For decades now, eyes and sky have met to witness the buzzing of our world by Unidentified Flying Objects, termed UFOs or simply flying saucers. Extraterrestrials have come a long way to purportedly share the friendly skies with us.
And after all those years, as the saying goes, UFOs remain a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Why so? For one, the field is fraught with hucksterism. It's also replete with blurry photos and awful video. But then there are also well-intentioned and puzzled witnesses [See Top 10 Alien Encounters Debunked].
Scientifically speaking, are UFOs worth keeping an eye on?
There have been advances in the field of UFO research, said Ted Roe, Executive Director of the National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP), based in Vallejo, California.
"The capture of optical spectra from mobile, unpredictable luminosities is one of those innovations. More work to be done here but [there are] some good results already."
NARCAP was established in 2000 and is dedicated to the advancement of aviation safety issues as they apply to, what they term Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP).
Roe said that a decade from now, researchers should have even better instrumentation at their disposal and better data on UAP of several varieties. His forecast is that scientific rigor will prevail, demonstrating that there are "stable, mobile, unusual, poorly documented phenomena with quite unusual properties manifesting within our atmosphere," he told SPACE.com.
NARCAP has made the case that some of these phenomena have unusual electromagnetic properties. Therefore, they could disrupt microprocessors and adversely effect avionic systems, Roe explained, and that for those reasons and others UAP should be considered a hazard to safe aviation.
"It is likely that either conclusion will fly in the face of the general assertion that UAP are not real and that there are no undocumented phenomena in our atmosphere," Roe continued. That should open the door, he said, to the realization that there's no good reason to discard outright the possibility that extraterrestrial visitation has occurred and may be occurring.
"Physics is leading to new and potentially paradigm shifting understandings about the nature of our universe and its physical properties," Roe said. "These understandings may point the way towards an acceptance of the probability of interstellar travel and communication by spacefaring races."
Sacred cows to the slaughter
As UFO debunker Robert Sheaffer's web site proclaims, he's "skeptical to the max." He is a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and a well-known writer on the UFO scene.
Being an equal-opportunity debunker, Sheaffer notes that he refutes whatever nonsense, in his judgment, "stands in the greatest need of refuting, no matter from what source it may come, no matter how privileged, esteemed, or sacrosanct ... sacred cows, after all, make the best hamburger."
Sheaffer told SPACE.com, in regard to the cottage industry of UFO promoters, there's a reason there are still so many snake-oil sellers.
"It's because nobody, anywhere, has any actual facts concerning alleged UFOs, just claims. That allows con-men to thrive peddling their yarns," Sheaffer said. "UFO believers are convinced that the existence of UFOs will be revealed 'any day now'. But it's like Charlie Brown and the football: No matter how many times Lucy pulls the football away-or the promised 'disclosure' fails to happen-they're dead-certain that the next time will be their moment of glory."
Trash from the past
"I would have to say that we're stuck in neutral," said Kevin Randle, a leading expert and writer on UFOs and is known as a dogged researcher of the phenomena. There's no real new research, he said, and that's "because we have to revisit the trash of the past."
Randle points to yesteryear stories, one stretching back in time to a supposed 1897 airship crash in Aurora, Texas, long proven to be a hoax by two con men-yet continues to surface in UFO circles.
Then there's the celebrated Thomas Mantell saga, a pilot that lost his life chasing a UFO in 1948. There are those that contend he was killed by a blue beam from a UFO, Randle said "even though we have known for years that the UFO was a balloon and he violated regulations by climbing above 14,000 feet without oxygen equipment. I mean, we know this, and yet there are those who believe that Mantell was killed by aliens."
Randle's advice is to the point: "We need to begin to apply rigorous standards of research ... stop accepting what we wish to believe even when the evidence is poor, and begin thinking ahead."
Paucity of physical evidence
"I've no doubt that UFOs are here to stay," said Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. "I'm just not convinced that alien craft are here to stay ... or for that matter, even here for brief visits.
"First, despite a torrent of sightings for more than a half-century, I can't think of a single, major science museum that has alien artifacts on display," Shostak said. "Contrast this paucity of physical evidence with what the American Indians could have shown you fifty years after Christopher Columbus first violated their sea-space. They could have shown you all sorts of stuff-including lots of smallpox-infested brethren-as proof that they were being 'visited,'" he said.
When it comes to extraterrestrial visitors in the 21st century, the evidence is anecdotal, ambiguous, or, in some cases, artifice, Shostak suggested.
Calling it "argument from ignorance", Shostak pointed to the claim that aliens must have careened out of control above the New Mexico desert simply because some classified government documents sport a bunch of blacked-out text. "How does the latter prove the former?"
Sure, the missing verbiage is consistent with a government cover-up of an alien crash landing, Shostak said. "But it's also consistent with an infinitude of other scenarios...not all of them involving sloppy alien pilots," he added.
Shostak said that it is not impossible that we could be visited. It doesn't violate physics to travel between the stars, although that's not easy to do.
"But really, if you're going to claim-or for that matter, believe-that extraterrestrials are strafing the cities, or occasionally assaulting the neighbors with an aggression inappropriate for a first date, then I urge you to find evidence that leaves little doubt among the professionally skeptical community known as the world of science."
Residue of sightings
Why is there precious little to show that world of science that UFOs merit attention?
"Obviously there is not a simple answer, but part of it is reluctance of the scientific community to support such research," explained Bruce Maccabee, regarded as a meticulous researcher and an optical physicist using those talents to study photographs and video of unexplained phenomena.
Why this reluctance?
"In my humble opinion it is largely a result of 'tradition'...tradition set by the U.S. Air Force in the early years when they publicly stated that everything was under control, they were investigating...and finding nothing that couldn't be explained," Maccabee said.
Nevertheless, Maccabee observed, work on the phenomenon will carry on.
"UFO studies will continue until all the old cases have either been explained or admitted to being unexplainable-meaning a residue of sightings that could be ET related-and/or until people stop seeing unexplainable UFO-like events throughout the world," Maccabee concluded.
- Top 10 Alien Encounters Debunked
- ET Visitors: Scientists See High Likelihood
- UFOs vs. UAVs: How to Tell Friend from Faux
- X Files Opened: NSA's UFO Investigations Unearthed
- Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth
- Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.