NASA’s announcement last week that it was putting together a team to study unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has been greeted, in some quarters, with an ‘I told you so’. The US space agency is assembling a group to study unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), that it has defined as occurrences in the sky that can’t be linked to an aircraft or recognised natural phenomena. A week after this announcement, a self-proclaimed UFO expert claimed to have spotted the likeness of an unusual, elephant-like creature between the rock formations on Mars.
There is a small but determined body of people – ranging from nutters and conspiracy theorists to those who believe in the existence of strange and unexplained phenomena in our skies – who are convinced that these ‘flying objects’ challenge our basic scientific assumptions. Non-profit research organisations like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI Institute, incorporated in 1984, have also made it their mission to explain the origin and nature of life in the universe. But does the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s move lend any credence to the idea of the existence of spaceships, of aliens, and the other accoutrements of science fiction?
The short answer is no, it does not. And the explanation lies in the very expression UFO– where unidentified in scientific terms is best understood as unexplained. It is true that there are a large number of reports of strange and unusual sightings that have been unexplained. At the same time, we also know that many reports of these sightings have been explained in scientific terms. There are cases where balloons have been mistaken as UFOs, where unusual cloud formations have been believed to be flying saucers, and where airplanes, missiles and military experiments have led people to claim they have seen otherworldly phenomena.
However, the continued presence of unexplained sightings has been a challenge, some of these coming from people who are of avowedly scientific bent, including pilots and armed forces personnel. NASA’s announcement may have triggered considerable interest, but the US has been investigating this area for many years now. A newspaper investigation revealed that the Pentagon had funded a programme that sought to explain the sightings of ‘aircraft’ that seemed to have no propulsion mechanism.
The speculation about full-fledged aliens, the stuff of sci-fi, needs to be segregated from another issue it is often conflated with – life on other planets. We know that water is the source of all life (as we know it) and we know that there is water on Mars, which could have been host to microbial life millions of years ago. In short, a proper scientific approach requires keeping an open mind to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and possibly in forms very different from ours. At the same time, science proceeds only on the basis of information that can be verified, or at the very least capable of falsification, to use the expression popularised by philosopher Karl Popper.
The leap from the possibility of extraterrestrial life to human-like aliens being ferried about in propulsion-less spaceships is a huge and unjustified one. It is important to stress that we do not know what we really do not know. It is just as important to acknowledge that we will always be mystified and interested in what we regard, at the moment, as unexplainable.