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Officials at NASA selected a team of 16 scientists and experts who will delve into the mysteries surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena — more popularly known as unidentified flying objects or UFOs. The independent study kicked off Monday.
The group will include experts across numerous disciplines — including astrobiology, data science, oceanography, genetics, policy and planetary science — as well as retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, a former fighter pilot and test pilot and retired US Navy captain.
The space agency, which first announced it was forming the group in June, previously revealed that the team would be led by astrophysicist David Spergel, who is president of the Simons Foundation in New York City.
The new group won’t necessarily seek to determine exactly what the UAPs, which have been seen moving through restricted military airspace over the past several decades, are. Rather, the team will look to hash out exactly how it’s best for NASA to approach further study of the phenomenon.
The space agency has already noted that the limited number of observations of UAPs has made it difficult to draw scientific conclusions about the nature of such events.
“Without access to an extensive set of data, it is nearly impossible to verify or explain any observation, thus the focus of the study is to inform NASA what possible data could be collected in the future to scientifically discern the nature of UAP,” according to a NASA news release.
There have been several studies of UAPs carried out by various arms of the US government, including a Pentagon report that was declassified in June 2021, though none have given the public a clear answer about what the UAPs could be. Officials at NASA have been thinking about how to study UAPs in a formal way for a long time, but they wanted to ensure that they approached it in the right way, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, in June.
This study, expected to last about nine months, will also be entirely unclassified and within the public domain.
“Exploring the unknown in space and the atmosphere is at the heart of who we are at NASA,” Zurbuchen said in a Friday statement. “Understanding the data we have surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena is critical to helping us draw scientific conclusions about what is happening in our skies. Data is the language of scientists and makes the unexplainable, explainable.”
The team will gather data on “events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena – from a scientific perspective,” the agency said.
NASA said it was interested in UAPs from a security and safety perspective. There was no evidence UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin, NASA added. The study will begin this fall and is expected to take nine months.
The search for life
NASA has long been tasked with finding life elsewhere, which is why astrobiology programs are part of the agency’s focus, Zurbuchen said. The Perseverance rover is currently searching for signs of ancient life that may have once existed on Mars while future missions are being developed to seek signs of life on ocean worlds in our solar system. The agency seeks to explore the unknown in air and space, Zurbuchen said.
“We’re looking for the question of whether certain environments are in fact part of, if you want, the ladder of life that got us to where we are,” he said during news conference Thursday.
The agency will approach the UAP study like they would any other science study – taking a field that is poor in data and making it worthy of scientific investigation and analysis.
“There’s many times where something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect,” Zurbuchen said.
Given the national security and air safety issues that have been raised with UAPs, scientists want to look at the observations and establish if these are natural or need to be explained otherwise.
While talking about UAPs in a traditional science environment may be looked down on or regarded as something not related to science, Zurbuchen “vehemently opposes that.”
“I really believe that the quality of science is not only measured by the outputs that come behind it, but also the questions we’re willing to tackle with science,” he said.
The intent of the study is to make a proposal for a research program that can be implemented once the researchers assess the data that exists and should be reviewed.
The full report will be made available to the public, and the research team will hold a public meeting to discuss the findings, said Daniel Evans, NASA Science Mission Directorate assistant deputy associate administrator for research, during the news conference. Like NASA’s other standard grant review panels, the budget estimated for this project is between a few tens of thousands of dollars and no more than $100,000, Evans said.
While it’s difficult to anticipate what the study will reveal, Spergel said “we should be open to the idea that we’re looking at several different phenomena.”
“I think we have to approach all these questions with a sense of humility,” Spergel said. “I’ve spent most of my career as a cosmologist. I can tell you, we don’t know what makes up 95% of the universe. So there are things we don’t understand. I hope this study moves us forward to understand these phenomena better. But at the end of the day, we may conclude that we still don’t understand many aspects of them and perhaps have a road map on how to make progress.”
Ross Levitt contributed to this report.