NASA isn't taking its coming UFO investigation lightly.
The agency announced in June that it will open a scientific study into UFOs (short for "unidentified flying objects"), or, as they've recently been rebranded, UAP ("unidentified aerial phenomena").
The main goals, NASA officials said at the time, will be to identify and characterize the available UFO data, lay out the best ways to collect observations in the future and determine how the agency can use such data to advance our understanding of these puzzling sky sights.
The study will be led by astrophysicist David Spergel, the president of the Simons Foundation in New York City. It's expected to cost no more than $100,000, begin this fall and last about nine months. And NASA is working hard to keep to that schedule, officials said Wednesday (Aug. 17) during a "town hall meeting" that discussed various projects of the agency's Science Mission Directorate (SMD).
"We're going full force" on preparations for the UAP study, Daniel Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research at SMD, said during Wednesday's town hall. "This is really important to us, and we're placing a high priority on it."
The study panel will consist of 15 to 17 people, Evans added. These folks will be "some of the world's leading scientists, data practitioners, artificial intelligence practitioners, aerospace safety experts, all with a specific charge, which is to tell us how to apply the full focus of science and data to UAP," he said.
Evans and his team have identified their top candidates for the panel and planned to run them by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson later on Wednesday, after the town hall. Provided Nelson gave the thumbs up, the wheels have now started turning on the panelists' formal appointments.
"I'm hoping that we'll get this done by October," Evans said of the appointments. "But I will cross my fingers and say that we could be able to get it done sooner than that."
The coming NASA investigation is highly anticipated and will doubtless be eagerly read, and not just by diehard believers in the UFO community. Indeed, agency officials have said that they hope the study helps bring UAP research into the rigorous, objective scientific mainstream.
"NASA really is uniquely positioned to address UAP, because we know how to use the tools of science and data to discern what might be happening out there in the skies," Evans said. "And, to be frank, no other agency is trusted as much by the public as us."
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.