By Professor Graeme Wilkinson
The recently published US government report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), or Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) as they are more commonly known, has highlighted that over a sixteen-year period there were 144 incidents involving sightings or detections of unknown objects by the US military. Eighty of these were detected using multiple systems such as radar, infrared or visual systems. The big question of course is what are they? As the report points out, explanations could include airborne clutter (such as balloons, recreational drones etc) natural atmospheric phenomena, government or industry developmental machines, devices launched by a foreign adversary, or something else which might include objects of extraterrestrial origin. The report makes it clear that the explanation for the 144 incidents is unknown and that further investigation is required.
To the layperson, what might interest us the most is whether any of these incidents involved objects in the last category which might be from outer space, particularly ones that appear to have been flying and maneuvering far faster than any known man-made machine. For decades, there have been claims of sightings of UFOs believed to be alien spaceships. But these have mostly been explained by people mistaking aircraft or meteorological or other physical phenomena, or even by individuals deliberately faking evidence.
But when the US government says there are still unexplained phenomena that need further investigation maybe we need to take it more seriously. I would be both excited and also uneasy to learn that alien spaceships had visited Earth, but I remain highly skeptical about this. What is notable is that most sightings have been in relatively unpopulated places and the recent report relates to incidents that interrupted training or other military activity.
If an alien civilization is so interested in planet Earth, why are its spaceships not flying over major cities, or gliding between the Petronas Twin Towers where they might be videoed by thousands of people? If they want to know what humankind is up to then they would need to observe our cities. We might deduce that they are a little shy and don’t want to be seen too much. But why have they been shy for so long? Perhaps they don’t want to alarm us and are thinking about our potential anxiety. But would an alien civilization really do that? Did early explorers from the seafaring nations worry about the anxieties of indigenous peoples when
encountering them in historical times? Almost certainly not, and the indigenous peoples lost out to the increasing flow of adventurers and settlers who took over their lands. But even if extraterrestrials were benign, I am sure we would see more of them. Because of this I tend to think these UAPs are not actually visiting spaceships. I am convinced they are caused by some explicable phenomena that we have not yet understood.
One famous video sequence released in 2017 showed what appeared to be a flashing triangular object in the sky. But the frequency of the flashing is very similar to that of a regular aircraft’s identification lights, and it has been pointed out that some camera systems have triangular shutters. So, this strange object was probably just an out-of-focus aeroplane.
As a scientist, I want to see hard irrefutable evidence before believing that alien spaceships have visited Earth and, so far, that evidence has not been very convincing to me. It is easy to jump to exotic out-of-this-world explanations or even to conjure up conspiracy theories. But as an educator, I firmly believe any conclusions should always be borne of solid evidence not fantastical ideas. In the era of fake news, it’s so important to stick to hard facts. I remain confident that UAPs are not alien spaceships —not because of what has been seen but because too little has been seen if they have been visiting and taking an interest in what is happening on planet Earth. I believe there are genuine terrestrial explanations and that further investigations will come to reveal what they are in due course. But thinking about visitations from outer space perhaps helps us to contemplate our place in the Universe and how fragile and vulnerable our planet actually is. If that gives rise to philosophical debate and a greater concern for the future of humanity then that in itself is a good outcome.
So, for now, I personally continue to sleep peacefully at night, not worrying about an imminent alien invasion from space. I worry more about the sustainability of our planet, which is something we must all take very seriously indeed.
Professor Graeme Wilkinson is the Vice-Chancellor of Sunway University. He is a space applications scientist and holds a doctorate in atmospheric physics from Oxford University .