The groundbreaking congressional hearing yielded some interesting revelations, but was extraterrestrial contact one of them?
Radio astronomer Steven Tingay of Curtin University examines what happened during the hearing.
The US Congress recently held a hearing on US government information relating to “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (UAP).
The last such investigation was over 50 years ago, as part of a US Air Force investigation called Project Blue Book, which examined reported sightings of unidentified flying objects (note the change name).
The current hearings are the result of a stipulation attached to a 2020 COVID-19 stimulus bill, which required U.S. intelligence agencies to produce a UAP report within 180 days. This report was published in June of last year.
But why would governments care about UAPs? One of the more interesting avenues of thought is that UAPs are extraterrestrial spacecraft that visit Earth. It’s a concept that’s getting a lot of attention, drawing on decades of sci-fi movies, opinions about what’s happening in Area 51, and alleged public sightings.
A much more prosaic line of thought is that governments are interested in unexplained aerial phenomena – especially those occurring within their own sovereign airspace – because they may represent technologies developed by an adversary.
Indeed, much of the discussion at the recent hearing centered on the potential threats of UAPs, on the premise that they were human-engineered technologies.
None of the public testimony has concluded that extraterrestrial spacecraft have crashed into or visited Earth. The hearings included classified closed-door sessions that presumably dealt with more sensitive security information.
There is no doubt that unexplained phenomena have been observed, such as in images obtained by Navy pilots (above) showing fast-moving aerial objects. But the leap to extraterrestrials requires much more substantial and direct evidence – incredible evidence – that can be broadly examined using the tools of science.
After all, the existence of life elsewhere in the universe is a fascinating question for science and society. The search for extraterrestrial life is therefore a legitimate quest, subject to the same burden of proof that applies to any science.
A drop of water in the sea
Over the past decade I have occasionally used radio telescopes to perform large-scale experiments to search for technosignatures, i.e. signs of technological civilizations on planets elsewhere in our galaxy. (the Milky Way). But after decades of using powerful telescopes by many teams of experts, we still haven’t covered a great deal of territory.
If we consider the Milky Way to be the equivalent of Earth’s oceans, the sum total of our decades of research is equivalent to randomly taking a pool of water in the ocean to look for a shark.
Besides, we’re not even sure that sharks exist, and if they do exist, we don’t know what they would look like or how they would behave. Although I believe that life will almost certainly exist among the trillions of planets in the universe, the sheer scale of the universe is a problem.
What would it take to make contact?
The vast volume of the universe makes it very difficult to achieve interstellar travel, receive signals, or communicate with possible distant life forms (at least according to the laws of physics as we know them).
Speeds are limited to the speed of light, which is approximately 300,000 km per second. It’s quite fast. But even at that speed, it would take a signal about four years to travel between Earth and the nearest star in our galaxy, which is four light years away.
But Einstein’s special theory of relativity tells us that, in practice, the speed of a physical object such as a spaceship will be slower than the speed of light.
In addition, thanks to the inverse square law of radiation, signals weaken proportionally to the square of the distance they have travelled. Over interstellar distances, it’s a heavy blow.
So for planets that are hundreds or thousands of light-years away, the travel times are probably several thousand years. And any signals from civilizations on these planets are incredibly weak and difficult to detect.
Could it be that aliens have crashed on Earth and the US government is just covering it up, as Republican Congressman Tim Burchett claimed in his reaction to the hearing?
For airlines belonging to the International Air Transport Association, the probability of a plane crash is approximately one in a million. This raises the question: do we think that an alien spacecraft capable of traveling for thousands of years, over interstellar distances, is more robust and better designed than our planes?
Let’s say it’s a hundred times better. Which means that the probability of a crash is one in a hundred million. So to end up with an alien wreck hidden in Area 51, it would take a hundred million visits from alien ships. This corresponds to 2,739 visits by extraterrestrials per day, every day, for 100 years!
So where are they? The near-Earth environment should be constantly buzzing with aliens.
With radars constantly scanning space, billions of cellphone cameras, and hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers photographing the skies (as well as professional astronomers equipped with powerful telescopes), the general public and scientists – and not just governments – should have plenty of solid evidence.
It is much more likely that the UAPs presented in the evidence are of local origin, or due to natural phenomena that we do not yet understand.
In science, Ockham’s razor remains an excellent starting point: the best explanation is the simplest explanation compatible with known facts. Until there’s a lot more evidence – and much better evidence – let’s conclude that aliens haven’t visited us yet.
I can’t lie though, I hope to see one day that this evidence exists. Until then, I will continue to scan the sky to make my contribution.
Steven Tingay, John Curtin Emeritus Professor (Radio Astronomy), Curtin University.