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NASA’s UFO study: Identifying the unknown lies in better quality data

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

NASA recently assembled an independent study team on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP also commonly called UFOs). The group of 16 experts in varied fields is tasked with laying the groundwork for NASA in studying the nature of UAP and “identify how data gathered by civilian government entities, commercial data, and data from other sources can potentially be analyzed to shed light on UAPs,” according to NASA.

I was recently invited to meet with this team in Washington, D.C. to offer my perspective: Over the past five years, I’ve been intrigued by the unusual properties of the first three interstellar objects ever identified by humans.

The first two are interstellar meteors, IM1 and IM2, which I discovered with my student Amir Siraj, and are rarer than one part in 10,000 in their material strength relative to solar system meteors. The third was the near-Earth object `Oumuamua, which had an unusual thin flat shape and was pushed away from the sun without showing a cometary tail. These led to the creation of Harvard’s Galileo Project, which I lead, and aims to figure out the nature of unusual interstellar objects as well as UAP — allowing for the possibility that they were manufactured by extraterrestrial technological civilizations.

The entire collection of unusual objects is probably a mixed bag. If only one of them ends up being of extraterrestrial technological origin, it would not necessarily vindicate the numerous reports on most UAP being extraterrestrial. The huge number of reports could have mundane explanations, in the form of human-made crafts or natural objects. The key in identifying an unusual signal lies in the data quality that makes it an outlier relative to the noise from familiar occurrences in the same environment. This was the case in the astronomical data on the first three interstellar objects. But it is not necessarily the case in many UAP reports, including a recent one from Ukraine (which I discussed in a recent paper).

Over the next nine months, the NASA study team will examine unclassified data on UAP in an attempt to separate the signal from the noise and advise NASA whether to fund future UAP research, such as the scientific program already pursued by the Galileo Project. The instruments designed by the Galileo Project more than a year ago are by now collecting new high-quality data.

In order to improve the UAP signal quality, we need new data. Within a year, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile will survey the entire southern sky every four days with its 3.2-billion-pixel camera (a thousand times more pixels than offered by a cell phone camera). Its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) telescope is likely to discover many new interstellar objects.

But exactly how many?

In my head, I calculated that the discovery rate of IM1 and IM2 in the CNEOS catalog imply that meter-size interstellar objects collide with Earth roughly once per decade. `Oumuamua was a hundred times bigger than these objects and was discovered through its reflection of sunlight by the smaller Pan-STARRS telescope at a distance that is 6,000 Earth radii. This implies that a meter-size object would be detectable by LSST out to a distance of 60 Earth radii, the Earth-Moon separation. The cross-sectional area of that “fishing net” is a few thousand times bigger than the area offered by the Earth’s atmosphere — which is our standard meteor detector. This implies that LSST could detect a new meter-size interstellar object every week out to the distance of the Moon, because LSST scans half of the full sky every four days.

We could find meter-size interstellar objects every week with LSST. As a result, our lack of knowledge regarding the nature and potential origin of unusual interstellar objects like IM1 and IM2 may change dramatically in the coming years, including information indicating whether they are extraterrestrial in nature. The dust raised by skeptics will settle down, and experts who studied rocks from the solar system may be forced to admit that some interstellar objects are unusual.

I mentioned this calculation at the beginning of my presentation to the NASA study team. The committee members, including astronaut Scott Kelly, asked excellent questions. We agreed that we all look forward to an exciting future ahead, guided by high-quality scientific evidence.

Here’s hoping that the fog will be lifted soon on the nature of UAP, so we can understand what lies in the skies using our new 3.2 billion-pixel eyes to look for meter-size packages from interstellar space every week.  

Avi Loeb is the head of Harvard University’s Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and he 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.

Tags Avi Loeb Extraterrestrial life NASA Near-Earth object Search for extraterrestrial intelligence Space Space exploration

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