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NASA panel studying UFO sightings says stigma and poor data pose challenges

The 16-member panel, which formed last year, presented early findings Wednesday in its first public meeting. A final report is expected this summer.
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A NASA panel tasked with studying reports of "unidentified aerial phenomena" said at a hearing that the stigma associated with reporting UFO sightings — as well as the harassment of people who work to investigate them — may be hindering efforts to determine their origins.

The panel, which was formed last year, presented early findings Wednesday in the group’s first public meeting and is expected to publish a final report this summer. The team highlighted the need for more high-quality data to properly investigate unusual sightings.

Daniel Evans, the assistant deputy associate administrator for research in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said there has been no convincing evidence that reports of UFOs have anything to do with aliens. While extraterrestrial origins are not being ruled out, the independent group was convened to address broader national security concerns, he said.

"There could potentially be very serious risks to U.S. airspace as a result of us not necessarily knowing what is in our skies at a given time," Evans said Wednesday in a news briefing.

Evans also noted that the definition of UAPs, as they are referred to in government parlance, was recently expanded: Rather than only covering "unidentified aerial phenomena," the designation now refers to "unidentified anomalous phenomena" in order to include mysterious undersea encounters and strange sightings in the outermost parts of the planet's atmosphere — a region known as "near space."

Debates over potential UFO sightings have garnered increased attention in recent years, particularly as Congress and U.S. intelligence agencies have sought to make public more information about unidentified flying objects and data from reported incidents.

Interest in these encounters has also increased due to the recent mysterious flying objects spotted in American airspace, including a Chinese spy balloon that was detected over Montana in February.

Members of the public will be able to submit comments to NASA on the information presented at Wednesday's meeting beginning Friday morning.

Sean Kirkpatrick, director of the Defense Department’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, said during the hearing that most reports of unidentified aerial phenomena have "mundane" explanations. Since 1996, he said, his office has received more than 800 reports of unidentified flying objects, but just an estimated 2% to 5% demonstrate "anomalous characteristics" that require further analysis, such as modeling, simulation or physical testing.

The vast majority of the reports, Kirkpatrick said, are sightings of unusual orbs or round spheres, and most have been spotted at altitudes where aircraft typically fly.

But he added that "without sufficient data, we are unable to reach defendable conclusions that meet the highest scientific standards we set for resolution."

David Spergel, the panel's chair, said one of the biggest challenges in conducting research on UAPs is navigating public opinion on the topic.

"We have a community of people who are completely convinced of the existence of UFOs, and we have a community of people who think addressing this question is ridiculous," Spergel said. "And I think as scientists, the way to approach questions is you start by saying, 'We don't know,' and then you collect data and you try to calibrate your data well."

The stigma that surrounds the practices of reporting and investigating unidentified aerial phenomena — whether for members of the public, commercial pilots or members of the military — isn't helping, according to NASA’s science chief, Nicola Fox.

In her opening remarks at the hearing, Fox said members of the 16-person panel have faced harassment online for their participation in the work.

"Harassment only leads to further stigmatization of the UAP field, significantly hindering the scientific progress and discouraging others to study this important subject matter," she said, adding that such harassment also "obstructs the public’s right to knowledge."

Fox explained that the NASA panel was created to help lay out a road map for using the tools of science to evaluate and categorize the nature of unidentified flying objects.

The experts used unclassified data from civilian and government entities to inform the findings presented in the public meeting, she said.

Fox added, however, that existing eyewitness reports are often murky and do not provide conclusive evidence for analysis.

"At NASA, we lead the world in exploration and are committed to rigorous scientific inquiry," she said. "The nature of science is to better understand the unknown. And to do that, our scientists need data."

Kirkpatrick said future investigations would benefit from more instruments that could both detect unusual phenomena and trace their origins. The report set to be released this summer will likely outline more specific recommendations for such tools.

Spergel, meanwhile, said he hopes the NASA panel's work will help reduce negative associations linked to the study of UFOs. Such attitudes likely mean that many sightings have gone unreported, particularly from commercial pilots, he said.

"One of our goals in having NASA play a role," he said, "is to remove stigma and get high-quality data."