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NASA group studying UFOs stresses need for better data in first public meeting

What NASA's UFO hearing revealed
What NASA's UFO hearing revealed 05:32

An independent group of scientists and experts convened by NASA to study unidentified anomalous phenomena, known as UAPs or UFOs, said Wednesday there is "absolutely no convincing evidence" of extraterrestrial activity in any sightings to date.

That doesn't mean the panel has ruled out aliens, military adversaries or any other explanation — just that of the 800 or so sightings of strange flying objects or other phenomena that defy easy explanation, the data are simply not sufficient to draw any definitive conclusions. 


The 16-member panel stressed the need for better data about the encounters in its first and only public meeting Wednesday. The group was formed last October to "lay the groundwork for future study on the nature of UAPs for NASA and other organizations," the agency said at the time, and will produce a report of its findings.

NASA defines UAPs as "observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena from a scientific perspective." 

Navy pilots describe encounters with UFOs 13:58

Widely replayed Navy fighter pilot video of strange objects maneuvering at high speeds in ways no known aircraft can, along with other unexplained sightings in recent years, have added fuel to the UFO fire, generating widespread public interest and strong feelings from those on both sides.

Panel members said they have faced online harassment since the study was announced by NASA last year from those who believe UFOs in the traditional sense are, in fact, behind some of the unexplained incidents, and similar objections from those who believe the research is a complete waste of time.

"We steer between the rocks and the cyclone," said panel chairman David Spergel, a widely respected cosmologist. "We have a community of people who are completely convinced of the existence of UFOs. And we have a community of people who think addressing this question is ridiculous, everything can be explained."

Nicola Fox, director of NASA's space science directorate, said "it is really disheartening to hear of the harassment that our panelists have faced online, all because they're studying this topic."

"NASA stands behind our panelists and we do not tolerate abuse," she said. "Harassment only leads to further stigmatization of the UAP field, significantly hindering the scientific progress and discouraging others to study this important subject matter. Your harassment also obstructs the public's right to knowledge."

Spergel said one of the goals of the panel is to help reduce that stigmatization to encourage airline pilots and others to come forward when they see a UAP, not to fear ridicule or embarrassment.

"Despite NASA's extensive efforts to reduce the stigma, the origins of the UAP remain unclear," Spergel said. "And we feel many events remain unreported. Commercial pilots, for example, are very reluctant to report anomalies. And one of our goals, and having NASA play a role, is to remove stigma and get high-quality data.

"In fact, if I were to summarize in one line what I feel we've learned is we need high-quality data."

The Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study was chartered by NASA to assess available detection techniques and technology and to develop recommendations for improving the detection of UAP, ensuring the collection of reliable data needed to better understand what they might be.

Unlike the Pentagon's All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, which has access to classified UAP data and is focused more on national security, NASA's study is based on unclassified reports and sightings to improve transparency and cross-agency communications.

"Unidentified anomalous phenomena sightings themselves are not classified, it's often the sensor platform that is classified," Fox said. "If a fighter jet took a picture of the Statue of Liberty, then that image would be classified, not because of the subject in the picture, but because of the sensors on the plane."

The panel plans to issue its report later this summer. As for what might be recommended, Spergel offered one interesting possibility: a cellphone app that would allow users to collect and send along valuable data.

"There are three to four billion cell phones in the world," Spergel said. "Cell phones record not only images, we're all used to cell phone cameras, but they measure the local magnetic field, they are gravitometers, they measure sound, they encode enormous amount of information about the environment around them."

Not to mention GPS location data and accurate time stamps. He said someone capturing a UAP could then use a custom app to feed that data to a central website where it could be compared with similar observations.

"If you have something seen by multiple cell phones, with good timestamp data, at multiple angles, you're able to infer the location and velocity of that object," Spergel said. "Most of the time that will tell you it's a plane, it's a balloon, whatever. And if it's something novel, you have high-quality, uniformly selected data that could be used."

That data could be combined with radar and information collected by other sensors to help "eliminate the normal," leaving the true UAP for analysis with more detailed data than what's available now.

"I think that's the way a number of us are thinking about how we might approach this," he said.

As for aliens, David Grinspoon, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Houston, put it like this:

"We haven't seen any evidence that indicates that UAPs have anything to do with extraterrestrial phenomena," he said. "If the data leads us to realize that it does ... of course, we'll be enthralled and fascinated by that and will want to pursue it. But at this point, we don't really have any explicit data that suggests there's a connection between UAPs and extraterrestrial life."

Stefan Becket contributed reporting.

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