This week we look at SETI and UAP, and why some scientists think common ground exists between these very different areas of study.

SETI and UAP: An Uneasy Alliance?


Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. With the UAP Task Force’s report on its findings expected to arrive within the next few days, this week we’ll be looking at how proponents of the study of unidentified aerial phenomena, a topic long derided by the academic establishment (and SETI astronomers in particular), may be finding its way to having common ground with traditional scientific approaches to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Before we dive in, this week over at The Debrief we began a new series by investigative reporter Tim McMillan on Devices of Unknown Origin, a four-part series that looks at the current state of affairs with UFOs, its history, and responses to the apparent presence of unusual technologies by members of our military. Meanwhile, Harrison Kass takes us back in time for a look at Boeing’s X-20 Dyna-Soar, and Liam Stewart explains why scientists think growing food in space is possible. Also, I recently reported on scientists who have succeeded in using remote sensing to detect biosignatures, which could have profound implications in the search for extraterrestrial life… a topic we’ll begin exploring more in-depth right now.


The Search for ET: Answers Could Be Found Close to Home

Humans have long wondered about whether we are alone in the universe, and whether other life—perhaps even intelligent life, like us—could exist someplace in the cosmos.

Over the last several decades, a variety of approaches have been applied toward resolving this question, although two of them have predominated the debate: one is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, which is the approach favored by scientists, and the other involves the study of unidentified aerial phenomena (or UAP, more commonly known as UFOs), which has for years been widely criticized as a pseudoscientific pursuit by the academic community.

In recent years, attitudes toward both possibilities have seen renewed attention, although this has been especially the case with UAP studies. Revelations about the U.S. government’s involvement in the collection of data on aerial objects of unknown provenance has stoked the fire beneath a longstanding debate: if it is possible that other forms of intelligent life may exist in our universe, is it unreasonable to consider whether they might have already visited Earth?


Although both areas of study have certain merits, seldom do we see any signs of unity between the two camps. Astronomers have frequently offered rather pointed arguments against the association of UFOs with SETI research, which is both understandable, and respectable in many ways. After all, why would they want speculations about unusual aerial objects—objects for which there may be some compelling evidence, but which still remain unidentified, and thereby unproven—to be lumped in with their serious, scientific efforts to detect extraterrestrial intelligence in places where they are more likely to be found: on distant planets?

Equally understandable are some of the reasons UAP proponents offer for why they have taken issue with astronomers and their dismissal. While our scientists are essentially sure that extraterrestrial life is out there someplace, they turn their noses up at the prospect that it might ever be found here. Should this possibility, however unlikely it might seem, really be ruled out?

Despite their enduring differences, now a gradual shift in attitudes appears to have begun, here in the days leading up to the release of a widely anticipated report on UAP from the U.S. government. More and more scientists appear to now acknowledge not only the possibility of UAP and their scientific study, but perhaps even a sort of convergence between certain areas of UAP studies and the efforts of SETI researchers.


Scientific American, SETI, and UAP

In a recent opinion piece at Scientific American, SETI proponent John Gertz dragged the debate out into the daylight, stating what many have already long recognized about the divide between SETI and UAP studies: that despite their differences, there are a few fundamental areas where they overlap at times.

“SETI usually requires a graduate degree in astronomy,” Gertz wrote, “and its scientists tend to disdain UFOers for requiring nothing more than a camera that takes blurry photos and a butterfly net in case a little green man appears.”

“However,” Gertz went on to say, “the two camps may be moving closer together.”

Gertz, who is the president of a multimedia company and the Foundation for Investing in Research on SETI Science and Technology, presents reasons for why it would be likely that any kind of extraterrestrial intelligence with significant technological capabilities would do like humans have done, and send scout probes out into the galaxy to explore on their behalf. It might even be possible that significantly advanced extraterrestrial technologies driving such probes might be capable of reaching a planet like ours, and conducting studies within our atmosphere.

Given the apparent flight capabilities of UAP, Gertz therefore considers whether these might be unmanned craft of some kind; a possibly that might even allow for extraterrestrial probes being one possible source.

As Gertz summarizes, “many SETI scientists now agree with UFOers that the first alien detection plausibly could occur within our own solar system.” Thereby, he also argues that SETI researchers and UFO proponents might also agree on the likelihood that UAP could be robotic probes, highlighting what he contends to be the most obvious area of common ground that appears to exist between the long-separated camps.


A Brief History of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Speculations about the existence of aliens extends back several centuries. In terms of its mathematical likelihood, the notion that other forms of life are likely to exist has remained a focus of astronomers since the middle of the last century. Beginning in 1959, two physicists, Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, published a groundbreaking paper titled “Searching for Interstellar Communications” in the journal Nature. Their premise had been that with the use of our then-state of the art radio telescopes, we might be able to pick up radio signals of other intelligent civilizations. The pair even proposed what the most probable wavelength would be that such aliens would likely use, clocking in at 1,420.4 MHz—the same wavelength as neutral hydrogen—which it seemed reasonable that alien civilizations might use as a sort of “cosmic benchmark” for universal communication.

This was followed by Harlow Shapley, a Harvard astronomer, who narrowed down the likelihood of the existence of life on other worlds.

“The universe has 10 million, million, million suns (10 followed by 18 zeros) similar to our own,” Shapley wrote. “One in a million has planets around it. Only one in a million million has the right combination of chemicals, temperature, water, days and nights to support planetary life as we know it.” If, at a glance, this doesn’t sound very promising in terms of the likelihood of finding extraterrestrials, think again.

“This calculation arrives at the estimated figure of 100 million worlds where life has been forged by evolution,” Shapley concluded. In other words, according to Shapley there would have to be a very good chance that aliens were indeed out there.

Frank Drake
Astronomer Frank Drake

Shapley’s estimates were followed by astronomer Frank Drake’s earliest attempts to search for signals produced by these presumed extraterrestrials, beginning with the surveillance of Epsilon Eridani, a nearby star which, unbeknownst to Drake at the time, would later prove to be a very good candidate for having a massive exoplanet in its orbit. Drake also monitored Tau Ceti, which like Epsilon Eridani, has recently been shown to be host to a number of promising planets encircling it. Drake dubbed his effort Project Ozma, which spent the next several months in vain searching for evidence of alien signals.

In 1961, Drake hosted a meeting at which he prepared a brief list of factors that must be considered by astronomers hoping to locate extraterrestrial signals.

“I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life,” Drake later recalled of the moment that a now famous concept first came to mind. As he jotted down his list, he noted that “it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy.” This, of course, had been the genesis of the famous Drake Equation, which has since been used to summarize the odds of detecting signals produced by any prospective extraterrestrial civilization.

Such estimations have continued over the years. According to one recent calculation by astronomer David Kipping, which relied on Bayesian analysis to determine the likelihood of intelligent life existing elsewhere, Kipping says that there is a roughly 75 percent probability that life exists elsewhere, and a 60 percent chance that it would have evolved a significant degree of intelligence (i.e. at least comparable to that of humans), with an overall probability at around 45 percent.


The Unclassified Skies

Returning to recent contributions in Scientific American, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, who has spent the last several months promoting the idea that the interstellar space object ‘Oumuamua might have been an extraterrestrial probe along the lines of what Gertz has proposed, now also concedes that UAP could be another representation of extraterrestrial technologies.

alien probe

Loeb also says that rather than relying entirely on what information the government is willing to declassify about what it has collected on the subject, scientists should begin to actively monitor the skies for evidence of a UAP presence.

In his piece for Scientific American, Loeb writes that, “rather than simply wonder about possible scenarios, we should collect better scientific data and clarify the nature of UAP. This can be done by deploying state-of-the-art cameras on wide-field telescopes that monitor the sky.

Loeb adds that “The sky is not classified; only government-owned sensors are. By searching for unusual phenomena in the same geographical locations from where the UAP reports came, scientists could clear up the mystery in a transparent analysis of open data.”

In likelihood, we will never know if interstellar objects like ‘Oumuamua are actual evidence of extraterrestrial technologies. To date, efforts by SETI researchers have failed to detect any signatures that appear to represent intelligences from other worlds. Perhaps, therefore, the best thing astronomers and other scientists could be doing at the present time is giving consideration to the possibility that evidence of extraterrestrial technologies might be found in the last place they would ever have anticipated looking: right here within Earth’s atmosphere. Rather than being an unusual phenomenon that only the U.S. government can detect, it is well beyond time that scientists begin to treat the UAP subject seriously, like Loeb proposes, and bring the debate about their existence out of the classified world, and over into the public sphere for proper scientific analysis.

That brings this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief to a close. As always, don’t forget to subscribe and get email updates from us here, or read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website. And as always, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] the, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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