World UFO Day

Happy World UFO Day! Today is an opportunity for people to gather together and watch the skies for unidentified flying objects or ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ as they are now more commonly called. So what is the history of UFOs and the likelihood that these phenomena are actually evidence of extraterrestrial life?

Allegedly there have been sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena since ancient times, although the number and nature of reports have significantly increased since the second world war. The so-called ‘Modern UFO era’ was established with a sighting near Mount Rainier in 1947 that popularised the name ‘flying saucers’ and began an obsession with flying saucers that lasted a decade. The term ‘Unidentified Flying Objects’ was adopted to better describe more common later sightings of different shapes such as cigars and triangles.

October 1957 issue of Amazing Stories magazine devoted to flying saucers. [Image Description: Front cover of the magazine with a painting of flying saucers flying over a damaged passenger plane. Headlines include ‘Is the government hiding saucer facts?’ and ‘The aliens are among us!’.] Source: Wikipedia

Although there was an obsession with flying saucers in the 1940s and 50s, saucer shaped aircraft or spacecraft had been included in popular press artwork since at least 1911, making it highly likely that strange phenomena in the sky would be perceived to be saucer shaped. A number of government programs have been initiated since 1947 to investigate UFOs until the present day, perhaps the most famous being Project Blue Book (1952-1970), and the most recent being the ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force’. Most UFO sightings have since been debunked as natural phenomena, such as clouds and mirages, and a smaller number attributed to balloons, aircraft or astronomical objects. Many flying saucer sightings in particular have been proved to be hoaxes.

It is unsurprising that the Nevada Test and Training Range, better known as Area 51, has been a locus for UFO sightings as the secret test base for both highly unusual military aircraft and covertly acquired foreign aircraft. The most famous of these are the Lockheed SR_71 Blackbird and the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk ‘Stealth Fighter’ aircraft. It is unsurprising that advanced military aircraft could be perceived to be UFOs. Their appearance is quite alien and their existence was often denied. The United States is not the only air force developing such unusual aircraft technologies, for example, China’s Xian H-20 stealth bomber and Russia’s Tupolev PAK DA are just as alien looking and some unidentified aerial phenomena sightings around the world are likely to be aircraft or space technology that we currently do not know about.

Alien-like aircraft [ Image description: Composite image of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane; the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter; and the Northrop Grumman stealth bombers the B2-Spirit and it’s replacement the B-21 Raider] Source: Wikipedia

The air is now full of different aircraft and the proliferation of drones and satellites make it even more likely now that we will spot some kind of actual flying object rather than a natural phenomena when we look to the skies. According to the National U.F.O Reporting Centre, UFO sightings surged across the United States in 2020. The surge is believed to be partly due to lockdown providing more time for people to look up at the sky and also SpaceX and OneWeb encouraging more interest in space. About a third of sightings last year have been attributed to the Space-X Star Link satellites. Certainly the interest in UFOs has not diminished over time, despite the fact that the vast majority of sightings are easy to explain. Although most sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena can be explained by known technologies or natural phenomena, not all sightings are so easy to identify as suggested by last week’s report from the Pentagon on unidentified aerial phenomena. The inability to identify such sightings may be due to their extraterrestrial origin, or perhaps more likely due to a lack of data to go along with verbal reports or a reluctance of intelligence agencies to admit what they do and do not know about their own or foreign technological developments. History suggests that in a decade or two, most of these strange observations will have an earthly explanation.

There are compelling arguments to suggest that we are not the only life in the Universe. In fact, life may be quite common. If we are going to spot evidence of alien life it is much more likely to be in space than within our own atmosphere. Despite listening for extraterrestrial space signals since the 1960s we have yet to pick up anything convincing and until recently we have had limited abilities to spot any kind of potential alien objects in space. This is unsurprising, as even our own galaxy is vast and travel between stars is likely to take millenia, even at the speed of light. The first interstellar space object discovered, named Oumuamua, was spotted entering the Solar System in 2017 by one of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation telescopes. Oumuamua is believed to have been wandering through the Milky Way, unattached to any particular star system. It is very unusual with a highly elongated shape and rapidly rotating end to end. It appears somewhat like an asteroid with no gas or dust, but was found to behave more like a comet, accelerating out of the Solar System. So unusual is Oumuamua that some scientists have suggested it could be evidence of alien technology.  A paper in 2018 published suggests Oumuamua could in fact be a ‘light sail’ or alien probe, although a more recent paper dismisses this and states that the observations are consistent with a natural origin. A second interstellar object discovered in 2019, a comet called ‘Borisov’, looks much more ordinary though, adding more intrigue to the strange Oumuamua. As our technology improves, the chances of spotting more of these interstellar objects, and perhaps any long-distance visitors becomes more likely. 

An artist’s impression of Oumuamua [Image description: A large rocky oblong object in space with stars in the background] Source: NASA

There are aerial phenomena out there that can be explained and some that, as yet, can not. So keep watching the skies – if there is other life in the universe, then the truth must be out there!

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Cerys Willoughby
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