This week, Congress held a public hearing on a topic that hasn’t been discussed openly in a congressional hearing in decades: unidentified flying objects.
Yes, UFOs, or as the Pentagon is calling them, unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.
The hearing follows a report from the director of national intelligence released in June that said there were over 140 recorded sightings of UAPs that the military, like the name implies, could not identify.
Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, has been following these developments. Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams about the hearing.
Chris Impey: I was pleased because congressional hearings can, you know, be sort of a little circus like. There were mostly sensible questions, and the two Pentagon officials, you know, I think they did their best to answer them. But I got a feeling that the congressional people in the room were disappointed and maybe a little frustrated at the lack of any clear-cut answers to what they think, to be fair, are important questions revolving around national security.
Kimberly Adams: What was your reaction to the report on UAPs, unidentified aerial phenomena, when the government released it last year?
Impey: Well, it was fairly disappointing. You might even call it a nothing burger. Because, you know, they did a lot of investigation, they had 144 instances of these phenomena. And they really could only unequivocally explain one of them, which was a deflating weather balloon. And that deflation is sort of the feeling you had reading the nine-page report, because they really didn’t, they didn’t rule things out unequivocally. And they didn’t rule things in unequivocally. So it just left you with a lot of uncertainty. And then at the end, they did what scientists say when they finished a project: They say more data is needed.
Adams: The report mentioned that a lack of high-quality data was why they were unable to identify so many of these UAPs and other flying objects. Why is there this lack of data to begin with?
Impey: Well, you know, most of these are sightings from Navy aircraft. And Navy aircraft, you know, have a lot of high technology and sensors on board. But they’re designed for very specific purposes. And really, the sightings are often only a few seconds long. And also to get good data, you need more than just an imaging device. You need radar. You need some way to measure the distance. And that’s one of the ambiguities of all these reports. They just don’t have enough data on any one instance to tie down what it is or even how big it is or how fast it’s going.
Adams: What changes would need to happen to get better data for these sorts of incidents?
Impey: Well, they talked about two issues. One is just the reporting issue. So it’s pretty clear that partly because of this stigma attached to UFOs, the military are convinced that this phenomena is being underreported, because pilots are skittish or squeamish about, you know, talking about something they don’t understand or might be a UFO. So I think at the top level, the Pentagon is trying to remove that stigma and make sure pilots report what they actually see and pay attention to these things and look for them. At the level of data, they actually did outline some processes or paths by which they might install new types of sensors in the fighter planes and try and gather different sorts of data or better data. But that’s going to take a while. That’s not going to happen right away.
Adams: There is this potential national security threat here. How are they talking about the risk posed by these objects?
Impey: Well, one of the two officials pretty clearly stated that he didn’t think any foreign adversary could manage these technologies or these behaviors of aerial vehicles. Now, it’s a pretty strong statement. And I think there was skepticism amongst some of the people in the congressional panel that we’re really sure enough that foreign adversaries couldn’t do this. So I think that door is still a little open.
Adams: There is this stigma around the idea of UFOs and UAPs. What does that do to the science around this topic?
Impey: I think it sort of distracts from the science because astronomers are really wanting to home in on the question of whether there’s life in the universe and whether there’s advanced intelligent life that might have technology that would let them travel through space. And there are ways to do that scientifically. UFOs and the conspiracy theories attached to them sort of almost become a distraction because they’re not really helping us answer that question.
Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams
Impey referenced one Pentagon official’s testimony at the hearing about how he didn’t think any foreign adversary was capable of having or creating the technology behind these UAPs.
That official was Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, responding to a question from Rep. Adam Schiff of California about objects moving without any “any discernible means of propulsion.”
And Bray said he didn’t know of any adversary with technology like that.
Just in case you were curious, Impey’s main job isn’t studying UFOs or UAPs. His primary focus is astronomy, and he studies observational cosmology, galaxies and black holes.
Some of his colleagues at the University of Arizona were part of an international team of scientists dubbed the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration that confirmed the supermassive black hole, Sagittarus A, in the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy.
That team released images of it last week as well as a “sonification” of that image — a sound translation that lets you “hear” the differences in brightness.
How cool is that?
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