This week, NASA hosted its first public meeting on UAPs - Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon.
The change from UFOs - Unidentified Flying Objects, to UAPs is more than just a rebranding exercise. Using "object" implies it is always a physical thing, but that is not always the case. Some of these might indeed be phenomenon that happens, but is not an artificially (i.e. made by someone or something) object, or even a natural object.
NASA and the US Pentagon have both set up groups to study UAPs methodically. Why now, though?
Firstly, at the end of 2020, in the US COVID spending bill, the Trump administration added a part to the bill that forced the US military to release all observations and data they had on UAPs, by June 2021, to Congress. As a result, Congress and Defence set up a panel to study them.
This encouraged NASA to set up their own panel, to study these observations from a different angle.
Nowadays, the opinions of life in the Universe have also changed. Talking about aliens was a taboo topic 50 or 60 years ago - especially in astronomy. Astronomers like Frank Drake and Jill Tarter who led the discussion, researching, and thinking about life in space were at times ostracised to say the least. Now, they are revered.
A generation or two of people now have grown up with the idea that life in space is not weird, but likely. From Mars to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, distant planets around other stars and beyond, a huge amount of research is happening into looking for signs of life.
Most importantly, there is also now a lot more data. Access to measurements - such as videos and photos - 20 or 30 years ago was a lot harder to come by. Now, the camera in our mobile phone is as good as what we had in satellites a few decades ago. Now, we have door cams, dash cams. and the ability to have a near-constant recording of the sky. When people see something, we do not have to go by a description - we can look at the data. And that is what we should do in science.
Subtle clues in colour, movement, shape, and other features can distinguish a meteor, like what was spotted over Queensland a few weeks ago, from a "space jellyfish" - the plume or exhaust from a rocket launch, seen over the Northern Territory the other week.
Three decades ago, the descriptions of these events could have varied, would have looked strange, and could have been classified as UFOs. With all of the recordings and photos, we were able to tell right away what these were.
The NASA panel is made up of a variety of experts - astronomers, astronauts, planetary scientists, aviation experts, engineers, oceanographers, and more. The goal is to look through not just what data is out there, but how to go about actually studying these observations.
With a range of expertise, they can come together relating certain phenomenon to the photos, videos, and other observations. This helps to not just explain the previously unexplained, but offer a way to help future investigations and observations that people might make.
While it is unlikely these sightings or images are from aliens, as Fox Mulder would say - the truth is out there. Finally, we are now looking for it in a methodical, scientific way.
- Brad E. Tucker is an astrophysicist and cosmologist at Mt Stromlo Observatory and the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the ANU.