That’s something NASA has decided to officially look into, despite concerns of a risk to its reputation. The government agency is assembling a team to study unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, that is expected to take nine months. In May, Congress held its first hearing on them in more than 50 years, after an interim report released by intelligence officials last year counted 144 sightings of aircraft or other devices apparently flying at mysterious speeds or trajectories.
NASA’s study is set to begin this fall, and will focus on identifying available data that includes things like video and eyewitness reports from the government, civilians, nonprofits and companies. The space agency said it wants to see how much information is publicly available on the matter, and how much more is needed to understand these unexplained sightings.
NASA says it will then move the scientific understanding of this unknown phenomenon forward. The team’s work will be independent from the work the U.S. Department of Defense is already doing.
UFOs aren’t necessarily a sign of alien life forms, however. They could be something terrestrial, like a weather balloon.
NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, acknowledged the traditional scientific community may think NASA is “selling out” by looking into such a controversial topic, though he disagrees.
“We are not shying away from reputational risk,” Zurbuchen said during a National Academy of Sciences webcast. “Our strong belief is that the biggest challenge of these phenomena is that it’s a data-poor field.”
Led by astrophysicist David Spergel, the study will last nine months and cost no more than $100,000. No classified military data will be used, so it will be entirely open.
Spergel, in a press conference, said the only preconceived notion scientists have going into the study is that the UFOs will likely have multiple explanations.
“We have to approach all these questions with a sense of humility,” Spergel said. “I spent most of my career as a cosmologist. I can tell you we don’t know what makes up 95% of the universe. So there are things we don’t understand.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.