Jun 14, 2022 - Science

NASA is embarking on a risky mission to investigate UAPs

Illustration of a UFO lifting the NASA logo upward with a beam of light
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

NASA is mounting an investigation into unidentified aerial phenomena — a mission some experts and even some of NASA's own leadership warn could put the space agency's good name at risk.

The big picture: NASA has historically focused its life-seeking efforts on searching for signs of microbes on Mars; watery, possibly life-supporting moons in the solar system; and signs of distant, intelligent life.

  • UFOs are a very different story. NASA and others have said there is no evidence UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin, and the space agency's investigation isn't out to prove they are.
  • But by launching the investigation, NASA is wading into an area rife with conspiracy and messaging that's difficult to control, which could be a risk for the agency's stellar public reputation.

"There are many, many examples where people lean forward into a field that is not yet accepted. It's controversial or has some reputational risks," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science, said at a news conference.

  • "In some domains, surely, this will not just be met with utter enthusiasm, but I do believe that it is absolutely necessary."

Catch up quick: NASA's investigation announced last week will focus on collecting data to learn more about UAPs, which they define as "observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena," according to a press release.

  • Astrophysicist and president of the Simons Foundation David Spergel will lead the team. NASA says the study will have a budget of about $100,000 and will take about nine months to complete.
  • Unlike some previous UAP investigations that relied on classified data that can't be shared with the public, the NASA project will make its report and data accessible to anyone.
  • "I think there is new science to be discovered," Zurbuchen said. "There have been many times where something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect."

Yes, but: By mentioning its life-seeking scientific enterprises in the same press release and news conference announcing its new UAP initiative, some agency watchers say NASA is muddying the waters.

  • "If you say this is unrelated to our studies about alien life, however, here are studies of alien life, that's what people are going to take away," Sarah Scoles, author of the book "They Are Already Here" on UFO culture, told Axios.
  • "I don't see any reason to connect UFOs to astrobiology, other than a sort of 'aliens of the gaps' argument where people assume that if they don't have an explanation, it might be aliens," cosmologist Katie Mack said.
  • "Whatever comes out of this will remain vague because they're not going to single-handedly — with $100,000 — be able to explain every piece of incongruous data," astrochemist Clara Sousa-Silva told Axios.
  • "If it's vague, it's going to attract conclusions that are reputational risks," she said.

Background: NASA has largely stayed out of discussions of UAPs and UFOs even as the public and Congress have become increasingly interested in the subject. The government released a report last year that examined about 140 UAP incidents over the past 20 years.

  • But Zurbuchen said no subject should be off limits for the space agency and science in general.
  • The team will be expected to tackle questions around UAPs with open minds and possibly develop a structure for future studies to help pin down what these phenomena might be.

Between the lines: It's possible NASA's decision to publish its UAP report with full transparency will help combat some claims that the U.S. government is hiding evidence about UAPs from the public.

  • However, the initiative could still embolden those who most fervently believe UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin.
  • "No matter how much data they analyze, someone who is a believer is always going to say, 'But what about the stuff we don't see?'" Scoles said. "Just like everything UFO, the belief in UFOs as alien is always unfalsifiable."
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