The Science of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena I NOVA Now
Alok Patel: Hey everyone! Who out there is into aliens? Well, this Earthling sittin’ right here certainly is. Which is why in late June, I was totally psyched when the Pentagon released its 9-page report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAP, formerly known as UFOs. And it was invading our news cycle. Reporter: The report provides an assessment of over 140 UFO sightings between 2004 and this year, a number of which involved Navy personnel. Alok Patel: The report comes after the declassification of a few videos showing mysterious sightings. And while it doesn’t mention extraterrestrial links to these events, it says there’s too little information “to allow for detailed trend or pattern analysis.” So we have to ponder… Have explorers from elsewhere in the universe been visiting us? And what can science tell us about what we might be seeing in the sky? This is Nova Now where we probe for answers behind the headlines. Join us! I'm Alok Patel.
Some videos that have circulated in the news and social media show black and white images of what a pilot would see during flight: clouds, water… but then, you see some kind of blobs or tic tacs—cuz they look like the tiny candy—, that seem to make “unusual movement patterns.” Hakeem Oluseyi: If truth is what you are after, you don't have to do belief, you can do confirm. There are rigorous processes for getting there. Alok Patel: Hakeem Oluseyi is an astrophysicist at George Mason University. He’s been Space Science Education Lead for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. I wanted to get his reaction to the release of that UAP assessment. Hakeem Oluseyi: OK, so now we can apply some
rigorous analysis and figure out what's going on. I've completely given up on the extraterrestrial UFO flying around Earth's atmosphere notion. I find that to be ridiculous on a lot of levels. If there is an unknown, if there is a mystery, oh, I love it! There is a problem to be solved, love it! But filling in the blank with my favorite bias or make-believe is not the way I approach things, to fill in the blank with with what I think; it is to allow the data to tell me the story. But, you know, research is in the realm of the unknown. So there's always going to be little deviations.
But if you take one step back, [chuckles] you'll see that, you know, what we call our concordance, you know, all the scientists agree -- that doesn't mean that we all agree on a lie. Alok Patel: When I was looking at the UAP, I sincerely wanted to believe that this was something coming from another planet, another world, finally. And, you know, I'm reading this quote right now, and it says that the conclusion that it was probably a physical object because most of them were, quote, “registered across multiple sensors to include radar, infrared, electro-optical weapon seekers and visual observation.” So when we have that kind of physical data, what makes the UAP so unusual? What those pilots were seeing, does that conform or contradict our understanding of physics? Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah. Our approach to
data is to distrust everything from the outset. Human perception is not reliable. So what we have to do is we have to make reliable, rigorous measurements from the data. And every time you make a measurement, there are uncertainties associated with making those measurements. Understand what I'm trying to figure out here: You have a moving object observed from a
moving object that's carrying a moving camera! Alok Patel: Lots of movement. Hakeem Oluseyi: That's a lot of movement! And you're just looking at its position relative to background stuff. So it's tough to disentangle all of that. And so, you can have one perception of, “Oh, my God, look at that acceleration, the speed!” But once you do a rigorous analysis, you find that it's not as extreme as maybe you thought. And so until we go down those steps, it’s hard to draw conclusions. But there is what is likely and what's not likely. Alok Patel: Of the 144 UAP reports mentioned in the document, only one of the unidentified aerial phenomena was… identified, and it was a large deflating balloon. I’m over here wondering about the other 143.
Hakeem Oluseyi: If I see anything that's human-like at all, I'm like, it's human! Name something else that you know of that's doing what humans do — building craft and flying around. And if you're from another planet, what are the chances that you're doing what humans do? It's very small, I'm guessing. Alok Patel: Yeah. For someone like me, to the untrained eye, it was the combination of wanting to believe and also the fact that these pilots were like, I can't say their exact quote because I’ll get kicked off the podcast. But they were saying, “What the explicit is that?” And then, you know, we need the perspective of scientists like yourself to say, everyone, “Cool your jets.” So in your experience, then,
what are some of the usual bodies that we're used to seeing in the skies and then normal things out there that people may mistake for UAPs because we're just not trained to see that type of pattern, that type of blob, if you will? Hakeem Oluseyi: Right. Venus. Every time I'm associated with an observatory, going back to the ‘90s, when Venus is the evening star, people call the observatory and said, “You see there's light in the sky. It's following us.” And people would be in a darn near panic sometimes, cuz they'll call from their car. And so if something is sufficiently far away, no matter where you go, you're going to see it. [laughs] And it happens year after year after year. Venus is the UFO. Alok Patel: But, you know, you check out the
unclassified intelligence document, what I find interesting is that the remaining unexplained are put in these five categories, including airborne clutter— birds, balloons, things, natural atmospheric phenomena like ice crystals; or USG or industry developmental programs which are classified, which is, you know, I can see conspiracy theories saying that; foreign adversary systems like some Chinese or Russian something, or “other” bin. Now, I find it kind of implausible to think that there could be so many different possibilities for this when we should be able to just look at it and say “that's what it is.” Hakeem Oluseyi: You would think, right, with all the cameras around and you know, but all we get is Tic Tacs and blobs. Right? [laughs] It's about being skeptical. You know, when we write scientific papers, you need to be able to reproduce my experiment. You need to have access to the same data. So the data that you're getting is not your data. You're getting it from somebody else. But someone
has to do an independent analysis. And it has to be rigorous. For me, it remains an unknown. Don't be so damn trusting and don't fill in the blank! Alok Patel: But scientists can be skeptical of these UAPs and still consider the possibility of there being life elsewhere in the Universe. Hakeem Oluseyi: Do I think it's probable and likely? I do. Absolutely. And the biggest piece of evidence is how quickly we find evidence for life in Earth's fossil record. There is irrefutable evidence going back 3.8 billion years. So, as early as we can look in the fossil record for life, we find it here on Earth. And it is the only planet we’ve studied closely.
So that says to me that this process gets started really quickly when the conditions are right. Now really quickly, includes hundreds of millions of years. So, you know, that's a different timescale of quickly. If we use Earth as a guide to finding life on other worlds, we're going
to come up with ideas like the habitable zone. The habitable zone is the orbital region around a star in which an Earth-like planet can have liquid water on its surface —because the temperature is juuuust right—and possibly support life. Hakeem Oluseyi: [laughs] Right. Which is restrictive for where life could possibly be. Alok Patel: And when we see other planets or I see a headline about Proxima B, and they're like, Hey, that is an Earth-like planet. And it is close enough to this star to possibly have the condition to bring life. And that is based on everything we have learned on our planet about how life may have originated. And so,
what I'm gathering you're saying is that when we talk about life in the universe, that's based on assumptions that we've made here about how life starts. And so that's why you say it's restrictive. Am I correct in saying that? Hakeem Oluseyi: Well, almost. You just keyed in on the key distinction, and that is the difference between how life exists today on Earth versus how life starts. Today, we have a web of life that depends ultimately on sunlight and animals that use oxygen chemistry for metabolism. But what the astrobiologists and biologists have realized is that when life got started, it was in the absence of oxygen. Oxygen was poisonous to this
early life. So now, you don't need a habitable zone to get life started. All you need is liquids, the right thermodynamics, and the right stuff available. And so that can be under the ice of Enceladus, Europa on Titan's lakes. Alok Patel: Enceladus and Europa are icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, respectively. And Titan is another one of Saturn’s moons with
pools of liquid methane on its surface. Hakeem Oluseyi: Who knows, right? So that's the idea there, right, is that life gets started in the absence of oxygen, completely the opposite of what life looks like today on Earth. Alok Patel: So that makes sense to me. And that makes me even more convinced of my theories that there has to be extraterrestrial life somewhere. Hakeem Oluseyi: Oh, absolutely. Now there's life and there's life, OK. So if you look at Earth,
it's not until you get to the Ediacaran period right before the Cambrian explosion that you start seeing, you know, large multicellular life and some diversification of life. Alok Patel: The Ediacaran Period spans 635 million years ago to 541 million years ago, a time period when the planet transitioned from microscopic organisms to a Cambrian world swarming with animals. Hakeem Oluseyi: So really, you're talking about almost four billion years of setting the stage for multicellular life. So what this says to me
about probabilities, about life in the universe is that chances are it's everywhere there's liquids. Now, when you have the rare situation that your life is able to find more energetic pathways like life here on Earth did, it learned to perform photosynthesis and it learned to utilize oxygen, then that's one energetic pathway that led to us. You know, perhaps there are others. If you find those pathways, that is where a habitable zone really stands out cuz sunlight is energy and it's all about energy. You know, think about it this way: If you live on Venus, you don't know that stars exist because the atmosphere is just so damn thick. So having a surface that's bathed in sunlight, that's bathed in starlight, that's intense enough to support life is not something that you can guarantee, that's going to be rare. Even if you are the right distance, your
atmosphere isn’t necessarily going to be right. And that's what we see with Venus, Earth and Mars, right? Only Earth turned out to be Earth. Alok Patel: This is trippy. I feel so fortunate to be an organism right now. [laughs] Hakeem Oluseyi: Ah, you should be. You’re concentrated energy, man. That's what I see life as these days. Just concentrated energy. Alok Patel: Figuratively and literally. Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah.
Alok Patel: You know, I understand you're saying when 300 million years is probably quick relative to what we know about universe processes. But in terms of probability, if there was intelligent extraterrestrial life out there, in your opinion, it's not probable that they would be in a humanoid flying object. Like, if we saw a UAP It's not probable that that life somewhere out there also has a similar understanding of physics and with the same type of jet propulsion technology or whatever to create a UFO. Hakeem Oluseyi: Well, think about it! We always assume that aliens are going to be way more advanced than we are at this point. I'm thinking maybe we are the advanced aliens. Alok Patel: Team human.
Hakeem Oluseyi: Yeah, I don't consider humans to be the only intelligent species on Earth, personally. Once you know you're you, you're intelligent, right? [laughs] But now going from intelligence to technological advance technology, that's another major leap of all the species we've had on Earth. We're the only ones who've done that. We've had species use simple technology. But doing what we've done – Oh,
that is something I think is incredibly rare. Alok Patel: I'm so proud to be a human, but also enlightened right now cuz I’ve never thought of it that way because, you know, as you're mentioning this, I brought up Proxima B earlier, and people see that they're like, “Oh, it's Earth like!” It's still four point what, four point three light years away which means whatever intelligent life would have to be able to do something that we cannot do. Richard Branson is not going a light year anytime soon. No one is pulling this off. Hakeem Oluseyi: No. When you look at it from like a universal perspective, all of our space travel is damn near a joke, right? Because space is vast. How far are we going? You know, that's like takin’ one step in your living room, it’s like, “I've explored America!” You know? [laughs] For me, the question is, does life exist in the universe? Does intelligent life exist in the universe? Does technological life exist in a universe? Yes, it does. I've observed it, here on Earth. So, yes, it does exist in the universe,
which means that it will exist elsewhere in the universe. The statement is there are levels to this. [chuckles] And if you look at the four and a half billion year history of Earth, you can see the levels. ‘Cuz for the first four billion years, there were no bears pooping in the woods, right. So there's a lot of coincidences that go into becoming us. Alok Patel: Ever since the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Space travel has redefined what humankind thought was possible. But how far can we really go? After the break,
we talk to someone who takes our technological intelligence to its interstellar limit. Adam Steltzner: If we find life on Mars, it will be like the algae, it won't have binoculars and self-awareness. If the life on Mars is advanced enough to perceive things like motion, we would definitely look like a UFO. Because we come rippin’ in using a set of technologies that haven’t yet to show up to the surface of Mars. It would
look like a dream or a ghost or a something! Alok Patel: Steltzner also led the team that developed the sky crane landing system for the Curiosity Rover which landed on Mars in 2012, but way before that... Adam Steltzner: Oh, and before that, I was a wanna-be rock and roller Alok Patel: Back in 1984, 21-year-old Adam was playing bass for a rock band in the Bay Area. Heading to a gig one night... Adam Steltzner: There was a big,
beautiful constellation over the east. Alok Patel: But on his way back, he had a cosmic revelation. Adam Steltzner: And as I was driving home after the show, it was over the west and I was like, “Whoa! The stars are moving.” Alok Patel: Steltzner was looking at the constellation of Orion. Which made him curious about the stars, so he signed up for courses in astronomy and physics at the local community college. Adam Steltzner: I was totally blown away by the idea that there are some simple laws that govern the way our universe works. Then I just got into
physics and the application—the creative application of physics, which is the art of engineering. One of the beautiful things about science. It's an endeavor to discover the truth. It's an endeavor to understand our universe and so very, very woven into that act is appreciating the partial nature of our understanding of the universe. We know that we don't know all the laws of physics. There are whole zones of our universe that we can't quite understand and explicitly describe today. Alok Patel: He says there is science to support the possibility of life beyond Earth. Adam Steltzner: Through the Kepler mission and
our observations of the solar system and our galaxy, we've come to realize that many, many more stars than we thought have planets around them. And many, many of those planets are in an area where liquid water would be capable of existing. And our tendency would be that those could be places where life, as we understand it here on Earth, could flourish. There's a great equation called the Drake Equation, and it basically goes like: You take the number of stars and you multiply it by the probability that there's a planet around a star and then by the probability that there's life formed in that planet. And as long as you put anything close to a good estimate for the number of stars, you end up with certainty that there must be life out there because there are hundreds of trillions of stars. Alok Patel: And yet... Adam Steltzner: Why haven't we heard from them?
Why, hello? You know, time. We've only been talking and emitting electromagnetic radiation that would tell the universe that we're here for maybe 100 years, 50 years. And so, that has to go some distance before it gets there and comes back. So, if there aren’t some laws of physics to be learned that change our understanding, you know, we won't be talking to folks much out there in the universe because it takes thousands of years for the message to get there. Alok Patel: When the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released that document about the unidentified aerial phenomenon, or as a lot of us saw it, a UFO over American airspace, what was your gut reaction? What was the first thing you thought when you saw and heard that report? Adam Steltzner: Well, some of the things are very hard to explain, especially when there's multiple sightings, especially when there's multiple methods of detection like pilots are seeing them, and they're being picked up by radar and tracked by some of the devices on these aircraft. But still skeptical. I mean, still skeptical that some intelligent entity capable of the biggest, hardest deal is crossing the distance from wherever they are to to here would be so foolish as to let us see them if they didn't want to be seen. Alok Patel: So you as an expert of, as you worded it, of Identified Flying Objects, what is it about the motion of some of these that makes them so fascinating? Is there something particular that they do or don't do? Adam Steltzner: Oh, certainly. Look,
I’m laying down a big caveat, right. So, we've all been driving our car and looked at an airplane that seemed to be floating in the air and not moving. It's just sitting there in the sky. Well, that's because your perception of how far it is from you puts it in a place where it looks like it's not moving, but it really is in fact moving. Now, that said, some of these observations seem to not be that kind of a thing. Alok Patel: Steltzner says it's telling that the report didn’t dismiss these observations as a fluke of human perception.
Adam Steltzner: The motions seem to be associated with forces that would, if they were here on Earth, move air around or need to have wings or need to have rocket plumes or need to have some other of the tools that we use to provide forces in such a way. And we see none of the telltale signs that we would expect from ways that we would apply such forces or generate such power and energy. Alok Patel: What about that is going against our understanding of law of physics? Is there something about this— what exactly is puzzling about it? Adam Steltzner: Well, it’s mostly what the pilots are discussing. Pilot: Look at that thing, it’s rotating. Wow, got it, woo-hoo! Adam Steltzner: And they are amazed at the capacity of this apparent object to move against the very strong winds and move as it is. The vehicle's radar or targeting system does pick up this object
and it's moving above the water. And so we know it can't be too far away. We have a targeting system that has just picked up an object. To do that, it needed to know where that object was in distance from it, too. And we have data about how far the thing is away. So, I don't think that they all
are dismissible from a perception perspective. Adam Steltzner: Richard Branson just flew to the edge of space off of New Mexico a couple of days ago. Somebody has a license with the FAA to conduct an experiment... or fly certain fast in a certain area, and that's not generally known to everybody. And somebody else sees their rocket ship go ripping by, and they say, “What the heck?”
We develop here in this country, missiles that go very, very fast, hypersonic, right? They go faster than Mach3, Mach4. You know, if you happen to see one of those from us, from our nation, or from some other nation being tested, you would be very surprised. And if you didn't know that that was going on and you're a pilot, you'd be freaking out. Alok Patel: Are there any specific experimental aircraft that you think people could see up there and it wouldn't move in a way the average person would understand? [9.5s] Adam Steltzner: The US make a couple of fighter planes that use thrust vectoring -- that means out of the back end of the engine, the nozzles can move. Now the F-22 is a supersonic fighter aircraft. We've been
making them for maybe 20 years? It will do all sorts of things that totally defy your intuition. It's a pointy, fast looking thing, and it's sitting up on its tail and then it moves forward and starts flying. [00:31:52] The aerodynamic surfaces would essentially be stalling. It defies your intuition, your physical understanding of how aircraft work, mostly because you've looked at a lot of aircraft in your lives—all of us have—none of which had thrust vector control. [20.1s] Alok Patel: If the government were working on other wild aircraft that could do unexpected things in the sky, would they tell us? Not necessarily. In the 1950s, they secretly tested U2 spy planes in Nevada,
leading to years of supposed UFO sightings. Adam Steltzner: Absolutely. If the federal government were doing something special, there might be all sorts of people, certainly citizens and maybe even other folks in the government that don't know about it. Alok Patel: Another category in the report is “other.”
Adam Steltzner: Well in that bin of "other", this is where the classic UFO, the classic flying saucer, would find itself in that taxonomy. I personally don't spend too much time because if it's a flying saucer from another planet, well, I'm not going to worry about it. Because the fact that they got here, they're so far ahead of us that if they want to come and eat our brains or enslave us, our brains will be eaten and we will be enslaved. They've got a huge upper hand. If there are creatures that live in other parts of the universe, which I do definitely believe the mathematics tells us there are. So these are vast distances. If human beings using the technology
that we-- all the physics we understand today -- were to try and go from here to the nearest star, it would take generations of human beings living in a spacecraft successfully. Think about how the long the longest, most stable nation has existed on the surface of Earth and a group of humans would have to be more stable and exist for a longer period of time in a spacecraft to make it to the next star. And so, if another species has figured out how to cross that distance in an appreciably shorter time, they've got crazy technology. There’s a set of laws of the universe, a set of behaviors of the physical universe that we have yet to understand, and that maybe when we unlock that, which might be tomorrow, it might be in one hundred years, we may never get there, that we might find a universe filled with a chorus of conversations between other intelligent species that are happening. My sense is that if these ever were or ever are other entities from another place, they're leveraging a set of laws of physics that we have not discovered yet. Alok Patel:
NOVA Now is a production of GBH and PRX. It’s produced by Terence Bernardo, Ari Daniel, Jocelyn Gonzales, Isabel Hibbard, Sandra Lopez-Monsalve and Rosalind Tordesillas. Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt are the co-Executive Producers of NOVA. Sukee Bennett is Senior Digital Editor. Christina Monnen is Associate Researcher. Robin Kazmier is Science Editor. And Devin Robins is Managing Producer of Podcasts at GBH. Our theme music is by the DJ with otherworldly, astronomical turntable talent, DJ Kid Koala.
I’m Alok Patel. We’ll be back in two weeks which is enough time for you to try and find a UAP and decide if it’s a foreign government spy plane, a cloud formation, a missile test, venus, a massive balloon, ice crystals, a secret US military experiment or… maybe just maybe, it’s an alien spaceship from an extraterrestrial world coming to say what’s up.