If Aliens Are Out There, They’re Way Out There

A cluster of glowing unidentified objects hovers in the sky over Salem, Massachusetts, in 1952.
A cluster of glowing unidentified objects hovers in the sky over Salem, Massachusetts, in 1952.Shell R. Alpert / LOC / Corbis / VCG / Getty

The mysterious flying objects showed up in Washington, D.C., on a hot, humid night in the summer of 1952. The air-traffic controllers at the airport saw them first, and then so did the operators at nearby Air Force bases—seven unexplained blips on their radar screens. A commercial pilot in the vicinity reported seeing bright lights in the darkness. The Air Force dispatched fighter jets but found nothing. A week later, it happened again. More blips. More jets. This time, an Air Force pilot even reported chasing a strange light before it got away. The newspapers were all over these sightings. “Jets Chase D.C. Sky Ghosts.” “Saucers Swarm Over Capital.” “Aerial Whatzits Buzz D.C. Again!”

Decades later, as America heads into another toasty summer, unidentified flying objects are in the headlines again. Many more of us are involved in the story this time, jammed together in the control tower of the internet, watching grainy, black-and-white videos from the U.S. Navy that purport to show something unexplainable and trying to figure out what we’re seeing. But just like in 1952, some people are making the leap from strange, cloud-skimming phenomena to aliens.

The videos aren’t new, but the footage has gained attention in recent weeks because a special Pentagon task force is expected to deliver a report to Congress about UFOs. The task force was created last year to help improve the Defense Department’s understanding of “the nature and origins” of the unidentified aerial phenomena detected by U.S. military aircraft. The report, out next month, is supposed to reveal what intelligence agencies know about these UFOs and what threat the objects pose to national security.

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This is real; the videos are real; UFOs, in the most basic sense, are real. The military has spotted objects flying in the sky, and it has not identified what they are. These objects, whatever you want to call them, are worth close examination. But there’s no reason to think they’re alien.

Why not? Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University, gets this question a lot, especially recently. Wright works in the field of SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His job is to look for signs of alien technology, so it seems logical that he might have some thoughts on UFOs and their rumored extraterrestrial origins. But ufology and SETI are two entirely different fields.

SETI operates on the principle that extraterrestrials follow the laws of physics as we know them, but what makes these UFO videos so enticing is precisely the opposite—whatever is captured in them seems to be moving in a way that appears to defy those exact laws. Guided by known physics, SETI astronomers look for aliens deep in space, rather than in the clouds overhead—because if the truth is out there, it’s way, way out there, around stars many light-years away. Even after decades of research, the SETI community has yet to find evidence of aliens, probably for the same reason that extraterrestrial beings, should they exist, would be unlikely to visit our planet—the space between stars, let alone galaxies, is unfathomably vast. And astronomers are just starting to understand the planets around other stars. “Every star could have an intelligent, technological civilization like Earth and we wouldn’t know it,” Wright told me. He sees no problem with the desire to better understand our airspace and investigate unexplained phenomena, “but why drag astronomers into it?”

Perhaps because the alternatives to aliens are much more boring. The subjects of the most widely shared UFO videos are likely terrestrial in origin. Many mundane objects can masquerade as something otherworldly: experimental aircraft, atmospheric quirks, drones, balloons, even the planet Venus. Camera glitches and distortions can manifest something that isn’t really there. Consider these explanations, and the magic starts to dissipate. The UFOs become a national-security story (could that unrecognizable technology belong to an adversarial nation?). Or a story about Washington connections (a secretive government UFO program relied on a company run by a wealthy UFO believer—who also donated to the U.S. senator who helped establish that program). Or a story about the media (most news reports quote the same cast of UFO lobbyists over and over). Even the forthcoming report is, at its core, a story about bureaucracy; the special task force is meant to standardize the government’s approach to cataloging and making public reports of mysterious encounters. “The implication will be, ‘Oh my God, they were hiding something. I knew it!’ as if that means ‘These things are aliens,’ as opposed to ‘The military is secretive, and now you know it was secretive,’” Wright said.

If we’re honest, most of us would probably choose to relish the mystery of an inexplicable, unknowable technology rather than come back down to Earth. That feeling is obvious in recent news coverage, as Adam Kehoe, a software engineer and freelance writer, points out. In a New Yorker piece, Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote that a discussion with a well-known UFO skeptic “left me feeling vaguely demoralized,” while his conversations with a well-known UFO activist were “greatly pleasurable distractions that tended to absorb entire afternoons.” In an alien-curious piece for The New York Times, the writer Ezra Klein acknowledged that he enjoys “the spaciousness of mystery."

I understand the appeal of the mystery. In 2015, when astronomers announced that a distant star in the Milky Way was flickering strangely, as if something nearby was taking in its light—perhaps a giant contraption built by advanced beings to harness energy?—I remember thinking, This is it! Two years later, when the same astronomers concluded that the “alien megastructure” was probably a clump of cosmic dust, I was secretly disappointed. Last year, another team picked up a radio signal coming from the closest star to the sun. Researchers warned that it was probably terrestrial interference (and it was), but how lovely might a different result have been? Or, given the year we’ve had, how appropriate? At this point, an alien visit might seem like a believable plot line. “Mobs sacked the U.S. Capitol; millions of people died of an airborne disease in the 21st century,” Michael Varnum, a psychology professor at Arizona State University who has studied how people might react to the discovery of alien life, told me. “There might be something about having lived through a bunch of science-fiction events that might make folks a little more open to radical possibilities that they might have discounted before.”

Humanity may indeed uncover compelling evidence for extraterrestrial existence in our lifetime, but it will very possibly come in the form of microbes. Such life might have existed on Mars, where a rover has been dispatched to search for tiny dead beings in the rock, and may exist now beneath the icy surfaces of the moons Europa and Enceladus. Astronomers could even detect promising signs on worlds beyond our solar system, in the mix of chemicals in a cloud of exoplanets so striking that something alive must be responsible for their presence. Those distant atmospheres are better places to look than our own. The findings, in this case, will be less internet-worthy, less titillating—no grainy footage, just a bunch of squiggly lines on a graph. “It’s a little complicated and distant,” says Katie Mack, an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University who, like Wright, has been bombarded with questions about UFOs and aliens. “It doesn’t make us feel special and selected, and doesn’t give us any immediate connection with other beings.”

That evidence, too, will need to meet a higher scientific standard than the military’s footage ever could, and will almost certainly be shared with greater transparency, as science demands. When Edward Ruppelt, an Air Force officer who worked on one of the Pentagon’s earliest efforts to understand sightings of strange objects in the sky, first coined the term UFO 70 years ago, he was already frustrated by the government’s obfuscation. “People want to know the facts,” he wrote in a 1955 report. “But more often than not, these facts have been obscured by secrecy and confusion, a situation that has led to wild speculation on one end of the scale and an almost dangerously blasé attitude on the other.” Deciphering the latest UFO freak-out is complicated enough. To paraphrase Wright, why drag aliens into it?