For the first time in more than half a century, the U.S. Congress held a hearing last month on unidentified flying objects—or as the American government now officially refers to them, “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Members of the House of Representatives discussed these mysterious occurrences as potential threats to national security, amounting to a serious, real-world issue that must be addressed with more transparency and without the longstanding cultural stigma associated with science-fiction portrayals of UFOs as alien spacecraft. Members of Congress speaking and Pentagon officials at the hearing emphasized that this stigma has deterred military pilots from speaking up about unidentified objects they came across over the years—though the military has been working to encourage reporting in its ongoing, and increasingly public, efforts to explain these sightings. Since the early 2000s, according to Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray, the U.S. has seen “an increasing number of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft or objects” in military training areas and other designated air space. Bray was testifying at the hearing nearly a year after the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence released a landmark report on UFOs. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Congress, the military, and the intelligence community aren’t the only elements of the U.S. government paying attention to the subject. Earlier this month, NASA announced it would begin its own independent study of “observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena—from a scientific perspective.” What’s behind these new investigations, and where are they leading?

Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which is dedicated to the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” in the universe. According to Shostak, Congress’ renewed interest in UFOs followed public revelations in 2017 about Pentagon research into the subject and mysterious U.S. Navy videos of apparent objects in the skies. Shostak says American military and intelligence authorities are now trying to make investigating and communicating about these objects a higher priority–responding to increased public curiosity and new directions from Washington—though officials’ recent public statements demonstrate how many questions about UFOs remain unanswered. Shostak sees no evidence supporting theories of their connection to extraterrestrial visitors, but he says more openness and transparency from the American government—something NASA’s new investigation especially holds the promise of—will help keep such theories from taking off into elaborate narratives about conspiracies and cover-ups.

Graham Vyse: Why has the American government been so interested in UFOs recently?

Seth Shostak: It goes back to 2017, when The New York Times published an article featuring three videos taken by the U.S. Navy planes, including footage taken off the coast of San Diego. In all three videos, something in the frame couldn’t be identified. It seemed like the government had evidence of things in our skies other than what we already know is up there. To many in the UFO community—by which I mean at least a third of Americans, who believe Earth has been visited by alien spacecraft—this was a chance for the government to prove it was honest and not withholding information from the public. The fact that a reputable source, namely the Navy, had evidence of this strange phenomenon created pressure for investigations.

Vyse: What exactly did the videos show?

Shostak: They all came from cameras on Navy planes—infrared cameras used to target enemy aircraft. They showed these shapes—round blobs, or blobs that look like peanuts, or blobs resembling Tic Tac mints. Sometimes the things would disappear, swinging out of the field of view at what’s apparently a very high speed. Now, that “apparently” is important, because you can’t judge speed unless you know the distance of these things, but the pilots—whose voices can be heard in the videos—clearly didn’t know what they were.

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