Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Unidentified flying object
A UFO or unidentified flying object in the original, literal sense is any airborne object or optical phenomenon, detected visually or by radar, whose nature is not readily known. Interest in these objects stems from continued speculation that some of them may be the products of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Perhaps the best scientifically accepted definition of a UFO was provided by the late astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek: "A UFO is the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land the appearance, trajectory, and general dynamic and luminescent behaviour of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible."
Strange unidentified apparitions in the sky and on the ground have been reported throughout history. For example, in 1896-98, unidentified airship sightings were reported in the United States. There were several reports of unidentified aeroplanes in the Scandinavian countries in the 1930s. In Europe during World War II, "Foo-fighters" (luminous balls that followed airplanes) were reported by both allied and axis pilots. In 1946, there was a "wave" of "ghost rockets" seen in Northern Europe.
The modern phase in UFOs started with a claimed sighting by American businessman Kenneth Arnold on June 24 1947, near Mount Rainier, Washington. Arnold said he saw nine bright elliptical-shaped objects flying at "incredible speed" at 10,000 feet altitude. Though the UFOs Arnold witnessed were not by strict definition saucer-shaped, he described their movements as being similar to that of a saucer skipping over water, hence the origin of the term flying saucer. Arnold's claims subsequently received significant mainstream media and public attention.
UFO sightings of a similar nature were subsequently reported throughout the United States and in other countries. The resulting publicity given to early UFO sightings in the press undoubtedly helped stimulate further sightings on a worldwide scale. According to the early reports, the objects were observed in singular or formation and were shaped like discs, rockets, or cigars. The objects observed during the day were often described as metallic-silver in color. Objects observed during the evening hours were of various colors.
UFOs and popular culture
Regardless of any ultimate explanation, UFOs constitute one of the major cultural phenomena of the last half-century. Since the mid-1900's, UFOs have been the subject of thousands of books, motion pictures, songs, documentaries and other media. UFO topics were amongst the most popular on early computer Bulletin board systems, and millions of people have some degree of interest in the subject. There have also been several notable hoaxes involving UFO reports, a few of which have received substantial press attention.
Typical reported characteristics of UFOs
- Saucer, toy-top, or disk-shaped craft without visible or audible propulsion. (day and night)
- Rapidly-moving lights or lights with apparent ability to rapidly change direction — the earliest mention of their motion was given as "saucers skipping on water"
- Large triangular craft or triangular light pattern
- Cigar-shaped craft with lighted windows (Meteor trails sometimes appear this way)
The number of different shapes, sizes, and configurations of claimed UFOs has been large, with detailed descriptions of chevrons, equilateral triangles, spheres, domes, diamonds, shapeless black masses, eggs, and cylinders being prevalent. Skeptics argue this diversity of shapes, size and configurations points to a socio-psychological explanation. Other researchers argue that the large diversity of UFO shapes points to a possible paraphysical origin.
Professed witnesses and believers reply that the volume of highly detailed sightings reported by witnesses from commercial airline pilots to United States presidents possesses strong consistency and cannot be explained away as mundane phenomena (weather balloons, aircraft, Venus), arguing for the non-conventional interpretation.
One writer contends that UFO mass sightings--sometimes called "flaps"--are "a hard core of genuinely unusual sightings ... surrounded by a great deal more misidentification, wishful thinking and general flakiness." 
Other researchers, such as Jacques Vallee, argue that if UFO sightings are motivated by some mechanism through which the public can release hidden fears and satisfy a psychological need for fantasies, why did "UFO waves" not coincide with such science-fiction feats such as Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1938, or the motion-picture versions of Flash Gordon (1936-37)? Vallee points out that the theory regarding how the general public generates and propagates UFO reports as a way of releasing psychological tensions, is denied by the absence of correlation between notable periods of interest in science fiction and major peaks of UFO activity.
Origins of the term "flying saucer"
On January, 24, 1878, John Martin, a Texas farmer, saw a dark flying object in the shape of a disk "flying at wonderful speed", and used the word "saucer" to describe it. This was the first known reference to the word "saucer" being used to describe an unidentified flying object. Some seventy years later in 1947, the media used the term, "flying saucers", to describe Kenneth Arnold's sighting.
The nine objects Kenneth Arnold said he saw were not saucer-shaped. His drawings showed something rather boomerang or crescent shaped: more resembling a flying wing style aircraft. However, he described their movement as a kind of skipping, like a saucer skimmed over water. Press reports picked up the "like a saucer" phrase, and reported it as a "flying saucer".
George Adamski contributed to the popularity of this term with his contactee orientated books, such as Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953).
"Flying Saucer" was the preferred term for most unidentified aerial sightings through the late 1940s to 1960's, even for those that were not actually saucer shaped. By the late 1960s, the term "UFO" was more commonly used.
Ufology is the study of UFO reports and associated evidence.
The general opinion of the mainstream scientific community is that all UFO sightings are misidentification of natural phenomena or deliberate hoaxes. Some feel that the subject is a waste of time, due to a number of factors, such as unreliable witnesses.
It has been suggested, however, that rather few academics have actually researched the topic themselves or become personally familiar with the literature. Some academics have argued that this constitutes unacceptable bias, and that while current evidence may be lacking, new evidence should be evaluated objectively as it arises. Some in the scientific community feel there is enough evidence to warrant further investigation efforts, comparing it to the period in the history of meteorite research when there was only witness testimony available.
Official Governmental Studies
There took also place experiments of registering UFOs by automatically working monitoring stations. One of these stations was (and perhaps still is) at Shirley Bay, Canada. This station went until the first registration of a suspicious signal toward military secrecy.
In response to the 1947 wave of UFO sightings and resulting publicity, the U.S. government began a number of formal studies of UFO's:
- The United States Air Force founded Project Sign in late 1947. In late 1948 it was renamed Project Grudge , which was active until early 1952, when it too was renamed and upgraded in status, becoming Project Blue Book, which lasted until 1969. Since Project Blue Book was dissolved, the United States government reports that they have had no formal study of UFO reports.
- The Robertson Panel was commissioned by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1952, in response to a wave of UFO sightings, especially in the Washington DC area. So many persons tried to contact authorities (primarily the Air Force) regarding UFO reports that day-to-day duties were adversely impacted. The CIA feared that this level publicity (described by Hoyt S. Vandenberg as “mass hysteria”) could be utilized by enemies of the United States. The Robertson Panel convened to study this problem and offer solutions.
- The Condon Committee (1966 to 1969), commissioned by Project Blue Book, was a landmark but still controversial study which supported the misidentification-delusion-hoax explanation for UFO reports, and furthermore argued that no available evidence warranted further scientific study.
Ultimately, the U.S. Air Force concluded that UFO reports were due almost entirely to misidentification of ordinary aerial phenomena, delusion, or hoaxes. Both contemporary and modern critics, however, argue that the committees listed below harbored an unacceptable degree of bias, were involved in sloppy science of dubious validity, or even perpetrating a cover up.
Civilian UFO Investigation groups
There have been a number of civilian groups formed to study UFO’s and/or to promulgate their opinions on the subject. Some have achieved fair degrees of mainstream visibility while others remain obscure.
The groups listed below have embraced a broad variety of approaches, and have seen a correspondingly wide variety of responses from mainstream critics or supporters
- Aerial Phenomena Research Organization
- Mutual UFO Network
- National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena
Science and UFOs
Since the late 1940s, people throughout the world have become familiar with UFO reports. These reports have been attributed to a wide range of causes including hallucinations, deliberate hoaxes, planets, stars, meteors, cloud formations, ball lightning, experimental military aircraft, and extraterrestrial spacecraft. Despite the large number of such reports, and great public interest, the scientific community has shown little interest in UFOs. This may be due in part to the fact that there are no public or government funds to support UFO research. Scientists also assume that the 1969 Condon report settled the issue, hence UFO data is no longer worth examining. Each of these assumptions have had some impact in dampening the interest of the scientific community in regards to UFO research.
The general perception in the scientific community is that, if UFO reports pose a scientific problem at all, it has more to do with psychology and the science of perception than with physical science. Indeed, most reports simply comprise narrative accounts of what someone saw or thought he saw in the sky. Sometimes the reports involve more than one witness, and sometimes an event is witnessed from two or more different locations.
However, the fact is that physical scientists cannot get involved in the UFO problem unless there is associated physical evidence. If there is no physical evidence, then there is no way that physical scientists can contribute to the resolution of this problem. If, on the other hand, there is physical evidence, then it should be possible for physical scientists to contribute to the resolution of this problem.
There have in fact been many UFO reports accompanied by alleged phyisical evidence; Hynek's close encounter scale defines these as close encounters of the second kind. Analyses, however, have been at best ambiguous or inconclusive, or at worst, deliberate hoaxes.
It would seem that all hopes of science involving itself seriously in the investigation of this phenomenon were dashed when the Condon Report appeared to deliver a negative conclusion. However, Dr. Peter Sturrock has shown that the conclusions section of this report was at variance with its content. Recently, hopes that this theme might be about to become respectable again were raised when a peer reviewed article on UFOs and SETI appeared in JBIS, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.
A good introduction to this aspect of the subject is given by one of the authors, former scientific editor of Astrophysical Journal, Bernard Haisch in his website , an introduction to the area for scientists, which has a link to the JBIS article.
Identified Flying Objects (IFOs)
Allen Hendry was the chief investigator for the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). CUFOS was founded by Dr. Allen Hynek (who had been a consultant for the Air Force’s Project Blue Book) to provide a serious scientific investigation into UFOs. Hendry spent 15 months personally investigating 1,307 UFO reports. In 1979, Hendry published his conclusions in The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating, and Reporting UFO Sightings. Hendry admitted that he would like to find evidence for extraterrestrials but noted that the vast majority of cases had prosiac explanations. Hendry’s conclusions were:
- "Out of 1,307 cases: 1,194 (91.4%) had clear prosaic (non-extraterrestrial) explanations; 93 (7.1%) had possible prosaic explanations; and 20 (1.5%) were unexplained.
- Statistics: 28% of the UFO reports were bright stars or planets; 1.7% were the tip of the crescent moon; 18% were advertising plane banners (usually seen edge-on rather than the face-on); and 9% were fireballs and reentering space debris.
- Distortions in the atmosphere can cause celestial bodies to appear to “dart up and down,” “execute loops and figure eights,” “meander in a square pattern,” or even “zigzag.” This helps explain why celestial bodies can so easily fool observers.
- In 49 of the UFO reports caused by celestial bodies, the witness’ estimated distance to the UFO ranged from 200 feet to 125 miles! Similarly, some witnesses believed that the UFO was “following them” even though the celestial body was actually stationary. Even police and other reliable witnesses can easily be fooled by sightings of stars and planets.
- Reentering space debris or meteors may appear as a string of lights, which can be misinterpreted as lights coming from windows of a spacecraft. The human brain then creates the illusion of a spacecraft based on this misinterpretation, which then fools the observer."
Common misidentifications of man-made phenomena include:
- Balloons (meteorological or passenger).
- Military aircraft.
- Flashing landing lights of conventional aircraft.
- Unconventional aircraft or advanced technology (i.e., the SR-71 Blackbird or the B-2 Stealth bomber).
- Advertising planes.
- Artificial earth satellites.
- Hovering aircraft (such as helicopters).
- Rockets and rocket launches.
- Model aircraft.
- Lasers aimed at the clouds.
- Deliberate hoaxes.
- Jiffy Fire Starters.
Common misidentifications of natural objects include:
- The moon, stars, and planets (for example, the cusps of the rising crescent moon in the tropics, and Venus at maximum brightness)
- Unusual weather conditions (such as lenticular cloud formations, noctilucent clouds, rainbow effects, and high-altitude ice crystals).
- Meteor Swarms.
- Near or large meteors.
- Flocks of birds.
- Swarms of flying insects.
- Reflections from atmospheric inversion layers.
- Hot ionized gas (natural or man-made).
- Earth lights (luminous electrical events from low-level earthquakes and tectonic-geological phenomena.
- Ball lightning.
- Atmospheric inversion layers.
- Reflected light (especially through broken clouds).
- Aurora borealis (northern lights).
Popular hypotheses for explaining UFOs
The remaining relatively small residue of unexplained UFO sightings constitute a debate on their ultimate origin. Some of the more popular hypotheses for explaining UFOs are:
- The Extraterrestrial Visitation Hypothesis
- The Paranormal/Occult Hypothesis
- The Interdimensional Hypothesis
- The Psychological-Social Hypothesis
- The Natural Explanation Hypothesis
- The Earthlights/Tectonic Stress Hypothesis
- The Man-made Craft Hypothesis
Evidence and explanations
Some feel that UFO study is still a worthwhile topic because of open questions, especially due to occasional reports of UFOs from professional or military astronomers or pilots - individuals whose careers, and often their very lives, rely on their ability to recognize and assess aircraft, weather conditions, distances, and other factors vital to flight. Some Ufologists argue such cases are more difficult to dismiss as misidentification of mundane objects. Gordon Cooper and Edgar Mitchell are two NASA astronauts who have expressed an interest in UFOs, and both have decried what they consider the biased attitudes of some professionals; Cooper claims to have seen UFOs in the early 1950s.
Although thousands of UFO sightings have been widely publicised in news columns over the years, the fact that many have subsequently been explained--or at least that proposed explanations have been offered by qualified persons--as natural phenomena or hoaxes has largely been ignored by the media.
There are UFO websites listing claimed sightings, but far fewer listing proposed or confirmed explanations, which have been presented. The fact that, after investigation, most UFOs actually become IFOs -- Identified Flying Objects -- seems less newsworthy. While a possible alien visitor is sensational, a mundane explanation is a non-event.
However, even if the overwhelming majority of all UFOs become IFOs, one well documented case such as the Chile 1997 radar/visual case confirmed by the government in Santiago  is sufficient to negate the 'null hypothesis'. Similarly, Physicist Michio Kaku states that although "perhaps 99% of all sightings of UFO's can be dismissed as being caused by familiar phenomena" that "What is disturbing, to a physicist however, is the remaining 1% of these sightings, which are multiple sightings made by multiple methods of observations. Some of the most intriguing sightings have been made by seasoned pilots and passengers aboard air line flights which have also been tracked by radar and have been videotaped. Sightings like this are harder to dismiss."
On the other hand, many still inexplicable cases are either ignored by the media or, if a purported sceptic offers an explanation that fails to fit the facts (e.g., Zig-zagging formation of lights and confirmed by radar are blamed on misinterpreting 'Jupiter'), it is often taken up by the press and the case is closed, as far as the media is concerned.
It is sometimes said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", but many pro-research groups only claim that the topic deserves further investigation, not that UFOs are necessarily alien craft. The threshold of evidence for further investigation is lower than that for a conclusion about the nature of UFOs.
Skeptics say there are indeed genuine sightings of strange flying objects, which are usually logically explained, that no physical evidence of an alien spacecraft has ever been produced, and that many claims have been proven as fraudulent. They also note that the burden of proof lies with whomever makes a claim. On the other hand, however, Marcello Truzzi, (sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University) contends that some self-described skeptics are misusing the term (or even misrepresenting their opinions): "Since 'skepticism' properly refers to doubt rather than denial - non-belief rather than belief - critics who take the negative rather than an agnostic position but still call themselves 'skeptics' are actually pseudo-skeptics and have, I believed, gained a false advantage by usurping that label."
Supporters and conspiracy theorists argue that the subject is prejudiced by ridicule and stigma, (Kaku agrees with this; in the article cited above he writes that "There is no funding for anyone seriously looking at unidentified objects in space, and one's reputation may suffer if one pursues an interest in these unorthodox matters"), and that an extremely large body of compelling evidence not as yet disproved or effectively countered also exists, including photography, motion video, and multiple independently corroborated sworn affidavits.
Evidence and suppression
Some also contend regarding physical evidence that it exists abundantly but is swiftly and sometimes clumsily suppressed by governmental entities, not always uniform, with a strong agenda to insulate a population they regard as psychologically not yet prepared for the social, theological, and security implications of such a reality. See the Brookings Report .
Among the many witnesses who report UFO sightings, a number have been exposed as hoaxers. Some have held to their stories in spite of persuasive evidence of a hoax. The cases listed below--if lacking conclusive evidence--are at least widely suspected of hoaxing.
Notable UFO hoaxes include:
The study of UFO claims over the years has led to valuable discoveries about atmospheric phenomena and psychology. In psychology, the study of UFO sightings has revealed information on misinterpretation, perceptual illusions, hallucination and fantasy-prone personality which may explain why some people are willing to believe hoaxers such as George Adamski. Many have questioned the reliability of hypnosis in UFO abduction cases.
Paranormal, Mystical and Occult crossover
The field of UFOs does not always necessarily overlap the paranormal, although in practice it often does. Some researchers - such as John Keel and Jacques Vallee - argue that there is a direct relationship between UFOs and paranormal phenomena.
Also, some religious sects have made UFO's a part of their core beleifs. See Paranormal and Occult Hypotheses About UFOs.
Some have proposed a demonic origin for genuine UFO phenomena. Notable proponents of this theory include Dr. Clifford Wilson, and Dr. John Weldon. While it is open to speculation, religion is often tied into the subject.
Many ancient religious paintings contain images that have been interpretated as UFO's and alien beings. Some also believe that over long periods of history, nonhuman intelligences have influenced certain religions and customs.
Some scientists have even claimed that the alpaca is a creature descended from another world - its fleece cannot be replicated by conventional means.
UFOs are sometimes claimed to be part of an elaborate UFO conspiracy theory in which the government is said to be intentionally covering up the existence of aliens, or sometimes collaborating with them. There are many versions of this story; some are exclusive, while others overlap with various other conspiracy theories.
There is also the speculation that UFO phenomena are tests of experimental aircraft or advanced weapons. In this case UFOs are viewed as failures to retain secrecy, or deliberate attempts at disinformation: to deride the phenomenon so that it can be pursued unhindered. This theory may or may not feed back into the previous one, where current advanced military technology is considered to be adapted alien technology. See also: skunk works and Area 51. This also feeds into the opinion that all or most human technology and culture is based on extraterrestrial contact. See also ancient astronauts
Notable UFO-related sightings and events
In December 1980, a UFO sighting known as the Rendlesham Incident near Ipswich, UK helped to increase the level of interest as a signed letter from the USAF (known as the Halt Memo) confirmed that something had been seen.
Prominent UFO Researchers
- Dr. Jacques F. Vallee
- John Keel
- Dr. Michael Persinger
- Dr. J. Allen Hynek
- Albert K. Bender
- Philip J. Klass
- Dr. Bruce Maccabee
- Dr. Carl Jung
- Extraterrestrial hypothesis
- Interdimensional hypothesis
- Biological hypothesis
- UFOs as unknown natural phanomena
- Astronautical theory
- Mass hysteria
- Mass delusion
- Covert manipulation
- Military exercise
- Secret aircraft
Movies and TV
- Alien abduction
- Ancient astronauts
- Anomalous phenomenon
- Black triangles
- Conspiracy theory
- Crop circle
- Hollow earth
- List of magazines of anomalous phenomena
- Military flying saucers
- Scientific skepticism
- UFO conspiracy theory
- Roswell UFO incident
- The X-Files
- National UFO Reporting Center
- Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS)
- Blue Book Archive Document scans of the National Archive's Project Blue Book microfilm collection
- National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena
- National Institute for Discovery Science
- Society for Scientific Exploration
- UFO Evidence homepage
- Mutual UFO Network homepage
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP)
- The Disclosure Project (nonprofit research project)
- The Coalition for Freedom of Information (sponsored by the Sci-Fi Channel)
- Government Documents
- Bill Chalker's The OZ Files Australia's UFO History
- Haisch, Bernard, "UFO Skeptic". Palo Alto, California.
- Jim Marrs - Author of Many UFO And Alien Related books
- Verga, Maurizio, "Nazi UFOs & Wonder Weapons".
- "The Phoenix Lights Mystery".
- Jeffrey, Kent, "Roswell: Anatomy of a Myth".
- Landman, Jack, "Mexico City, August 6th, 1997".
- Lindemann, Michael, "Mexico City, August 6, 1997: An Analysis". CNI News.
- Holman, J. L., et. al., "Mexico City, August 6, 1997". UFON. (MOV file format)
- BBC article on Mexican Airforce videotape
- ufoevidence.org: Alien wreckage found at Tunguska, say Russian scientists
- Ruppelt, Edward J. The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (Project Bluebook)
- Roswell Rods
- Victorian UFO Research Society (VUFORS) Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
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