"The truth is out there." That was the tagline for the popular science fiction TV series “The X-Files,” where the central plot device was the United States government keeping secret the existence of aliens.
Next month, some of the truth will be revealed as Congress receives an unclassified report from the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. The task force was set up by the Department of Defense in August 2020 to “detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.” Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAP, is an acronym coined to avoid the public and media ridicule often attached to the term UFO.
UFOs have a long history. The foundational event in the United States was the crash of a military, high-altitude balloon in July 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico. Since then, tens of thousands of sightings have been reported, along with hundreds of claims of alien abduction. The U.S. military has been looking into UFOs since the Roswell incident. For much of that time, the investigations have been kept secret. That’s about to change.
Nearly half of Americans think that UFOs represent aliens visiting the Earth. It’s not reassuring for that to be less than the number that believes in ghosts. Government secrecy on the issue contributes to the conspiracy theories that swirl around UFOs. Even though UFO simply means “unidentified flying object,” something with no obvious explanation, UFOs have attained mythic status in the popular culture. In fact, they have some of the trappings of a new American religion.
Scientists are in an awkward position regarding UFOs. On the one hand, they’re fairly confident that there is life beyond Earth. Dramatic progress in the search for exoplanets means there are about 300 million planets that could host life in our galaxy, the nearest of which are less than 20 light years away. Intelligent aliens probably do exist and it’s unlikely that we are the most advanced civilization.
On the other hand, evidence that UFOs represent alien visitations is very weak. Most sightings can be attributed to weather balloons or astronomical phenomena such as meteors, fireballs and the planet Venus. There are many resources giving mundane explanations for UFO sightings, including some of the Navy videos that have caused such a recent stir. Even highly trained observers can misinterpret what they see, and statements that UAPs display impossible or unphysical behaviors make unverified assumptions about size and distance of the objects being observed.
After years of denials and concealment, UFOs hit the public eye with the unofficial release of three U.S. Navy videos in 2017. The Navy officially released them in 2020. Government officials attested that the objects in the videos did not represent a known capability of the U.S. or its rivals and adversaries, and a few jumped to the conclusion that they were extraterrestrial in nature. Even President Obama weighed in, saying, “We don't know exactly what they are. We can't explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern.” Like many people, he wants to get to the bottom of this mystery.
The gulf between believers and skeptics seems impossible to bridge. That’s why we all should welcome the release of the UAP Task force report. In terms of government, transparency is good. In terms of science, more data is always good.
What are the possibilities? If trained experts like Navy pilots have been misled or have misread what they saw, then their training needs to be improved. If the UAP behaviors are the work of the U.S. military, then they’ve not been entirely forthcoming. If they’re the work of foreign adversaries, it’s an urgent national security issue. And if aliens have actually been visiting the Earth, it would be one of the most profound events in human history.
In “The X-Files,” Scully was the skeptic and Mulder was the believer, a more sympathetic character whose suspicions were justified. In real life, my money is with Scully and the skeptics.
Chris Impey is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of hundreds of research papers on observational cosmology and education, and he has written popular books on black holes, the future of space travel, teaching cosmology to Buddhist monks, how the universe began and how the universe will end. His massive open online courses have enrolled over 30,000 people.