Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Astronomers and the UAP(UFO)

It came with a regular batch of astronomy news from an online news service devoted specifically to that topic. Usually, there are news releases from JPL and NASA about something the Mars Rover was doing, or a new photo that the Hubble took, or the first light of a new telescope. But today, there were two news releases that attracted my attention, mostly because they were so unusual.

First, there was a release from Harvard about a paper published next week in Nature will announce that an exoplanet has been found that is not only within 40 light years of Earth, but this planet displays the spectrum of water.

A planet with water within 40 light years? Practically our next door neighbour. In fact, it would be the best candidate in my opinion for our first real search for extraterrestrial biological life.

This humid world is also thought to be only two or three (or ten) times as massive as Earth, and resides in the constellation Ophiuchus. It's currently rising just above Hercules in the early winter morning sky.

Great news for SETI fans.

But then the second news release came in, this time from a group calling itself UAP Reporting ( It was a legitimate astronomical news release. What was most remarkable is that the release announced the opening of a website where astronomers could report sightings of Unidentified Aerosapce Phenomena (UAPs).

As many ufologists will know, UAP is a term used in place of UFO by some scientists who don't want to call them UFOs because of the stigma associated with it. (Actually, UAP originally has stood for Unidentified or Unusual Aerial Phenomena, but we can go with Aerospace if they really want. See:

Anyway, the website is the brainchild of Philippe Ailleris, a Dutch financial officer working for the Euopean Space Agency. An amateur astronomer, he has been quietly presenting papers at astronomical conferences on SETI and topics related to UFOs.

Ailleris cites the 1976 study by Peter Sturrock on professional astronomers' UFO sightings (in this case a revision published in 1994) and also the reports on the Hessdalen lights over the past few decades. He doesn't note (or is aware of) the Gert Herb report on amateur astronomers' sightings. (http//, page 12)

This comes at a particularly interesting time, as "Bad Astronomer" and outspoken debunker (but not a skeptic) Phil Plait has been arguing in his blog during the past year that me and Stan Friedman simply don't understand his view that astronomers should be seeing all the UFOs if any really existed. This is a slight change from an earlier viewpoint that astronomers don't see UFOs. Since Phil doesn't think I understand the difference, I won't dispel his belief. (He really went after me and Stan Friedman recently:

Anyway, Phil and good skeptic Tim Printy (who also went after me, come to think of it: I still disagree with him, since none of the professional astronomers at three academic institutions I know well do any significant night sky observing) both insist these days that astronomers do see UFOs but can usually explain them. In fact, astronomers reporting UFOs is actually no big deal. There are many such reports on record. Some have explanations, and some do not. Astronomers don't seem to report ant more or any less UFOs than the general public.

What is lost in all this, however, is the point that amateur astronomers, who do most of the dedicated real-time human observing of the night sky these days, do observe and report UFOs. These are people who know what should be moving against the backdrop of stars and what should not. On the other hand, many amateurs with whom I have been acquainted don't spend much time looking into the sky at all, some simply setting their guiding motors on a target nebula and heading inside to a warmup room for an hour or so.

Since the astronomers/UFO debate has been raging this past year, it will be interesting to see how Ailleris' project is received by debunkers and the scientific community. My guess is that he will he ridiculed, mocked and drawn-and-quartered. (Not necessarily in that order.)

Or is it possible the project will be received for what it is: a scientific study of unidentified phenomena observed by astronomers.
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