UFOs are emerging from the shadows.
Unidentified flying objects, or as they are now known, unidentified air phenomena (UAP), was long ignored by society. This topic was toxic and many people avoided engaging with it because they were afraid of being labeled a crackpot.
However, this has been changing over the last few years. In recent years, prominent scientists have pushed for serious investigation of UFOs. The U.S. Navy recently issued new guidelines encouraging pilots to report confusing or curious sky sightings.
Continue reading for a brief history and explanations of UFO sightings as well as cultural attitudes towards the phenomenon.
Related: 7 Things Most Commonly Misunderstood for UFOs
The fascination with UFOs and the sky
For as long as people have been looking up, they've seen strange or confusing objects in the sky.
For example, meteors and comets have been viewed by many cultures over the centuries as supernatural phenomena or at least seen through a supernatural lens. These spectacular skylights have been seen as manifestations of deities' displeasure, or as signs that something terrible, wonderful, or just plain consequential is about to occur.
This view is evident in the Bayeux Tapestry of the 11th century, which documents the events leading to the Norman conquest in 1066 CE. Famous Halley's Comet sped through the inner solar system in the same year. The tapestry, which measures 230 feet (70 meters), depicts it flashing ominously over the head of King Harold II.
"We see the new King sitting on a throne with nobles to his left and Archbishop Sttigand to his right," the Reading Museum said in a description about the tapestry's comet scene. (Harold was crowned Jan. 6, 1066.
The description said, "At his far side, he's cheered by the masses." "On the far right Halley's Comet is visible in the sky. It is feared by many as an evil sign and is considered a terrifying omen. Harold is informed about the comet. A ghostly fleet appears below him in the lower border. This is a hint at the Norman invasion.
William the Conqueror's troops killed Harold during the decisive Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066.
UFOs in the early years
UFOs as we know them today are much more recent than the time of powered flight. This is a good thing. There weren't nearly enough flying objects in William the Conqueror’s time.
UFOs were first discovered during World War II when Allied pilots from both the Pacific and European theaters reported seeing strange lights or objects in the skies. These curiosities were called "foo fighters" by the former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.
In June 1947, Kenneth Arnold, an American businessman and pilot, reported seeing nine mysterious, shiny craft flying through the sky near Washington's Mount Rainier. These UFOs were described in newspaper reports as either "flying discs" or "flying Saucers," but the term quickly gained acceptance by the public.
UFO reports exploded in the wake Arnold's sighting. Some even ended up in The New York Times. The Times was able to pick up an unusual wreckage found on a ranch in Lincoln County in New Mexico in 1947.
A Roswell Army Airfield public information officer described the debris as a "flying disc" in July that year. This briefly ignited a frenzy of confusion and interest. The Army quickly retract this statement and explained that the material was actually the remains of a weather balloon that had crashed.
It was revived by UFO enthusiasts three decades later. They claimed that the U.S. government found an alien spacecraft in New Mexico and had covered it up. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the wreckage was moved to an area 51 military base in southern Nevada, where it is still being studied.
Concerned that UFOs could pose a threat, the U.S. military began to investigate UFO sightings regularly. To accomplish this, the Air Force created Project Sign in 1947. The similarly brief-lived Project Grudge was established in 1948. Project Blue Book, which was more famous, started in 1952. It analyzed more than 12600 UFO reports and ran until 1969.
Project Blue Book was able to investigate the sightings of Betty Hill and Barney Hill. They claimed that they were taken by extraterrestrials and taken into examination in rural New Hampshire in September 1961. History.com reported that the couple's story was first widely published in newspapers in 1965.
Related: UFO Watch: 8 Times the government searched for flying saucers
UFO reports from modern times
Project Blue Book didn't stop UFO sightings. They've continued to roll in over the years.
One of the most well-known ones in the last half-century is Travis Walton's 1975 alien-abduction claim. This was the story of Travis Walton from Arizona, who made the claim in the 1993 film Fire in the Sky. Also, the Rendlesham Forest incident (a series of strange observations that occurred near England's Royal Air Force Woodbridge station in Dec 1980); and the Phoenix Lights which confused many Arizonans in February 1997.
In November 2004, U.S. Navy pilots were flying near San Diego when they saw strange craft zooming through space, apparently maneuvering in ways beyond the capabilities of technology. A decade later, other Navy pilots saw similar phenomena off the East Coast of the United States. They made a series interesting observations between June 2014 and March 2015.
Some of these encounters were captured by the pilots using their onboard cameras. The New York Times published three of these videos in December 2017, making them viral as part of a story about the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (or AATIP) which was a secretive military UFO-investigating program.
Politico and The Washington Post published deep dives into AATIP. It was funded initially at the request of Senator Harry Reid (D.Nev.). This appears to have been a driving force behind the rebranding UFOs as UAP, which has less historical baggage. Although the program was discontinued in 2012 due to funding cuts, AATIP staff have maintained that it continued its work in an informal capacity for several years.
AATIP's successor has been born, and it is a relative success. The Pentagon announced in the summer 2020 the creation of the Unidentified Aerophenomena Task force (UAPTF). Its mission is to "detect, analyze, and catalog UAPs that could pose a threat for U.S. security."
Some of the work of the task force has been seen. The June 2021 congressionally mandated report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was released by the UAPTF, the FBI, and the Office of Naval Intelligence. It outlines what the UAPTF and the FBI make of the 144 UFO encounters that were captured by U.S. government sensors. A focus is on sightings made by Navy pilots between March 2021 and November 2004.
You can find the preliminary nine-page report here. It found that 18 out of 144 UFOs behaved in unusual or unexpected ways.
UAPs were seen to move in a variety of directions, including against wind gusts, stalling, moving at great speed and maneuvering abruptly, but without any propulsion. According to the report, in a few cases, military aircraft systems used radio frequency energy (RF) associated with UAP sightings.
Related: What does Pentagon's UFO Task Force mean?
Are UFOs really real?
UFOs are undoubtedly real. People often see objects in the sky they don't recognize. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that there is something exotic happening.
The 1947 Roswell debris was actually caused by a balloon at high altitude that was lifted by the U.S. military in Project Mogul. This secret program sought evidence of Soviet Union atomic bomb testing. The 1997 Phoenix Lights were most likely caused by military flare-dropping exercises and high-flying aircraft.
Alien-abduction stories tend to be more complex because they involve more psychological components. Some research has suggested that lucid dreaming, a strange sleep state where people can control their dreams, may explain some of these reports.
Project Blue Book was able to get to the bottom most of the 12,600 sightings that it examined. It attributed most of them to natural phenomena like stars, clouds, and bright planets. Although the Air Force researchers couldn't explain 701 encounters, they concluded that there was no evidence of extraterrestrial technology or threatened national security.
The 2021 DNI report is less certain, positively identifying only one of the 144 UAP. (The only object that was identified as a mystery was a large balloon. UAP is complex and requires more data. The report states that strange or seemingly unexplainable movements could be due to sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception, and requires additional analysis.
Another possible cause is advanced technology that has been developed by foreign adversaries. UAP, if foreign tech is behind some of these sightings would "represent an international security challenge," the report states.
The U.S. military has taken the UAP issue seriously and is now more focused than ever. The Navy, for instance, has formalized its UFO reporting guidelines in 2019. This revision could help to remove the stigma associated with sightings. Politico reported that this was done in 2019.
The DNI assessment 2021 does not mention the alien hypothesis explicitly. It is implicitly included in a catch-all category of possible explanations. There are many reasons to not jump to the E.T. Experts agree.
According to Seth Shostak (a senior astronomer at SETI, Mountain View, California), the Navy pilots saw advanced reconnaissance craft in coastal waters in 2014, 2015, and 2016. It would be easier to spot flights over the U.S. mainland. Some of the encounters occurred after the radar systems of the Navy jets were upgraded. This suggests that there may have been a glitch.
It may be true that UFO imagery, regardless of era, depicts the objects as fuzzy blobs.
Space.com's Shostak stated that "the sightings always recede towards the edge of technology allows you do," in 2019. "The aliens are kinda keeping up with technology."
Common sense supports relatively simple, terrestrial explanations. This is not Occam’s Razor, which states that the simplest explanation is often the best. If UFOs do indeed exist, what are they doing?
Shostak stated that "if the aliens are present, you have to say they're probably the best houseguests because they don't do anything." They just buzz about. They don't address climate changes; they don’t steal our molybdenum."
Similar: The search to find alien life (reference).
Keep your eyes open for UFOs
The E.T. Shostak and others believe that the E.T. idea should not be dismissed. Although it is not scientific to dismiss a hypothesis, some UAP encounters can be very difficult to explain.
Four pilots flew in two jets to observe the strange, fast-moving object off the California coast in November 2004. Two of them told CBS's 60 Minutes program in 2021 that they had seen it with their own eyes. This rule eliminates the possibility of an instrument glitch being responsible. Radar also captured the UAP.
Shostak stated, "It's not trivial for us to know what these things are."
It is becoming more common to accept all explanations for such encounters, even the alien hypothesis. In July 2021, Avi Loeb, an Harvard astronomer, and his colleagues announced the Galileo Project, which will search for evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations (ETCs), using a network if new telescope systems from around the globe.
The Galileo Project, among other goals, will try to determine the true nature UAP and strange bodies like 'Oumuamua, which is the first interstellar object observed in our solar system.
Loeb suggested that the alien spacecraft may have visited 'Oumuamua because of its strange behavior. Although this idea is still a controversial one, it is now less common than it was ten years ago. This is mainly due to the exoplanet revolution.
Astronomers discovered that around 20% of the Milky Way’s 200 billion stars harbor a rocky planet within their "habitable zone". This is the range of orbital distances at which liquid water can exist on a planet's surface. A world does not have to be located in the habitable zone in order to sustain habitable environments. Numerous moons of our solar system, including Saturn's Enceladus and Jupiter's Europa, have huge oceans under their icy shells.
Loeb stated in a July 2021 statement that "Given recent discoveries of abundances of habitable-zone planetets with potential for extraterrestrial existence, the Galileo Project aims to the proposition humans can no longer ignore ETCs"
He said that science should not dismiss extraterrestrial explanations due to social stigmatization or cultural preferences. "We must now 'dare' to look through new telescopes both literally and metaphorically."