Are there galaxy-trotting extraterrestrials zipping through Earth’s skies?
A report released on Thursday by a panel convened by NASA does not attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question. Instead, it proposes a bigger role for the space agency in collecting and interpreting data on “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or U.A.P. — the modern term for U.F.O.s.
In response, the space agency announced that it had appointed a director of U.A.P. research.
“NASA will do this work transparently for the benefit of humanity,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said in a news release.
But in a news conference on Thursday at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Nicola Fox, the associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate declined to identify the new director.
“We will not give his name out,” Dr. Fox said.
NASA officials said that part of the reason for keeping the identity secret was the harassment and threats received by panel members during the period of the study. During a public meeting held in May, many commenters on NASA’s YouTube feed accused panel members of lying or covering up evidence of extraterrestrials.
U.A.P.s often turn out to be innocuous objects, like weather balloons. Most experts consider alien spacecraft to be an unlikely explanation for any of the events. But it is possible that some of what has been observed could be as-yet-undiscovered atmospheric phenomena, or tests of advanced weapon systems.
The panel recommends that NASA play a prominent role in studying U.A.P.s, in particular using its Earth-observing instruments to collect environmental data coinciding with U.A.P. reports. The panel also suggested using sophisticated computer algorithms, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to look for subtle patterns in U.A.P. reports that may help identify the underlying phenomena.
In June last year, Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s science directorate at the time, announced the study, saying it would “focus on identifying available data, how to best collect future data and how NASA can use these data to move the scientific understanding of U.A.P.s forward.”
Dr. Zurbuchen said examining U.F.O. reports could be “high-risk, high-impact kind of research,” possibly uncovering some entirely new scientific phenomenon, or possibly coming up with nothing new or interesting at all.
The 16 members of the panel, which was led by David Spergel, an astrophysicist and president of the Simons Foundation, included university professors, space policy experts, a science journalist and space industry officials.
Despite the hostility it faced, the panel tried to explain some of the material that has fascinated the public. It used some (slightly tricky) high school geometry to explain how the object in one video taken by a Navy plane in 2015, known as “GOFAST,” was not moving quickly but at just 40 miles per hour by illustrating how the vantage point on an object could be a visual trick.
Throughout the public meeting, experts repeatedly emphasized that the data collected of almost all of the unexplained incidents was of low quality, and that therefore it was difficult to reach any conclusions about many incidents.