Science & Tech

Calm Down, Everyone: The ‘UFOs’ Aren’t Aliens

Image from the Pentagon’s “Gimbal” video. (ABC News/Screengrab via YouTube)
The videos disclosed so far all have obvious potential terrestrial explanations.

Political figures ranging from Barack Obama to Tucker Carlson all seem to think UFOs may pose a serious threat to national security, but likely explanations for recent UFO sightings are far less out-of-this-world.

A remarkable number of news outlets are running stories about the expected release of the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force report to the Senate next month. A recent 60 Minutes piece claimed UFOs were spotted in restricted U.S. airspace “every day for at least a couple years.”

When asked about UFOs on CBS’s The Late Late Show on Monday, former president Barack Obama admitted he had looked into the subject while in office. “We can’t explain how [UFOs] move, their trajectory,” he claimed. “They did not have an easily explainable pattern.” Democrats are modestly more likely than Republicans to believe in UFOs, but belief in them is a bipartisan phenomenon.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson aired similar concerns. “The Pentagon admits it doesn’t know what in the world this is. That’s all you need to know,” he told viewers. He cited examples of UFO sightings by the Navy and opined, “From a national-security perspective, [UFOs are] a very big problem.” (Disclosure: I regularly wrote articles about UFOs and the potential for extraterrestrial life when I worked for Carlson as a science reporter at The Daily Caller.)

What much of the recent news coverage fails to mention is that “Unidentified Flying Object” does not mean either “alien spacecraft” or even “extremely advanced drone.” And the videos disclosed so far all have obvious potential terrestrial explanations.

The renewed interest in UFOs is primarily driven by three grainy, black-and-white, infrared videos. The Navy confirmed that the videos — titled “GoFast,” “FLIR,” and “Gimbal” — captured UFO encounters by jets from the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Carlson’s coverage of the “GoFast” video expressly claims it shows “technologies that are far beyond our current understanding of aerodynamics” and reveals “things that are maneuvering in ways that no aircraft that we are currently aware of have the capability to.” He adds that the UFOs “have no flight surfaces, no wing or anything approaching a wing . . . and no propulsion, so infrared doesn’t pick up any jet trail or rocket exhaust.”

The video shows a small object apparently moving low across the water. However, the UFO was almost certainly a seabird or balloon distorted by parallax. Parallax is an effect that makes an object close to an observer, but filmed against a more distant background, seem to speed up as the camera moves. Data from the Navy camera clearly indicates the unidentified object had a wingspan of about four to seven feet in diameter, roughly the wingspan of a Canadian Goose, and flew at an altitude of 8,000 feet, well below the 29,000 feet maximum altitude of the bird. Alternatively, the Department of Defense description of the object expressly mentions a balloon (perhaps a weather balloon) as a possible explanation in the paperwork that accompanied the release of the video.

If it flies like a duck, is the size of a duck, and quacks like a duck . . . it probably isn’t an alien spaceship or ultra-advanced drone from a foreign power. But headlines such as “U.S. Navy Pilot Spots UFO” generate more clicks than “Pilot Sees Goose on Infrared Camera.”

The “FLIR” video was shot on an infrared camera by a USS Nimitz aircraft and seems to just show a passenger plane from a distance. The object’s unusual motion is easily explained by the camera repeatedly zooming in and out and switching between viewing modes.

The “Gimbal” video shows a hot metal object traveling in a straight line against the wind. Commentary from the fighter pilots in the video suggests there were multiple objects off-screen traveling in the same direction. One likely explanation is a meteor breaking up, or pieces of space junk burning up, in Earth’s atmosphere. The odd rotation of the object is almost certainly a product of the motion of the gimbal camera itself.

Another recent sighting involved UFOs that allegedly “harassed” the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Russell off the coast of California. They were almost certainly just conventional aircraft filmed with an out-of-focus camera. The objects blinked in the same pattern as a Boeing 737, and the naval ship was directly under an air route for planes flying into Los Angeles from Asia. The high alleged speeds and turn rates of the objects reported by some witnesses are not shown in the video, but could easily be explained by parallax.

So why hasn’t the military given any of these explanations?

Well, the Department of Defense’s policy is to report even “incursions that are initially reported as UAP [Unidentified Aerial Phenomena] when the observer cannot immediately [emphasis added] identify what he or she is observing.” It is entirely possible that these examples were all identified after the initial report, but still bureaucratically classified as UAPs. The Pentagon has confirmed the footage is real, but has said nothing about the content of the footage.

The military may not want to bother going on the record stating an object is actually a goose, balloon, plane, or meteor. The military also may wish to let the media frenzy continue in order to draw more attention to the technically impressive infrared-imaging technology revealed by the videos, as a subtle warning message to adversarial nations.

Also, the U.S. government has a long history of letting the public imagination run wild with extraterrestrial conspiracy theories to divert attention from classified projects or accidents. The DOD only confirmed the videos’ authenticity because of a stunning number of Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the leaked videos; providing any additional clarification might risk revealing military secrets.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Air Force and CIA often intentionally called sightings of highly secret U-2 spy planes “UFOs” to hide the true nature of the aircraft. It helped that when the planes’ original silver paint reflected sunlight, they took on an otherworldly, fiery appearance. A CIA official who worked on the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy plane project later attributed over half of all UFO reports in the period to those two aircraft.

One of history’s more famous UFO sightings occurred in 1997, when a mysterious unidentified boomerang-shaped craft was spotted over Phoenix, Ariz. It was potentially an alien-looking, but very terrestrial in origin, B-2 Spirit bomber, from the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Alternatively, the lights could be explained by an exercise of the Air National Guard, according to an Arizona State University astronomy professor and other scientists who examined the evidence.

Despite the thoroughly unconvincing nature of the evidence for space aliens visiting our planet, Washington elites’ UFO-obsession isn’t exactly new. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chief, famously moved in the orbit of UFO conspiracy theorists. Hacked emails indicate that he agreed to meet with former astronaut Edgar Mitchell to discuss how the latter’s sketchy company might use alleged alien technology to fight global warming.

“We work with specific ETI [Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] from a contiguous universe,” the former astronaut’s firm claimed. “They are nonviolent and in complete obedience to God. Our ETI’s connection to zero point energy is obvious in that their purpose is to guide Edgar’s international Quantrek science team to apply their zero point energy research for humanity, to move away from the use of fossil fuels which are so deleterious to our fragile planet.”

It is unsurprising that the company secured a meeting with Podesta using claims of alien contact, given the strength of Podesta’s preoccupation with UFOs. Podesta said in 2014 that his failure to secure the release of UFO files was his “biggest failure” of the year.

It seems that some things never change, like the human fascination with UFOs . . . and the weakness of the evidence that the unidentified objects are anything more alien than geese.

Andrew FollettMr. Follett conducts research analysis for a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area. He previously worked as a space and science reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation.