A large, deflating balloon. That’s the only definitive interpretation of a UFO among 144 sightings in the recent Pentagon report to Congress. And it’s the best analogy for my reaction to this much-anticipated assessment of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).
The report comes from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It scrupulously avoids using the term UFO or the words "alien" or "extraterrestrial." It declines to draw any conclusions, saying that available data is “largely inconclusive” and noting it is limited and inconsistently reported. The military prefers the term UAP in part to avoid the stigma attached to UFOs. The report worries about increased air “clutter” and leaves open the possibility that some UAP sightings are the advanced technologies of foreign adversaries. It gives no oxygen to the “true believers” in UFOs as alien spacecraft and it fails to invite scientists to collaborate on explaining the most mysterious sightings.
It’s a big anticlimax. How did we get here?
Ground zero for UFOs in the United States was Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The fact the Roswell incident was explained as the crash of a military, high-altitude balloon did nothing to stem the tide of new sightings. Since then, nearly a hundred thousand UFO 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.
The first major academic survey of UFOs in 1968, the Condon Report, said that no scientific knowledge had been gained from 21 years of study of the phenomenon. However, a review led by Stanford professor Peter Sturrock in 1998 concluded that some sightings are accompanied by physical evidence that warrants investigation. Sturrock also surveyed professional astronomers and found that a majority of them thought that UFOs were worthy of scientific study.
Yet, mainstream scientists resist being drawn into the debate over UFOs. It’s easy to see why. On the one hand, astronomers are confident that there is life beyond Earth. Dramatic progress in the search for exoplanets means there are about 300 million planets that could host biology in our galaxy, with billions of years for that life to evolve intelligence and technology. Aliens probably do exist and it’s unlikely that we are the most advanced civilization. On the other hand, evidence that UFOs represent alien visits to the Earth 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.
The public has already decided. Nearly half of Americans think that UFOs represent aliens visiting the Earth. Government secrecy has contributed to conspiracy theories that swirl around UFOs. Even though UFO simply means "unidentified flying object," something with no obvious explanation, UFOs have taken deep root in some parts of the public consciousness. In fact, they have taken on the attributes of a new religion. Scientists who research UFOs risk being ostracized by their colleagues while being flamed by the “true believers,” who might resent skepticism and evidence-based reasoning being applied to their subject.
Returning to the Pentagon report, it acknowledges that a majority of the reports can be traced to terrestrial causes: airborne debris like plastic bags, atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals and conventional aircraft from the U.S. or other countries. Others may be attributable to sensor anomalies. There’s no sign in the report of a serious scientific analysis and no mention of the fact that the three Navy videos that caused a recent stir have conventional explanations.
The message to Congress: More data is needed, and we’ll get back to you in 90 days. For the $700 billion Pentagon, and the $60 billion National Intelligence Program, this $22 million report is a drop in the bucket. For that price, we might have expected something with more meat.
So, the slender nine-page report has landed with a faint thud on Congress’s desk. Forgive the analogy, but the real sound was more like that of a large, deflating balloon.
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 300,000 people.