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NASA is putting together a research team to study UFOs

Still not saying it’s aliens, though

US-NASA-SPACE Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Today, NASA announced that it is putting together an independent team of researchers this fall to study sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, the updated term now used to refer to UFOs. The space agency says it plans to study these sightings from a scientific perspective but also stressed that “there is no evidence UAPs are extra-terrestrial in origin.”

The study team, to be led by astrophysicist David Spergel under NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, will attempt to identify what data is out there on UAPs and figure out how to best capture data on UAPs in the future. NASA noted that the limitations in sightings make it hard to come to logical conclusions about where UAPs come from. The researchers will also try to identify how “NASA can use that data to move the scientific understanding of UAPs forward,” according to a NASA blog post. The study will be open and unclassified, according to Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA.

NASA says that studying UAP sightings does align with the space agency’s interests, even though aliens are unlikely to be the source of any UAPs. Discerning between UAPs caused by natural phenomena or perhaps some kind of technology is crucial for one of NASA’s less well-known goals: protecting air safety. Though NASA is known for its efforts in space exploration, the first “A” in NASA does stand for aeronautics, after all. “The way we think about this at NASA is consistent with our principles of openness, transparency, and scientific integrity,” Zurbuchen said during a livestreamed talk at the National Academies of Sciences’ Space Studies Board meeting. “We are not shying away from reputational risk.”

A slide noting the goals of NASA’s new UAP research team, presented by Thomas Zurbuchen.
Image: NASA

The news of this study comes after years of hype and coverage of UAP sightings in the media. In 2017, a New York Times report revealed that the Pentagon had a classified program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which allegedly investigated sightings of UAPs often made by military pilots. A whirlwind of interest from lawmakers and the media followed, and in 2020, the Department of Defense created the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, or UAPTF, within the Navy to better understand the origins of UAPs.

While NASA had yet to wade into the UAP debate in an official capacity, NASA administrator Bill Nelson has made numerous comments about these sightings, even hinting that there might be some otherworldly explanation for what’s being seen. “I’ve talked to those pilots and they know they saw something, and their radars locked onto it,” Nelson said during a livestream chat hosted by the University of Virginia. “And they don’t know what it is. And we don’t know what it is. We hope it’s not an adversary here on Earth that has that kind of technology. But it’s something.”

In June of last year, the Pentagon released its own report on the potential origins of UAPs, listing five possible explanations for what pilots have been seeing in the skies. While many of the explanations were more benign — such as airborne clutter and natural atmospheric phenomenon — the Pentagon also listed a fifth classification of “other” for events and sightings it could not explain.

On May 17th, a subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing to check in on the UAP Task Force, the first time Congress had held a public hearing on UFOs in more than 50 years. During the hearing, Scott Bray, the deputy director of US naval intelligence, claimed that the UAP Task Force had collected 400 reports of UAP sightings. He also presented two videos of UAPs, one of which was just a few seconds long showing a small spherical object moving quickly across the camera. Bray used it as an example to show just how little detail pilots can get during UAP sightings sometimes.

However, Bray also argued that aliens weren’t the answer. “When it comes to material that we have, we have no material — we have detected no emanations within the UAP Task Force that would suggest it’s anything non-terrestrial in origin,” Bray said.

Another slide presented by Zurbuchen with justifications for the study.
Image: NASA

Last year during a press conference, Nelson mentioned that he’d spoken to Zurbuchen about NASA possibly looking into UAPs from a science perspective. Today, Zurbuchen confirmed at a press conference that the impetus to form this study sprung from all of the attention the Pentagon’s UAP efforts have received over the last few years. NASA estimates the budget for the study would be between a few tens of thousands of dollars to $100,000.

NASA says its study is not affiliated with the UAP Task Force or its successor, the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group (AOIMSG). However, when announcing the study today, Zurbuchen also noted that UAP pose a threat to national security and counterintelligence, two areas that don’t exactly fall under NASA’s purview. “That’s not what we do for a living,” Zurbuchen said. “And we’re not going to get into that at NASA. That’s what other people do for a living. But as a nation, as a government, it’s clear that there’s multiple things that matter here, and there are a handful of them that appear to demonstrate advanced technology.”

The research team may get access to classified information at some point, though the focus will be on publicly available data. “I do not have classified clearance, and we want this to be an open study,” Spergel said during the press conference today. “So what we will rely on is, some members of the committee will have clearances and insights we can attain that might help, but mostly I think we’ll really try to see what we can learn from the open data.”

NASA says the study will take about 9 months to complete. Ultimately, Zurbuchen thinks that the data that NASA has collected by both observing the night sky for potentially dangerous asteroids or by observing the Earth from space could be useful to better understand UAPs. “Can we use datasets that are there and use methodologies to find events that are transient — that kind of align, sometimes overlapping, with some of these other sightings?” he said.

Though NASA emphasized that there is no evidence that UAPs are extraterrestrial in nature, Zurbuchen didn’t shut the door on that possibility. “If somebody asked me do I really think there is irrefutable evidence for intelligent life here in one of these phenomena, I would give an answer that’s absolutely acceptable as a scientist,” Zurbuchen said, “which is, ‘I don’t know.’”

Update June 9th, 2:48PM ET: This article was updated to include additional details from a NASA press conference.