In 1998 the Parkes Observatory, made famous in the 2000 film The Dish, began observing infrequent and odd radio signals, known as perytons – and researchers couldn’t figure out where these infrequently occurring signals were coming from.
Australian scientists were stumped by the mystery of the perytons for 17 years, until their source was finally discovered in 2015.
The culprit? A microwave oven in the New South Wales-based observatory’s staff kitchen.
The quirky piece of Australian scientific history received a shoutout this week during NASA’s first public meeting on UFOs.
The meeting featured a 16-member panel of experts put together in June 2022 as part of the launch of a study of UFOs – which the US is now putting under the umbrella of “unidentified anomalous phenomena” (UAP).
After mentioning Australian astrophysicist Matthew Bailes, who on Tuesday was named a joint winner of the Shaw Prize (considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize) for the discovery of fast radio bursts (FRBs), chair of the NASA UAP independent study team David Spergel explained some of the FRBs at the Parkes Observatory where Professor Bailes’ team made the 2006 discovery were not real.
“There was a series of bursts observed by this observatory in Australia … and people couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he said.
“And then they [started] to notice a lot of them bunched together around lunchtime. And what had happened was the people at the observatory would heat up their lunch in the microwave, and … they would open the door of the microwave oven before the microwave stopped.
“This is bad for your microwave oven, it wears it out. But not only that, it produced a burst of radio signal that was picked up by these sensitive detectors.”
NASA opens up on UAP
NASA’s panel contains experts in fields ranging from physics to astrobiology.
They were brought together to examine UAP with “rigorous scientific scrutiny” to help enhance understanding of the phenomena, address concerns over America’s airspace safety and provide a roadmap to guide future analysis of UAP, NASA science research assistant deputy associate administrator Daniel Evans said.
The panel will publish a report, planned to be released in the US summer between June and September.
However, classified data will not be examined as part of the study.
NASA associate administrator for science Nicola Fox explained UAP sightings aren’t classified, but a sensor platform that observed them can be.
Stigma is alive and well
Dr Evans said the space agency hoped the public discussion would be the first step to reducing stigma surrounding UAP reporting.
The stigma around flying saucers means people are reluctant to report UAP sightings, hampering research efforts, he said.
The US government has encouraged military aviators to document observations of UAP in recent years, but many commercial pilots remain reluctant to report sightings due to the lingering stigma, Dr Spergel said.
A little mystery remains
Sean Kirkpatrick, director at the US Department of Defence All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), said AARO receives between 50 and 100 reports of possible UAP sightings per month.
Only up to 5 per cent of the total database of reports are “possibly really anomalous”, he said.
Dr Kirkpatrick showed the panel footage collected from a sensor platform during a US military training mission, which shows three dots in a night sky.
After unsuccessfully trying to intercept the UAP, he said the mission eventually found the objects were further from the military planes than had been thought, and they could be matched to commercial aircraft heading to a major airport.
Most common UAP characteristics
Dr Kirkpatrick presented a graphic to the panel with an overview of AARO’s UAP reporting trends from 1996 to 2023.
Typically reported UAP characteristics include:
- Round shape, with “atypical” orientation
- 1 to 4 metres in size
- Typical colours reported are white, silver and translucent
- Flight at up to 9144 metres (30,000 feet) in the air, at speeds ranging from stationary to Mach 2 (faster than the speed of sound).
Privacy concerns limit investigations
Dr Kirkpatrick also noted that privacy concerns limit AARO’s investigations.
“We can point the largest collection apparatus in the entire globe at any point we want,” he said.
“Most people … don’t like it when we point our entire collection apparatus at your backyard.”
Experts face harassment
Dr Evans noted the assembled experts have been subjected to online abuse since joining the panel, and that NASA’s security team is “actively addressing” the issue.
“We at NASA are acutely aware of the considerable public interest in UAP,” he said.
“However, it’s critical to understand any form of harassment towards our panellists only serves to detract from the scientific process, which requires an environment of respect and openness.”