Throughout his years of studying auroras, University of Calgary physicist Eric Donovan had periodically seen images and data that showed something strange: a curve of purple light streaking across the sky, with linear green features glowing underneath. It was unusual, but he didn’t give it too much importance. “I put it in a bucket that I understood,” he says.
That changed when he ran into a group of amateur aurora photographers in a bar after a science talk. Over beers, members of the Alberta Aurora Chasers showed off their photos. After some discussion, one of the attendees showed him a photo of the same type of purple arch that Donovan had observed over the years. The images have an otherworldly look, the kind of thing that might be seen in the sky of an alien planet.
Looking at the photograph, Donovan realized that the lights actually lived in an “unidentified” cube that he did not understand. They also didn’t have a name. So he and the aurora hunters started calling the freak Steve, after the name a group of animals give to some bushes they don’t understand in the children’s movie Over the Hedge.
Soon, Donovan and his fellow scientists joined the aurora hunters in trying to locate more of Steve’s hauntings, to observe them, try to understand the underlying mechanism, and make the unknown known.
That is also the goal of a new NASA project that aims to study UFOs. Steve’s narrative — people notice something strange in the skies and dig deeper — could one day play similarly into the space agency’s efforts to learn more about the unidentified things in Earth’s atmosphere.
In early June, spurred on by a series of highly publicized and documented UFO sightings by US military personnel, NASA announced that it was beginning a modest study of unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). For almost a year – and with a relatively small total budget of about $100,000 – between eight and twelve experts will work on the Independent Study on NIAF. Its goal is to identify data—information that has already been collected, or may be collected in the future, from NASA and outside organizations—and analysis techniques that could advance scientific understanding of NIAF. Both NASA and the scientist leading the study, Princeton University astrophysicist and Simons Foundation president David Spergel, declined to comment for this article.
But no official answers or endorsements are needed to state the obvious: The enormous volumes of data from NASA’s extensive network of Earth-observing satellites, past and present, could be a treasure trove for NIAF research. However, one would be wrong to think that this could only affect searches for patrolling alien spacecraft in science fiction. Quite the contrary: By trying to detect anomalous and unexplained occurrences in NASA data, scientists are at least as likely to discover new exotic but terrestrial atmospheric phenomena as they are to find any credible evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, especially if they can also take advantage of sightings on land by the general public, as Donovan eventually did with Steve.
After naming the phenomenon, Donovan and his colleagues hoped to locate Steve by seeing him cross their data streams from satellites and atmospheric sensors, and then linking that same event to images taken by cameras on the ground.
In July 2016 they got a break when one of Donovan’s all-sky panoramic cameras in Saskatchewan caught a case of Steve in action. The next morning, Donovan posted on the Aurora Hunters Facebook group, “Did anyone see it last night?” he asked. Five minutes later, someone sent him two images.
Luckily, one of the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites had flown over the right place at the right time, and its sensors picked up a large rise in temperature and a fast-moving flow of gas where and when Steve Had appeared. The phenomenon was unquestionably real, and the specific details of its revelation gave rise to another name. Steve became STEVE, a reverse engineering acronym, or backronym, for “strongly increased rate of thermal emission.” “It was the most dramatic day,” recalls Donovan.
STEVE’s discovery wasn’t the only time a scientist’s attention to people’s strange sightings led to new empirical discoveries, and insights into what some UFOs might be. In 2006, people in Queensland, Australia saw fireballs in the air, in one case followed by an enigmatic sphere of green light rolling on the ground. A local television station reported the strange sightings, piquing the interest of Stephen Hughes, a physicist at Queensland University of Technology.
Captivated and curious, Hughes collected more eyewitness accounts of that night. Based on that anecdotal information (which we might call “anecdotes”), he found a similar historical sighting, along with measurements that nearby astronomical observatories and infrasound instruments had taken the night it occurred. With all this information in hand, Hughes established a possible connection between green fireballs – which can be caused by fast-moving meteors – and ball lightning. According to him, meteor particle trails could mediate an electrical connection between the atmosphere and the Earth’s surface, charging the ground and causing the emission of a moving orb of plasma.
Scientists can also use the power of people watching the sky to better understand other known but rare atmospheric phenomena, such as red sprites and clouds with holes. Taken together, these strange occurrences reinforce the idea that, despite all the sky-watching we do today, from air travel and networks of Earth-observing satellites and ground-based instruments, the catalogs of atmospheric phenomena of scientists are far from complete.
“I don’t think we ever run out of things to discover,” says Donovan. But there is a complication, in his opinion, with the research culture in general. “We’re not in discovery mode,” he says.
Scientists usually get grants to do their work, and to earn that money, they have to fully explain their research plan. This means that they often already know a lot about their subject matter and are only looking to make modest, incremental advances in knowledge. “Discovery isn’t really the big engine of science,” says Donovan.
Perhaps, with a line of research specifically targeting the unidentified, like the NASA study, that could change.
But unfortunately, the historical result of UFO research has not been promising. Consider the sobering conclusion reached by a controversial, government-funded study of 1960s UFO sightings led by Edward Condon of the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the last 21 years, the study of UFOs has added nothing to scientific knowledge…” Condon wrote. “More extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will advance with it.”
Penn State University historian Greg Eghigian, who is writing a history of UFOs, cannot think of a time when the study of UFOs has led to significant changes in the physical sciences. Instead, he says, academic interest in UFOs has led to much more tangible progress in the social sciences and humanities, where reports of alien sightings, beliefs or contacts can be used to conduct psychological research or track the spread of aliens. ideas and large-scale changes in public perceptions. In particular, research on “the formation of so-called UFO cults and religions really did a lot for people doing religious studies,” he says, “and really served as a foundation for the study of new social movements.”
However, Eghigian sees the new NASA project as significant because most of the NIAF research to date has come from the world’s military and intelligence organizations, who often share a similar view: we are interested in this as a scientific question. It’s not on our agenda », he says. The NASA study represents a potentially profound break with that monotonous tradition.
However, to maximize the chances that the NASA study will yield something of value, the space agency will have to succeed in attracting the right kind of participants, that is, eminent experts in the field, such as Spergel, who can strike a balance. between open-mindedness and rigorous skepticism. This feat is made all the more difficult by the persistent stigma that UFO research is a pseudoscience. “Scientists need to feel safe,” says Steve Brumby, a remote sensing and data visualization expert who co-founded Impact Observatory, a company that uses machine learning to mine geospatial data for new insights. “If they dare to be part of this study of anomalies [they need to know] they will not immediately be branded as extremist believers in UFOs.”
These hurdles aside, Brumby has fundamental doubts about the outcome of the NASA study. Rarely, he says, does simply keeping an eye out for anomalies pay off. Such “fishing expeditions,” he says, have a “pretty high chance of wasting people’s money,” especially if they try to pick out individual anomalous events from data sources that are ill-suited for the task. “Most NASA missions are conducted at too coarse a spatial resolution” to capture relatively small and fleeting details, he says. However, using NASA data to check, for example, the weather conditions during a sighting and how these might have affected views from the ground or from the air, could be more useful, as could data from higher resolution than other organizations.
On the other hand, despite not being as subject to secrecy and military applications as previous defense-motivated UFO studies, perhaps NASA’s efforts are also driven by ulterior motives. Donovan suspects that one of the project’s priorities will be to convert and preserve the space agency’s voluminous Earth observation archives into machine-readable formats, from which scientists could eventually extract new insights with modern software. “My take is that [project] is probably more about the data,” says Donovan, “and less about [searching for] unidentified flying objects.”
And from that data, other scientists could find their own “more dramatic” days, much as Donovan did with STEVE, discovering phenomena for which they, too, can make passwords. In years to come, the biggest discoveries to come out of NASA’s study might be called PAULs or EUGENE, and not PAUs or UFOs.