NASA Team Begins Study of UFOs

The project will look at unclassified data and scientifically analyze unexplained observations in the sky

two men seated at a congressional hearing
Scott Bray, the U.S. deputy director of naval intelligence, and Ronald Moultrie, under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, testify before a House Intelligence subcommittee hearing on unidentified aerial phenomena on May 17, 2022.  Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

A team of NASA researchers has just begun a formal investigation into UFOs, now referred to as unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs). Last week, the agency announced the 16 team members leading the study, which began Monday and will last for nine months. They will report their findings to the public in mid-2023, according to a statement from NASA.

The team includes former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and science journalist Nadia Drake, as well as scientists who study the shape of the universe, astrobiology, oceanography, black holes, computer engineering and other topics.

The effort is meant to “lay the groundwork for future study on the nature of UAPs for NASA and other organizations,” according to the statement. “The team will identify how data gathered by civilian government entities, commercial data, and data from other sources can potentially be analyzed to shed light on UAPs.”

The supernatural-sounding study, first announced in June, is really meant to bring a scientific perspective to the subject and document unidentified objects in the sky, per a June statement from NASA. It will reportedly cost less than $100,000 and be independent from the Pentagon’s efforts to study UAPs, wrote the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport last summer.

A black, unidentified object in the sky captured by a U.S. Navy jet.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon captured by the U.S. Navy.  U.S. Department of Defense

Following a 2021 report from the United States government centered on 144 unidentified flying objects, there has been considerable federal attention on these phenomena. Congress held a public hearing on UAPs in May, and the Pentagon announced it was forming an office to study UAPs in July, according to NPR’s Giulia Heyward.

But most UAP research to date has been conducted by military and intelligence organizations. They take a different approach to the topic, “which is ‘We’re not interested in this as a scientific issue. That’s not on our agenda,’” Pennsylvania State University historian Greg Eghigian told Scientific American’s Sarah Scoles in August.

Developing an understanding of UAPs isn't just about looking for alien life. The flying objects could have implications for national security, and NASA hopes the findings will improve aircraft safety. Collecting data on UAPs might be a first step in mitigating them to better protect air traffic, per the agency.

So far, NASA doesn’t have a hypothesis for what UAPs may be. “I would say the only preconceived notion I have coming into this is that you should be open to the idea that we’re looking at several different phenomena,” David Spergel, who will lead the research effort and is the president of the Simons Foundation, said in the summer, per the Post. “This is a phenomenon we don’t understand. And we want to collect more data.”

For now, though, “there is no evidence UAPs are extra-terrestrial in origin,” NASA said in the June statement. But even if the study reveals nothing about alien life, it might still learn something new about Earth’s atmosphere, wrote Scientific American.