NASA has waded into the contentious world of unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAPs), more commonly known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.
On 14 September, the agency released a report by an independent study team that looks at how and why NASA might want to be involved in studying UAPs. There’s a long history of US government agencies assessing objects in the sky, stretching back to US military investigations into reports of flying saucers in the 1940s. But the report concludes that NASA is the agency best suited to lead scientifically driven and rigorous studies of UAPs.
NASA has found no evidence to suggest that UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin. But it has appointed a director of UAP research, Mark McInerney, to oversee analysis of reports of mysterious flying things.
Nature spoke to the chair of the independent panel, astrophysicist David Spergel at the Simons Foundation in New York City, about the part scientists might play in assessing UAP reports.
What was it like to be on the panel?
It was a learning experience. I learned a lot about what data we collect in Earth science from NASA and from commercial satellites. Then I got a lot of e-mails from the public, which ranged from the curious to someone who writes regularly about the two aliens who live in her attic.
The report calls for better data on UAPs. How can we get them?
The first step is to get a solid database of events. We have to work our way through all possible ways of understanding events. You first want to get images from multiple angles and show that it’s not something conventional like a balloon, drone or aeroplane.
Is it worth engaging with what has often been a fringe activity?
By its nature, this is going to be high-risk, high-reward. You’re most likely not going to discover something. But if you do, it’s very important.
Why should NASA be involved?
We have a problem in our society that people think there’s conspiracies and lots of things are hidden. And when the defence department has images of events, those images end up classified, not because of what’s in the image, but because of how the images were taken.
To me, one of the most important recommendations in the report is that NASA develop an app for people’s cellphones that they can use to collect data. It’s an opportunity to engage the public in what science is about — when you see something you don’t understand, you collect data on it. And they can be part of that process. We do it in an open manner.
The way to make progress is to collect more data, and NASA is good at collecting data.
How would you see this UAP app working?
Think about cellphones as a unit of data collection. A phone measures magnetic field, gravitational field, local sound environment, local radio signal. What are the things you’d like to capture and encode? And how do we make sure that images aren’t tampered with? You want to make sure if you’re building a database that it is not contaminated with fraudulent images.
Would you use the app?
It would be fun to play with. Most of the time when you see something odd, it’s going to be an aeroplane, it’s going to be a drone.
What other ways can we look for life beyond Earth?
NASA is funding work on technosignatures beyond the Solar System. An example of a nice project was looking through [telescope] data for Dyson spheres. Dyson spheres are [hypothetical structures] where you have some advanced civilization that builds a shell around its star, so you live inside the shell and convert all of the energy of a star into energy to run your civilization. Some clever astronomers realized if they were there, it would show up in existing data, and they went through and looked.
The surface of the Moon, unlike Earth, doesn’t erode very quickly. We could look for signs of someone who landed on the Moon who wasn’t us. You could go through all the lunar imaging and look for weird landing sites.
How do you reconcile the frontiers of research today with fringe elements such as the report this week in Mexico of alien mummies?
When someone says they’ve seen something strange, we don’t want to immediately say, I don’t believe it. Rather, say: OK, how do you test the strange idea? And let me give the mummies as an example. If this is real, send some samples to a number of labs and we’ll sequence what their DNA is.
We have an obligation as scientists to sometimes spend a portion of our time checking reports of strange things. We need to not just approach things with the attitude of I believe or not, but collect data and see what we learn. It’s going to give us a teachable moment to show how science advances.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.