By: Sophia Wang
On June 9th, a top space agency official announced that NASA was joining UFO research efforts. This announcement comes a week after a hearing before Congress about sightings of UFOs. A UFO, short for an unidentified flying object, is any aerial phenomenon that cannot be identified or explained. The Pentagon has also created a new task force following a Congressional report which pointed out a lack of information of the 140 unidentified flying objects that were observed. However, NASA’s efforts will be independent from the Pentagon’s.
Studying UFOs fits into NASA’s mission of looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. The study will begin in the fall and will last about nine months and have a maximum cost of $100,000. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, admitted that studying UFOs was “high-risk, high impact” research within a controversial field of study, but argued that the space agency should not avoid it because of the controversy. The effort, he says, would help catalog the available data and ask what other data should be gathered, but he does not expect definite answers.
It should be noted that the Pentagon has also started to look into UFOs. For years, a military intelligence official named Luis Elizondo ran a small group within the Pentagon called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which studied UFOs. It was shut down in 2012, but backers of the group continued the group’s work. In 2021, the Pentagon announced it would form a new task force to look at the issue after a report mandated by Congress found that there was insufficient data for the many incidents that had been observed. NASA’s announcement also comes after a hearing before congress about sightings of flying objects that did not have any specifics.
NASA’s efforts will be led by David Spergel, an astrophysicist, and the president of the Simons Foundation in New York. They have not yet chosen any other scientists who will participate in the study. It should be noted that NASA does almost no work on the possibility that intelligent civilizations share our universe. This is because of decades of Congressional skepticism. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin bestowed one of his “Golden Fleece” awards on NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program, calling it a waste of taxpayer money. NASA also launched a radio astronomy program, but Congress canceled that effort the following year.
A report issued in 2021 by the nation's top intelligence official cataloged more than 140 flying objects that were unable to be identified. It was noted in the report that some UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon – another name for UFOs) appeared to remain stationary. Others moved against the wind, maneuvered abruptly, or moved at considerable speed, but this all happened without any visible signs of propulsion. This prompts for more investigation on what the objects are.
Dr. Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, also pointed out other additional efforts to identify extraterrestrial civilizations. He highlighted research that is trying to identify “techno signatures,” which are signs of a technological civilization in astronomical observations. These signs could include air pollution in the atmospheres of distant planets, which has been deliberately included into NASA’s research portfolio. However, it is unlikely that NASA would once again spend millions on SETI, given the cancellation of the most recent program. Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI institute, said in an email that “NASA has stayed out of the SETI game ever since simply because it believes it doesn’t have room in its budget for a program that was often viewed as a metal duck at a shooting gallery.”