We need scientific analysis of satellite data on UAP

Earlier this year, the U.S. military and intelligence community issued a report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP, also called UFOs). Before the report’s release, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe stated, “we are talking about objects that have been seen by navy or air force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery, that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain, movements that are hard to replicate, that we don’t have the technology for.” 

The attention-grabbing part of this statement is the reference to "satellite imagery." I — and the hundreds of scientists engaged in studying UAP — have never seen any publicly released data on this. We would be extremely interested in analyzing any data on objects that enter the Earth's atmosphere and do not follow ballistic orbits like meteors. But no such data is currently available to open scientific analysis.

Of course, Ratcliffe’s quote is an insufficient basis for substantive scientific inquiry. But unclassified data, assembled by non-governmental satellites, could be made available to open scientific analysis. 

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Progress in our understanding of the related satellite imagery data may also stem from the new office established recently by the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2022. The office, to be created by mid-2022, will have the authority to start a coordinated effort of reporting and responding to UAPs and significantly improve data-sharing between agencies on UAP sightings. This new office will be administered jointly between the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, and it will empower military and civilian personnel as well as the intelligence community to report incidents and information involving UAP.

If the new office will determine that the objects in the satellite imagery data are so unusual that they cannot be human-made and hence are not a matter of national security, then it would make sense to subject the data to scientific analysis. A natural or an extraterrestrial origin, will be of international interest and benefit humanity as a whole and enrich our shared scientific knowledge.

Protocols for a possible contact with extraterrestrial intelligence were mostly inspired in the past by the possibility of detecting radio signals from planets around distant stars. Given that the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is 4.4 light-years away, such signals would require a decade or more for a round-trip conversation. As a result, they do not bear consequences to our immediate future.

But a different type of contact could deliver prompt implications. It concerns physical objects from another civilization that are already here, waiting to be noticed like a package in our mailbox. The arriving hardware need not be brainless but could possess artificial intelligence (AI), seeking information about the habitable planets around the sun.

An encounter of this type implies instant contact without a significant delay in communication time. The potential for an immediate engagement changes the response protocol relative a delayed radio signal.

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Currently, there is no international agreement on how humanity should engage with a visiting object of extraterrestrial origin. It would be prudent to formulate guidelines before they are needed. Any engagement could have implications for the future of humanity and should not be left to the spontaneous whims of a small team of researchers.

We should weigh the risks and benefits that will result from different engagements. The decision tree on how to proceed will have branches that depend on the objects’ properties and behavior. Since it is difficult to forecast these unknowns in advance, decisions will have to be reached in real-time. 

Deciphering the intent of an intelligent extraterrestrial equipment may resemble the challenge of breaking the code of an encryption device. We might need to rely on our AI systems in figuring out the intent of extraterrestrial AI systems.

A proper interpretation of prompt contact with extraterrestrial technologies could bring about the most significant advance in understanding of the reality around us in the entire history of humans. 

Our historic migration out of Africa started about a hundred thousand years ago, but a future migration out of Earth may be triggered by a dialogue with a messenger from afar that does not resemble anything we had seen before.

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University's Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.