Last year Congress required the U.S. government to issue an unclassified report on all it knows about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs, formerly known as UFOs). The report is due out on June 25. Will we learn anything new?
Probably not. According to leaks from advance briefings, there are still unusual aerial phenomena (120 cases over the last two decades). And some of them are still unexplained. But that does not prove they came from elsewhere in the universe.
Note that this blog does not shy away from the cosmic. And what could be more cosmic than the universe? We will return to the mundane next time.
Astrobiologists generally believe that intelligent life exists elsewhere. With 250 billion stars just in our galaxy, and 2 trillion other galaxies in the observable universe, what right do we have to consider ourselves special?
There are an estimated 300 million planets in the "habitable zone" (suitable for liquid water) just in our galaxy. If only an infinitesimal fraction have managed to evolve intelligent life, we have lots of neighbors. And some of them could have had a head start of millions of years and thus be much further advanced.
So why haven't they dropped us a line? Distance is a bit of a problem. We've been sending out radio signals, at the speed of light, for over a century, potentially announcing our presence to anyone within 100 light years. But by recent estimate our galaxy measures 1.9 million light years across, and radio signals become attenuated over distance. If the nearest intelligent life is thousands of light years away, they may never get our call. And in any event it would be a very slow conversation.
Transporting probes and spacecraft is even more problematic. Our fastest spacecraft, such as the Voyagers that have left our solar system, are travelling at tens of thousands of miles per hour, but would take 80,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, "only" 4.2 light years away.
One study (by Paul Sutter) of the physical limits of space travel speculated that it might be possible to move objects at a tenth of the speed of iight -- if all the nuclear power in the United States could be focused by laser on the spacecraft. And the spacecraft would have to have a mass of no more than a paper clip.
So the fact that an aerial phenomenon is currently unexplained does not create a presumption of alien origin. That may be, in fact, the least likely explanation. The upcoming report will apparently state definitively that there is no secret U.S. program behind the aerial phenomena. But there is speculation about, among other things, recent research on experimental hypersonic technology by Russia and China.
It's beguiling. Almost certainly there are others out there. But we may never know for sure, and never get a chance to schmooze with them.