Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New NASA report lays out roadmap for studying UFOs

Saucer-like lenticular clouds appear over Turkiye's Bursa province in the early morning hours of January 19, 2023.
Anadolu Agency
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Saucer-like lenticular clouds appear over Turkiye's Bursa province in the early morning hours of January 19, 2023.

Updated September 14, 2023 at 6:21 PM ET

NASA should play a "prominent role" in the federal government's ongoing study of unidentified flying objects, aka UFOs.

That's the advice from a panel of outside advisors that urged NASA to use its scientific expertise, as well as its existing and planned instruments that observe space and the Earth, to better gather data related to what's now often called "unidentified anomalous phenomena," or UAP.

"We want to shift the conversation about UAPs from sensationalism to science," says NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a former senator from Florida who once flew in the space shuttle Columbia.

While emphasizing that "the NASA independent study team did not find any evidence that UAP have an extraterrestrial origin," Nelson noted that "we don't know what these UAP are. The mission of NASA is to find out the unknown."

NASA has actively looked for potential signs of life on other planets and moons in the solar system and beyond, but it hasn't traditionally spent much time thinking about "little green men" closer to home.

The new report offers a roadmap for how NASA could contribute to this area of research, and officials embraced the idea, announcing that the agency had created a new position, a director for UAP research, to help guide and coordinate NASA's efforts.

Initially, NASA declined to name the person appointed to that position. Dan Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA's science mission directorate, said their unwillingness to reveal the name was partly to protect that person from being hassled by people with strong feelings about UFOs.

"Some of the threats and the harassment have been beyond the pale, quite frankly, towards some of our panelists," says Evans. "That's in part why we are not splashing the name of our new director out there."

Later in the day, however, NASA did release the name of the employee who is taking on the new research director role. It's Mark McInerney, who the agency says has previously served as its liaison to the Department of Defense for limited activities related to UAP.

While unearthly-seeming sightings in the sky aren't uncommon, the report says that the "vast majority" can be attributed to mundane airborne objects like airplanes, drones, and weather balloons.

Still, not all can be easily explained, and the NASA advisors say that any sightings that appear to deviate from known technology's constraints on velocities and accelerations "are scientifically interesting."

The Department of Defense now has a special office to look into mysterious sightings, and UFOs have gotten recent attention in Congress. Earlier this year, for example, a former government worker made headlines when he told lawmakers that officials had recovered alien "biologics" from crash sites, but a Pentagon spokesperson said such claims could not be substantiated.

In the past, NASA has emphasized that the space agency "has not found any credible evidence of extraterrestrial life," and it has no evidence that any UFO sightings are extraterrestrial.

The 16 researchers and other advisors who drafted recommendations to NASA weren't asked to weigh in on the nature of previous unidentifiable observations, but rather to tell the agency what kind of data was currently available or could be collected for objective study.

For example, the new report notes that while NASA's Earth-observing satellites can't detect small objects, they could help establish whether certain environmental conditions tend to coincide with strange sightings.

Already-planned large-sky surveys by telescopes such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could look for unusual objects beyond the Earth's atmosphere, the report says. And programs to look for near-Earth objects, such as potentially dangerous asteroids, collect a lot of information about phenomena close to the Earth's atmosphere.

The report did identify some data gaps, such as the lack of a standardized system that would allow civilian pilots to make reports of unusual sightings. Currently, civilians get advised to contact local law enforcement or other organizations. "As a result, the collection of data is sparse, unsystematic, and lacks any curation or vetting protocols," the report notes, adding that NASA could offer guidance to other government agencies on the best ways to collect such data.

Also, smartphone-based apps might offer a way to crowdsource observations from the public, the panel noted, saying that NASA should explore the viability of this kind of public engagement and data collection.

"The language of scientists is data," notes Nicola Fox, the associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate, who called UAP "one of our planet's greatest mysteries."

Finally, the advisors say that NASA has an established record of openness and public trust that could benefit the study of UFOs, and the agency could help destigmatize the reporting of these sightings so that they can be studied more robustly.

"We're going to be open about this," vowed Nelson, stressing that the agency makes its activities and data transparent.

David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation and chair of NASA's UAP independent study team, says it's important for scientists to fully understand "normal" conditions and objects in the sky, so they can tell when something is truly odd, and having a solid foundation based on data is essential.

"Most events are going to turn out to be conventional things, balloons, airplanes, and so on," says Spergel.

He compared the search for something truly unusual to looking for a needle in a haystack —without knowing what the "needle" will look like.

"If you want to find something strange in a haystack," says Spergel, "you'd better know exactly what hay looks like."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.