Has the government admitted that UFOs are real? What are all those different blurry videos? What's this UAP report that's (maybe) coming in June?
I've been following the story for the past four years, and I'll try to make sense of it. First, some context.
Since the 1950s there have been UFO enthusiasts, people who think that the reported sightings represent incredible new technology, possibly aliens, that, once studied, will elevate all of humanity to the next level — ushering in an era of flying cars, free energy, and possible human-alien cultural exchanges.
Many in the UFO community believe the government is holding back progress toward this dream by not sharing everything they know about UFOs. So, they attempt to lobby the government to fess up — something they refer to as "disclosure."
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Earlier this month, when President Barack Obama was asked on the Late Late Show about UFOs, he made a few jokes, then said: "There's footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don't know exactly what they are. We can't explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so … people still take (it) seriously, trying to investigate and figure out what that is."
For many UFO fans this was a high point in a recent wave of what they see as confirmation that "disclosure" is just around the corner.
This wave started more than three years ago with the publication of a New York Times article "Glowing Auras and Black Money" about the existence of a semi-secret government program that investigated UFO sightings. The article was accompanied by two UFO videos, and a third came out a few months later.
Things reached a fever pitch in April 2020 when the Department of Defense re-released those same videos, explaining they had been improperly released previously, and confirming that they were taken by Navy personnel and that they showed something classified as "unidentified."
After that, the Pentagon basically clammed up, replying to inquiries with boilerplate responses stating they would not say anything.
Media interest was significant. The admission that they were Navy videos of unidentified phenomena was taken as confirmation that "UFOs are real," and since "UFO," in common parlance, is equivalent to "alien," it was interpreted as, "Government admits aliens are real."
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The tidal wave of "disclosure" dripped on. In August, the Defense Department announced the establishment of a "UAP Task Force" to "detect, analyze and catalog … incursions by unauthorized aircraft into our training ranges or designated airspace (including) examinations of incursions that are initially reported as UAP when the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing."
Then in December, a request for a report on the UAP situation was shoehorned into the coronavirus relief bill.
The three videos that partly drove this wave were vaunted as prime examples of "official" UFOs. Claims were made that they showed impossible physics or evidence of advanced technology, possibly anti-gravity warp drives (hinting at aliens).
What the 'UFO videos' really show
However, close examination of the videos by myself and others over the three years since they were released has shown them to be far more mundane than first thought.
The "glowing aura" mentioned in the New York Times headline turned out to be a processing artifact common to thermal cameras.
The supposed impossible accelerations in the "Tic-Tac" video were revealed to coincide with (and hence caused by) sudden movements of the camera, leading to the conclusion that the object in the video was not actually doing anything special.
The video titled "Go Fast" was claimed to show an object with no heat source (and hence, no conventional engine) moving impossibly fast over the surface of the ocean.
But some 10th-grade trigonometry showed it was actually much higher than it seemed, creating an illusion of motion, and the actual speed was more like wind speed, meaning it was probably just a balloon.
The most compelling video, "Gimbal,” seems to show an actual flying saucer skimming over clouds then coming to a stop and bizarrely rotating into an aerodynamically impossible position.
But closer examination of this video showed that when the "object" rotated, other patches of light in the scene rotated.
The only possible explanation being that the rotation was a camera artifact, and that the "flying saucer" was simply the infrared glare from the engines of a distant aircraft that was flying away. An examination of the camera's patents revealed the gimbal mechanism responsible for the apparent rotation.
Since then, two more videos from the UAP Task Force were leaked. Both initially seemed amazing: a flying triangle and a zig-zagging submersible sphere.
But, like the previous three, they became more mundane under closer examination.
I found that the triangle looked and acted exactly like an out-of-focus airplane, and the sphere was shown not to zig-zag, probably to be another glare, and to disappear behind the horizon rather than under the water.
Given the disappointing mundanity of the video evidence, what are we to expect from the upcoming UAP report, due in June?
Well, UAPs represent a serious issue for the military. If aircraft incursions cannot rapidly be identified, or if a pilot cannot make sense of what they are seeing, or if radar returns show what looks like super-fast moving objects, then those are real problems.
There's also the inevitability that foreign adversaries are developing novel forms of drones for spying and combat purposes, which we will need to detect and counter.
These are all real issues, and that's what a comprehensive report should discuss, along with suggestions for better tracking and investigating such incidents.
Mysteries remain. What the pilots who reported engaging a giant flying Tic-Tac saw is still unidentified, as are the objects in several other incidents. The causes of ghostly or rapidly moving radar returns are likewise, in many cases, unknown — although since the system is classified, if it's a system glitch or inadequacy, then the Pentagon isn't going to tell us.
We'll also continue to have no good answer for many photos and videos, simply because the object shown is too far away for whatever camera is being used. But "unidentified" means just that. It does not mean advanced technology.
If the quality of the leaked evidence is any indicator (and it probably is), then there's not going to be any significant revelations about the existence of physics-defying craft, and certainly no strong evidence of visiting aliens.
While the genuine issues that Obama raised deserve serious examination, there will be no disclosure because there is nothing to disclose.
Mick West is the founder of Metabunk.org, a forum about the debunking of conspiracy theories. He is the author of "Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UFO sightings: Why federal reports probably won't point to aliens