have struggled to study such phenomena because they can’t get their hands on high-quality observations, Drake said. 

In their NASA report, she and her colleagues noted that researchers may already have access to a treasure trove of top-notch data. Scientists, for example, could use the many scientific satellites circling the planet to search for unexplained events in the atmosphere: They just need to better define what they’re looking for.  

“We also suggested some sort of citizen science campaign,” Drake said. “So really harnessing the power of all of these people with all of these smartphones to come up with a way to make reports, put them into a system, and include metadata that can be really useful for figuring out what something is.”

Boyd, in turn, said he would like to see more comprehensive and easy-to-access catalogues of UAP sightings. That way, if a bystander captures video of strange lights high above Earth, researchers can quickly tell if those lights seem like a new phenomenon or can be easily explained. He also urged the assembled science writers not to give into the sensationalism around UFOs.

“That is critical for your community to make sure when there are stories that have a science element to them, that the true science is being recorded,” Boyd said.

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