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NASA team studying unidentified phenomena shares preliminary update

<i>Aaron M. Sprecher/AP</i><br/>A team of 16 experts and scientists assembled by NASA aims to publish its first report on unidentified anomalous phenomena
Aaron M. Sprecher/AP
A team of 16 experts and scientists assembled by NASA aims to publish its first report on unidentified anomalous phenomena

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

(CNN) — A team of 16 experts and scientists assembled by NASA aims to publish its first report on unidentified anomalous phenomena, also known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOS, by midsummer.

“Unidentified anomalous phenomena has truly captured the attention of the public, of the scientific community and nowadays, the US government as well, and we at NASA strongly believe that it’s our responsibility all working together to investigate these with the scientific scrutiny that NASA is well known for,” said Dan Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We’ve tasked (the team) with helping NASA produce a roadmap, a roadmap that doesn’t necessarily look back at previous grainy footage, sort of acknowledges that many UAPs historically we’ll never be able to get to the bottom because the data are of such poor quality,” Evans said on Wednesday.

“We’re trying to assess whether those phenomena pose any risks to safety and we’re doing it using science,” Evans added. “NASA believes that the tools of science apply to the study (of) UAP because they allow us to separate fact from fiction. And that’s all part of NASA’s commitment to exploring the unknown, and doing so with the openness, transparency and candor that we’re well accustomed to providing the public.”

The comments came during a Wednesday news conference after NASA held an hours-long public meeting led by its independent study team that is categorizing and evaluating data of unidentified anomalous phenomena.

Unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, “are events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena from a scientific perspective,” according to NASA.

The term UAP, originally meaning unidentified aerial phenomena, was changed by the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law in December, Evans said. The change occurred in recognition of the fact that the search for UAP should include near space and undersea phenomena as well, he said.

The space agency has already noted that the limited number of observations of UAPs has made it difficult to draw scientific conclusions about the nature of such events.

“The report will inform NASA on what possible data could be collected in the future to shed light on the nature and origin of UAP,” according to the agency.

The nine-month study began on October 24, 2022, and the team — having held final deliberations Wednesday — will publish a report by the end of July.

The agency’s independent study team includes 16 scientists and experts across various fields — astrobiology, data science, oceanography, genetics, policy and planetary science — as well as retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, a former fighter pilot, test pilot and retired US Navy captain. The team is led by astrophysicist David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation in New York City.

During the hearing, Kelly reflected on his spaceflight and atmospheric flight experiences, and said both are “very, very conducive to optical illusions.”

Studying unidentified anomalous phenomena

The purpose of the group is not to determine the true nature of the UAPs, which have been seen moving through restricted military airspace over the past several decades. Instead, the team’s approach has been outlining how to evaluate and study unidentified anomalous phenomena using data and technology.

“We’ve gone through a data collection stage, which is continued with the hearing today, and I think what we’ve seen is that many events have conventional explanations,” Spergel said. “We saw more of this today and many of these events are commercial aircraft, civilian and military drones, weather and research balloons, military equipment, weather phenomena and ionospheric phenomena. That said, there remain events that we do not understand.”

Spergel said those events have data that is either poor quality or limited, stressing that one of the lessons of the team is that more high-quality data is needed, as well as multiple observations, to assess the events.

“We roughly get … anywhere from 50 to 100-ish new reports a month,” said Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick of the US Department of Defense at the public meeting. He is the director of the new All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office, which is dedicated to studying UAP.

Kirkpatrick said the number had jumped to over 800 cases of UAP from when he testified to Congress that there were 650 cases in April “because I got FAA’s data integrated in finally.” The data have been collected across 27 years, and Kirkpatrick stressed that the numbers will continue to change weekly.

He also cautioned that the number of cases that “are possibly really anomalous” were “2 to 5-ish percent.” Kirkpatrick defined “anomalous” as “anything that is not readily understandable by the operator or the sensor.”

The team has yet to provide NASA with any recommendations, which will be included in the anticipated July report. But Spergel and the other team members discussed their preliminary ideas for better global monitoring of UAP.

Rather than satellites, which can only monitor small portions of the majority of the planet at very low resolution, the team is interested in enlisting the help of citizen scientists.

Given that there are 3 billion to 4 billion mobile phones around the world, Spergel said the development of an app people could use to record data and upload to a website for tracking UAP would be “a great citizen science opportunity.”

There have been several studies of UAPs carried out by various arms of the US government, including a Pentagon report that was declassified in June 2021, though none have given the public a clear answer about what the UAPs could be.

The search for life

NASA has long been tasked with finding life elsewhere, which is why astrobiology programs are part of the agency’s focus. The Perseverance rover is currently searching for signs of ancient life that may have once existed on Mars while future missions are being developed to seek signs of life on ocean worlds in our solar system.

Given the national security and air safety issues that have been raised with UAPs, scientists want to look at the observations and establish if these are natural or need to be explained otherwise.

The study is unclassified and in the public domain, and does not include military or intelligence agency data, the researchers said.

“NASA’s interest in UAP do differ from the Pentagon and from the intelligence community,” Evans said. “We see true benefits to this team working solely on unclassified data. Because when you restrict yourself to those types of data, you can collaborate freely with academia, with industry and with international partners. We need as many eyes on this subject as possible.”

The intent of the study is to make a proposal for a research program that can be implemented once the researchers assess the data that exists and should be reviewed.

“There is absolutely no convincing evidence for extraterrestrial life associated with UAPs,” Evans said. “I think when we stood up this incredible team, we did so in recognition of the fact that we need to get to an answer without assuming an origin going in.”

While astrobiology focuses on the search for life, studying UAP has its own goals that are not necessarily connected, Evans said. But since being announced in June 2022, members of the independent study team have faced online harassment.

“Every single member of our team is a respected authority in their field,” Evans said. “They have massive, complete and total support. And this is hard work. It’s serious work. And if we are truly to respect the sanctity of the scientific process than we need to allow science, indeed, to be free, and that freedom stems directly from an absence of harassment to this incredible team of panelists.”

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