Time for scientists to identify the unidentified in Pentagon's UFO report

Time for scientists to identify the unidentified in Pentagon's UFO report
© Defense Department

The Pentagon just delivered a report to Congress stating that some Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) are potentially real objects but their nature is unknown. The report is one of two sources of fresh scientific evidence that we are likely not the only intelligent species in the cosmos.

The Pentagon report states, “a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation.” UAP could be human-made, natural atmospheric phenomena or extraterrestrial in origin. All possibilities imply something new and interesting that we did not know before.

The study of UAP should now shift from the talking points of national security administrators and politicians to the arena of science where it will be studied by scientists rather than government or military personnel that were not trained as scientists and that did not have access to the best scientific instrumentation for collecting the data. The report avoids any scientific discussion of the possibility that the unexplained phenomena are extraterrestrial in origin, since this goes beyond the charter assigned to the government’s task force.

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The second recent piece of evidence we are likely not alone: The interstellar object discovered in 2017, `Oumuamua, was inferred to have a flat shape and was pushed away from the Sun as if it were a light sail. This “pancake” was tumbling every eight hours and originated from the rare state of the Local Standard of Rest — which averages over the motions of all the stars in the vicinity of the Sun.

UAP are likely a mixed bag. Many unidentified objects from eyewitness testimonies may have mundane explanations, but we need better evidence to be sure. An extraterrestrial piece of equipment could potentially be guided by advanced artificial intelligence — namely an autonomous system which adapts to its environment through machine learning but follows the blueprint crafted by an intelligent species beyond Earth. Even if one of the unidentified objects is extraterrestrial — might there be any possible link to `Oumuamua?

The inferred abundance of `Oumuamua-like objects is unreasonably large if this population had no purpose. With Amaya Moro-Martin and Ed Turner, I wrote a paper in 2009 forecasting the number of interstellar rocks based on what is known about the solar system and assuming that these rocks were ejected from similar planetary systems around other stars.

The population of objects required to explain the discovery of `Oumuamua exceeds the expected number of interstellar rocks per unit volume by orders of magnitude.  There should be a quadrillion of `Oumuamua-like objects within the solar system at any given time, if they are distributed on random trajectories with equal probability of moving in all directions. But the number is reasonable if `Oumuamua was an artificial object on a targeted mission towards the Sun, aimed to collect data from the habitable region near Earth.

In particular, one would wonder whether `Oumuamua might have been retrieving data from probes that were already sprinkled on Earth at an earlier time. In such a case, `Oumuamua’s thin flat shape could have been that of a receiver. Hence, `Oumuamua was pushed by sunlight not for the purpose of propulsion but as a byproduct of its thin flat shape.

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A similar push by reflection of sunlight without a cometary tail were the traits of an artificial rocket booster which was identified in 2020 by the same Pan STARRS telescope that discovered `Oumuamua. This artificial object named 2020 SO was not designed to be a solar sail but just had thin walls with a large surface to mass ratio for a different purpose.

At this time, the possibility that any UAP are extraterrestrial is highly speculative.  Rather than wonder or speculate about possible scenarios, we should collect better scientific data and clarify the nature of UAP. This can be done by deploying state-of-the-art cameras on wide-field telescopes that monitor the sky. The sky is not classified; only government-owned sensors are. By searching for unusual phenomena in similar geographical locations from where the UAP reports came, scientists could clear up the mystery in a transparent analysis of open data. The huge data set could be analyzed by an advanced computer system which will keep record only of its interesting transient features.

Now is the time for more scientific projects aimed at clearing up the nature of UAP — and should be open-minded to the possibility that science may one day reveal a reality that was previously considered as fiction.

Avi Loeb is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was the longest-serving chair in the history of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He serves as the founding director of Harvard's Black Hole Initiative, the director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and chairs and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project. Loeb is the former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the White House. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.