The following is an extract from our monthly Launchpad newsletter, in which resident space expert Leah Crane journeys through the solar system, the galaxy and beyond. You can sign up for Launchpad for free here.
Aliens are in the headlines, but there still isn’t solid evidence that they’ve come to Earth. On 31 May, NASA’s new task force on unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs) held its first public meeting. UAP is basically bureaucrat-speak for UFO, anything in the sky that can’t immediately be traced back to an aircraft or known natural phenomenon.
NASA announced the formation of this team last year, and it has been controversial. A large portion of the public meeting was spent talking about the harassment that the team members have faced online, both from people who are certain that aliens are real and have definitely visited Earth, as well as from those who think it’s ridiculous that a government agency would investigate claims of alien craft. I have to say that I lean towards the latter position, although obviously not far enough to shout at anyone about it on the internet.
So far, the UAP group hasn’t proved me wrong. Out of more than 800 reports of UAPs, almost all are traceable back to mundane sources – commercial aircraft, balloons, even radiation from microwave ovens. Less than 5 per cent of them remained anomalous after investigation – but not, as far as anyone can tell, because they’re aliens.
In those cases, the data is the problem. “There are many cases in which we might be under the impression that there might be something anomalous, where the data is just not sufficient to support an analysis that would allow us to really understand… the behaviour of the object,” said Federica Bianco at the University of Delaware in a press call after the meeting. “It’s very possible that with better data they would be reconciled with known phenomena.”
That doesn’t mean the group is useless, as its leader, David Spergel, pointed out. “The first step if you want to find needles in haystacks, or if you don’t even know what you’re looking for, is to learn about and characterise hay really well.” So far, the team has looked at a lot of things that could have potentially been needles and found that they’re hay, which isn’t unexpected.
David Grinspoon at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona said something during the press call that really spoke to me: “It’s a big universe and we have to admit that there are things out there we don’t understand, and in fact some of those not-well-understood phenomena may be really important clues to important mysteries that we want to understand. But if you were giving me a finite pot of resources right now to look for biosignatures and technosignatures, would I put some of those resources into studying UAPs? Personally, probably not, because we haven’t seen any evidence that indicates that UAPs have anything to do with extraterrestrial phenomena.”
You may have also heard that a former US intelligence officer named David Grusch gave an interview on NewsNation alleging that the US government has retrieved “non-human exotic origin vehicles that have either landed or crashed” as well as the actual aliens who piloted those vehicles. Obviously, if this is true it’s a huge deal. However, Grusch didn’t show any physical evidence, so while it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, for now I’m regarding it with a major dose of scepticism.
I have to admit that personally, I doubt we’ll ever find extant intelligent life. That’s because while we all know that space is big, we rarely think about the enormity of time. The likelihood that intelligent aliens would exist close enough to us both in space and in time for us to spot them seems so minuscule as to be unimaginable to me. So sure, let NASA’s task force characterise hay as much as they want – it’s a tiny footnote in the agency’s budget, it’s not hurting anyone and maybe they’ll find something interesting – but when it comes to actually looking for alien life, maybe we should stick to microbes.