Rethinking NASA's Search For Life In The Universe

NASA is getting serious about UFOs, CNN

"We don't know if it's extraterrestrial. We don't know if it's an enemy. We don't know if it's an optical phenomenon," Nelson said. "We don't think [it's an optical phenomenon] because of the characteristics that those Navy jet pilots described ... And so the bottom line is, we want to know." NASA press secretary Jackie McGuinness said Nelson did not establish a formal task force to begin investigating UFOs. However, he did direct researchers to move forward with exploring any lines of questioning around the topic as they see fit."

Opinion: We're asking the wrong questions about UFOs, Washington Post

"In recent decades, science has focused on aspects of extraterrestrial inquiry, including the search for signs of life on other planets -- think the Mars rover-- and techno-signatures -- radio signals that appear to emanate from outside Earth. The research has been complex, evidence-based and demanding, pulling in scientists from across disciplines and all around the globe. The same should be true for the exploration of UAP sightings. If we want to understand what UAP are, then we need to engage the mainstream scientific community in a concerted effort to study them. ... Ravi Kopparapu is a planetary scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Jacob Haqq-Misra is a research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science."

Keith's note: There is a big government report coming out and it mentions UFOs, aliens, and the who knows what else. Its formal release is still more than 2 weeks away and yet we're already arguing about what it says and doesn't say - and what should be done about what its says or doesn't say. In essence we have little concrete evidence - about a report that apparently says that we have little concrete evidence - as to what these UFO/UAP things are or are not. We are accelerating our level of ignorance with arm waving and everyone is jumping on board.

This Department of Defense UFO/UAP report is going to force NASA and other agencies to respond. It cannot be stopped. it is coming out. Indeed it is already dribbling out. There is no way to get around that. If NASA is smart, they will take this opportunity to fix some things and use this opportunity to its advantage. Or they will find their commentary bouncing around the news and internet sphere with hesitant statements competing with overt conspiracy mongering and silly memes. But NASA can seize control of this conversation - if it wants to. It should.

NASA leadership says that the agency is going to look into this thing. Fine. NASA has a world class group of really smart people who can reprogram ancient robots in interstellar space while flying helicopters on Mars. To me, the question is whether NASA's Aeronautics Directorate is studying this UFO thing - which would make some sense given that the manner of motion whereby these objets seem to move is quite inexplicable. Or should NASA's Science Mission Directorate look into this (which makes less sense) as part of its search for life in the universe i.e. NASA's Astrobiology program. Probably both.

NASA also needs to come clean about role in all of this. No doubt there will be stories about prior FOIA requests for UFO information at NASA. To be honest much of what has been written about NASA and UFOs is patently false. But this new report and recent comments by NASA are going to reboot all of those inquiries. Some obvious media questions could include "Was NASA involved in this study? If so who was the lead person? NASA is not supposed to be studying SETI so why is NASA even involved? NASA published an official report out titled "Archaeology, anthropology, and interstellar communication" so has NASA been looking into UFOs? Was NASA involved in the official report determination that there are no signs of extraterrestrial life involved with these UFOs? Is there any NASA input in the classified portion of this report? How long has NASA been studying the possibility of UFOs being of extraterrestrial origin? Does it predate this report? How much time and money did NASA spend in participating in this study? Do you think that it is possible that these objects come from another world? Why won't NASA fund SETI research?" If NASA was smart they'd put up a FAQ along these lines. Why wait for journalists to ask the questions? Take the tiger by the tail.

Some NASA Astrobiology researchers are now pushing to do a full spectrum scientific research program via op eds such as the one linked above. NASA's Astrobiology program has a chronic problem explaining what it does - and why it does some things - and not others. This situation has gotten much worse in the past few years as the program disassembled itself and never put itself back together again. The NASA Astrobiology program often contradicts its own guidance as well as advice from bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences. SETI (looking for aliens) is a perfect example.

NASA still cannot - will not - explain why it will not fund SETI - searching for intelligent life elsewhere. Seeking out UFO work is going to confuse that matter further i.e. we can't listen or look for the aliens where they come from - but we can look for them in our own airspace. If you are going to study whether there is technology inside these things whose origin lies with extraterrestrial intelligence then you really should be studying where it may have come from as well, right? Not at NASA.

NASA still cannot explain why it was unable to fund SETI for decades. Indeed, even though an appropriations prohibition by Sen. Proxmire in the late 70s expired after a year, NASA consistently refused to fund SETI claiming that Congress prohibited it for decades using the expired Proxmire action to cover up the giggle factor that goes with trying to talk to aliens. Technosignatures is a subset of the whole SETI thing - looking for evidence of the technology that an alien civilization might have created. Congress wants them to do it. So do various advisory groups. But the NASA Astrobiology Program refuses to study technosignatures. Yet now some of the Astrobiology community wants to see if anyone is inside the UFOs i.e. technosignatures. Confused yet?

The 2015 NASA Astrobiology Program Strategy (page 150) says "While traditional Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is not part of astrobiology, and is currently well-funded by private sources, it is reasonable for astrobiology to maintain strong ties to the SETI community. There are also other ways not included in contemporary SETI that astrobiology can contribute to the search for technological life. Chief among these is the search for "technosignatures"." A 2019 NAS report An Astrobiology Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe (page 147) says that maybe NASA should study technosignatures. Congress has even asked NASA to study this topic. So far NASA has all but ignored all of that advice and guidance. And SETI? Still totally ignored. But sure, let's study flying saucers.

This UFO/UAP report is going to cause a lot of busy work - both for what it does say and what it does not. So we might as well get used to it. The DoD will most likely present it in a way that creates even more questions than it will answer questions. And they will not mind if the hard questions go to NASA PAO to deal with. Ask a random taxpayer who searches for aliens in the universe and the answer is going to be "NASA". While grainy videos of weird flying things will continue to surface - no doubt with a lot of deep fakes - the deeper, more compelling question of whether life from another world is involved will not so easily fade away. Indeed it will be amplified.

Oh, and for what it is worth, I can't wait to see how the Space Force folks weigh in on this with their huge social media and TV advertising budget. They love to invoke SciFi themes - and they are supposed to protect us from space threats, right? :-)

There is a bright side to all of this. In 1996, the ALH84001 announcement by NASA of putative fossils in a meteorite from Mars rocked the world. Today the consensus is (mostly) that they probably did not find what they said they found - but it is not totally unanimous. This announcement spurred many things into action, often rekindling post-Viking, post-Proxmire research interests that had lain dormant - especially with regard to the planet Mars. I recall what happened in the weeks and months that followed - especially here in Washington, DC. Panels on how small a living organism could be were held and some dogma was challenged. Today our view on that is markedly different than it was back then.

Most importantly a series of small focus groups organized by the White House, Congress, and NASA, resulted in what eventually became NASA's Astrobiology program. I was a participant in all of the early organizing efforts at NASA Ames. I started astrobiology.com (with NASA's urging) in 1996 and watched this unlikely cadre of disciplines evolve into a community that spans the world and is spawning a third generation of researchers. NASA initially led that effort. Alas, NASA has now stumbled in this regard.

UFOs/UAPs sightings could well be the "technosignatures" that NASA's Astrobiology program wants to ignore. If so, then the only question is whether their origin is artificial and If so they were made - here - or out there. Or ... if some other process is at work. Regardless, this topic is gonna be in the news for a while. Yet the journey toward finding answers can have other benefits as well - if NASA is open to doing so.

If you go outside the closed, isolated circles where all of the smart academic researchers live, you will find that there is a pervasive acceptance among the populace that there is life elsewhere in the universe. These views are often not sophisticated, are strongly influenced by popular culture, and are fueled in part by some of what NASA does. Many people would like to meet this life from another world. Some think we already have. To be certain, the scientific rigor undermining their views may be lacking. But the innate curiosity and the longing to discover that we are not alone is should be seen by researchers and policy makers as being compelling and worthy of embracing - not ridicule. The notion of life elsewhere in the universe is something that many people want to know more about - and they will seek information about this wherever they can find it - even if it is not accurate.

I would hope that NASA does not pursue an ad hoc approach to its participation in any post-report release efforts. If NASA is going to do follow-up work on a UFO report it needs to be a class act and done in an organized fashion, in full daylight, with a clear schedule and plan. And NASA cannot do so without some level of public engagement. The NASA Aeronautics aspects should be straightforward since they have the better part of a century of looking at high speed vehicles in various flight regimes in their toolkit. The Astrobiology aspects of such a study - not so much. The Astrobiology program is a mess and needs some re-thinking if it is going to overcome decades of scattered management.

If NASA fixes its Astrobiology program, then this post-report effort could be a teaching and learning moment for us all. As some of the wilder things get set aside, other things may emerge - just as they did after ALH84001. Despite our research community's collective certainty of what we know, they are still confronted about the things they do not know - that they do not know. Using NASA's vast internet resources to explain all of this could not only help explain why some inexplicable things simply are not true while explaining why others may well be. So long as NASA engages with people and does not talk down to them.

If NASA can openly court the captain of a fictitious starship constantly beset by Hollywood aliens to do cameos and voiceovers on NASA TV - then they - we - can openly ponder whether we are alone in a cold, sterile universe or part of a vibrant, living universe - and do so in a constructive, inclusive fashion. It is up to NASA how they will do this. I hope they seize the opportunity.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on June 6, 2021 11:45 AM.

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