UFOs have fascinated and puzzled people for decades, yet hard evidence seems ever elusive. Many people are convinced that not only are extraterrestrials visiting Earth, but that governments have perpetuated a top-secret global conspiracy to cover it up. Here's a look at UFOs throughout history.
Today, most people equate UFOs with extraterrestrial intelligence and advanced technologies, but this is a very recent idea. That's not to say that historically people did not report seeing unusual things in the skies, for they surely did: comets, meteors, eclipses and the like had been reported (and sometimes recorded) for millennia — in fact some researchers believe that the Star of Bethlehem may have been an illusion created by a merging of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred right around Jesus' birth).
But it's only been in the past century or so that anybody assumed that unknown lights or objects in the sky were visitors from other planets. Several of the planets had been noticed for millennia, but were not thought of as places where other living creatures might reside (for example ancient Greeks and Romans thought the planets were gods).
Early science fiction writers like Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe fueled the public's interest in voyages to other worlds, and as technology developed some people began to wonder if that might not indeed be possible for advanced civilizations. The first reports of what could be called UFOs emerged in the late 1800s, though in those days they didn't use terms like "UFO" or "flying saucer," but instead "airships."
The most dramatic early UFO encounter occurred in 1897 Texas, when E.E. Haydon, a newspaper reporter for the Dallas Morning News, described an amazing encounter complete with a crashed spacecraft, dozens of eyewitnesses, a recovered dead Martian body, and metallic wreckage (50 years later a nearly identical story would circulate about a crash in the neighboring state of New Mexico). The fantastic tale unraveled when researchers could find no eyewitnesses to support Haydon's story, and nothing of the alien or the "several tons" of mysterious spacecraft wreckage was ever found. It turned out that Haydon had made the whole story up as a publicity stunt to attract tourists.
Early newspaper hoaxes aside, there have been countless UFO reports over the decades, and a few of them stand out as especially important. The first report of a "flying saucer" dates back only to 1947 when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine objects resembling boomerangs in the sky. He described their movement as "like a saucer if you skip it across the water," which a careless reporter misunderstood as saying that the objects themselves resembled "flying saucers," and that mistake launched many "flying saucer" reports in later decades. Investigators think that Arnold probably saw a flock of pelicans and misjudged their size, their large wings creating the "V" shape he described.
The most famous UFO crash allegedly occurred when something — skeptics say a top-secret spy balloon; believers say a spacecraft with alien pilots — crashed on a ranch in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and the debate rages to this day.
The first UFO abduction case — and to this day the most famous — was that of Barney and Betty Hill, an interracial couple who in 1961 claimed to have been chased down and abducted by a UFO. However, since there were no other eyewitnesses to the event and they didn't report the abduction at the time (only remembering it under hypnosis), many remain skeptical.
Another famous UFO sighting occurred near Phoenix, Arizona, in March 1997 when a series of bright lights were reported in the night skies. Though it is known that the military dropped flares over a nearby proving ground during routine exercises around the time of the sightings, UFO buffs dismiss the government's explanation of the lights and insist there's more to the story.
Since then, a host of UFO sightings have been reported. Here are a handful that in recent years got a lot of attention, with links to articles from the time:
Jan. 7, 2007: Strange lights over Arkansas fueled much speculation on the Internet until the Air Force debunked the UFO claims, explaining that flares had been dropped from airplanes as part of routine training.
April 21, 2008: Phoenix lights were reported again. It was a hoax, created by road flares tied to helium balloons. The hoaxer admitted it, and eyewitnesses reported seeing him do it.
Jan. 5, 2009: New Jersey UFOs that proved so baffling they were reported on the History Channel turned out to be helium balloons, red flares and fishing lines, all part of a social experiment. The men who perpetrated the hoax, Joe Rudy and Chris Russo, were fined $250 for creating what could have been a danger to the nearby Morristown airport.
October 13, 2010: UFOs over Manhattan turned out to be helium balloons that escaped from a party at a school in Mount Vernon.
Jan. 28, 2011: Videos of UFOs hovering over the Holy Land (the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount) was revealed as a hoax — the effects of video editing software's use were discovered.
July 2011: The sighting of a UFO on the ocean floor was attributed to a Swedish scientist, but that researcher, Peter Lindberg, merely said the thing he detected in blurry images was "completely round," an assertion not supported by the low-resolution sonar image. A second "anomaly" made the case seem even more bizarre, but no evidence has emerged to suggest alien origin.
April 2012: A UFO near the sun, spotted in a NASA image, turned out to be a camera glitch.
April 2012: A viral UFO video taken from a plane over South Korea likely showed a droplet of water on the airplane's window.
May 2012: A nephew of the famous Wayans brothers comedy team, Duayne "Shway ShWayans" Wayans, filmed a UFO over Studio City, Calif. But like many, many UFO sightings, this one turned out to be the planet Venus. In fact, even airline pilots have mistaken Venus for a UFO.
When UFO reports became more common (and in some cases achieved national and even international attention) the U.S. government began to pay attention.
Given that UFOs are literally "unidentified flying objects," the Pentagon's interest in the topic is both understandable and appropriate. After all, unknown objects over American skies could be a threat — whether their origin is Russia, North Korea or the Andromeda Galaxy. The Air Force investigated thousands of unexplained aerial reports between 1947 and 1969, eventually concluding that most of the "UFO" sightings involved clouds, stars, optical illusions, conventional aircraft or spy planes. A small percentage remained unexplained because of a lack of information.
In December 2017, The New York Times reported on the existence of a secret U.S. Department of Defense program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). It began in 2007 and ended in 2012 when, according to Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson, "it was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding."
Much of the program and its conclusions have not been released, and it's not clear what if any useful information came from the effort. Several short videos of military jets encountering something they couldn't identify have been released by AATIP. Already some have suggested that distant jets might be the culprit, and in the past crowdsourced research has yielded answers to seemingly inexplicable phenomena in our skies; a "mystery missile" seen off the coast of California in November 2010, for example, stumped military experts at first but was later determined to be an ordinary commercial jet plane contrail seen from an odd angle.
The fact that the U.S. government had a program dedicated to researching unidentified craft and objects has caused many UFO buffs to triumphantly announce that they were right all along, that this finally proof that the wall of silence is breaking and the government coverup is cracking.
There is, however, significantly less here than meets the eye. The government routinely spends money to research (and sometimes promote) topics that turn out to have little or no evidence or scientific validity. There are hundreds of federal projects that have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective, including the Star Wars missile defense program, abstinence-only sex education, and the DARE anti-drug program. The idea that there must be some validity to the project, or else it would not have been funded or renewed is laughable.
From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the U.S. government had a secret project called Stargate, designed to explore the possibility of psychic powers and whether "remote viewers" could successfully spy on Russia during the Cold War. The research went on for about two decades, with little apparent success. Eventually, scientists who were asked to review the results concluded that psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Like AATIP, Project Stargate was soon shut down.
One possible clue as to why the $22 million program might have continued despite yielding no clear evidence of extraterrestrials is the financial incentive to keep it going. The New York Times noted that "The shadowy program . ..was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time ... Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid's, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space."
It's not hard to understand why there are so many UFO sightings. After all, the only criterion for a UFO is that some "flying object" be "unidentified" by whoever is looking at it at the time. Any object seen in the sky, especially at night, can be very difficult to identify because of the limitations of human perception. Knowing how far away something is helps us determine its size and speed; that's why we know that moving cars seen at a distance aren't really smaller, nor are they moving slowly; it's simply an optical illusion. If the eyewitness doesn't know the distance, then he or she cannot determine the size. Is that thing or light in the sky 20 feet long and 200 yards away, or is it 200 feet long and a mile away? It's impossible to know, and this makes estimates of size, distance and speed of UFOs very unreliable. Even the planet Venus — at least 25 million miles away — has been mistaken for a UFO by pilots and others on many occasions.
Psychologists also know that our brains tend to "fill in" missing information, which can mislead us. For example, many sightings of three lights in the night sky are reported as appearing as a triangular spacecraft. The fact is that any three lights in the sky, whether connected or not, will form a triangle if you assume (without evidence) that each of those lights are fixed at the ends of three points. Had a witness seen four lights he or she would have assumed it was a rectangular-shaped object in the night sky above him; our brains sometimes make connections where none exist.
All that is needed to create a UFO sighting is one person who may not recognize a light or object in the sky. But just because one person — or even several people — can't immediately identify or explain something they see doesn't mean that someone else with more training or experience (or even the same person seeing the same object from a different angle) may not instantly recognize it. While it's possible that extraterrestrials in spacecraft exist and have visited Earth, the UFO sightings so far provide no real evidence. The lesson, as always, is that "unknown lights in the sky" is not the same as "extraterrestrial spacecraft."
Human interest in unidentified flying objects (UFOs) dates back thousands of years. In the winter of 214 BC, ancient historian Livy reported phantom ships in the skies of Rome. Ancient stargazers believed the neighboring planets in our solar system housed the gods.
Just this month, scientists published data on an unusual spectral pattern coming from the star KIC 8462852 — or Tabby’s Star. In an article, the Atlantic highlighted one scenario that might explain the pattern: the possibility of alien megastructures. Despite follow-up stories describing more logical scenarios — a giant cloud of comets or a jelly bean-shaped star — much of the mainstream fervor focused on possibilities of alien life. Even two days after the Atlantic piece dropped, one of the scientists behind the KIC 8462852 study told Business Insider that the media coverage had gotten “a bit out of hand” and the probability that the signal comes from aliens is “very low.”
“Just to clarify, neither [my colleague] Jason [Wright] or myself … are advocating that it is an alien megastructure, but we also can’t completely rule it out,” Penn State astronomer Kimberly Cartier told Business Insider.
Smart people believe in aliens too. Renowned Harvard University psychiatrist and Pulitzer-prize winner John E. Mack believed in alien abductions until his death in 2004. (Vanity Fair wrote a great profile of Mack two years ago). Thirty years ago, the famed psychoanalyst C.G. Jung blamed the fear of the unknown, and with it, the human preoccupation with aliens, on our innate search for meaning in places where none exists. In a 2010 essay, clinical psychologist Stephen Diamond described the mental phenomenon this way:
…it is precisely the profoundly mysterious and mythic nature of UFO’s that, like dreams, makes them so psychologically powerful. As with all natural or metaphysical phenomena, once science dissects, analyzes and mechanistically explains such mysteries, their numinous, spiritual, potentially healing power is deadened or lost.
In the spirit of the profoundly mysterious (and Halloween!), PBS NewsHour brings you seven bizarre events originally linked to aliens but then ultimately explained by science. Readers are free to believe what they want, but in these cases, a logical explanation seems more plausible…or at least that’s what THEY want us to tell you.
Phone calls from E.T.
Man dressed in alien costume looking at mobile. Photo by Tara Moore
In 1967, a 24-year-old astronomer and graduate student named Jocelyn Bell detected rhythmic pulses among data collected by her radio telescope. As the American Physical Society describes:
Working at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, near Cambridge, starting in 1965 Bell spent about two years building the new telescope, with the help of several other students. Together they hammered over 1,000 posts, strung over 2,000 dipole antennas between them, and connected it all up with 120 miles of wire and cable. The finished telescope covered an area of about four and a half acres.
Within a few weeks Bell noticed something odd in the data, what she called a bit of “scruff.” The signal didn’t look quite like a scintillating source or like manmade interference. She soon realized it was a regular signal, consistently coming from the same patch of sky.
Bell and her mentor Anthony Hewish initially thought the signals were a phone call from an extraterrestrial civilization. But further investigation revealed a previously unknown celestial object: a neutron star. Bell’s initial data had caught focused beams of electromagnetic radiation, which would come to be called pulsars. The work would share the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. Bell’s name wasn’t included in the award, but her work inspired the detection protocols for scientific institutes that work in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The SETI Detection Protocols aren’t legally binding, but they dictate how scientists will verify a communication from aliens and the suggested practices for informing the public.
Radio signals represent one of our best bets for spotting extraterrestrial life, and they’ve led to multiple false alarms over the years, such as The Wow! Signal in 1977.
However, a study published this April reported that a search of the 100,000 closest galaxies has come up empty handed with regards to detecting the electromagnetic signals that would indicate advanced technology. That doesn’t eliminate the possibility of alien life using modes of technology beyond our means of detection, but for now, we’re still waiting for E.T.’s call.
Face on Mars
NASA’s Viking 1 Orbiter spacecraft shot this image of Mars on July 25, 1976. Can you make out a face from the eroded rock? Image courtesy of NASA/JPL
While circling Mars in 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft snapped photos of the Red Planet’s landscape. Among the images it beamed back was a picture of a mile-wide landform that resembled a face.
Known as the “Face of Mars,” the image prompted arguments that the site was evidence of an ancient civilization on the planet.
NASA, in its caption for the image, said the mesa-like formation looked like a human head, “giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth.” And while the space agency never said the photo captured anything other than a rocky landform jutting from Mars, it left conspiracy theorists wondering whether NASA was hiding something.
But the “face” is not a sign of intelligent Martian life. It’s your brain tricking you. Or, rather, it’s your brain perceiving a meaningful stimulus, like a face, out of everyday objects or sounds. This is a phenomenon called pareidolia, and these moments usually appear in the Weird News section, such as a face in a cliff, the Man in the Moon, or the Virgin Mary on a burnt tortilla.
A 2014 study published in the journal Cortex concluded that the phenomenon was a healthy, common occurrence.
“Most people think you have to be mentally abnormal to see these types of images, so individuals reporting this phenomenon are often ridiculed,” said lead researcher Kang Lee of the University of Toronto. “But our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”
The study added that the brain’s ability to glean faces from ambiguous information is “highly adaptive” because of the “supreme importance of faces in our social life and the high cost resulting from failure to detect a true face.”
This is a hi-res image of the same “face” that NASA captured in 1976. There’s not a human face there anymore. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
NASA, equipped with modern technology, reshot the “Face of Mars” in 1998. In the higher resolution, the face disappeared. NASA was right in its original caption: The “face” is an illusion.
Tourists ride camels in front of Giza pyramids in 2006. Humans were perfectly capable of building these ancient wonders. Photo by Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
The Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the original Seven Wonders, is such a paragon of human achievement, that people have questioned whether the ancient, man-made structure was actually constructed with the help of aliens.
But give the ancient Egyptians some credit.
According to architect Jean-Pierre Houdin and Egyptologist Bob Brier, the ancient Egyptians hauled 2.5 ton limestone blocks using an internal ramp that snaked up the pyramid like a parking garage.
In 1986, a French team failed to find any hidden spaces in the Giza pyramid that suggested an internal ramp. But, as documented in this National Geographic TV special, one of the French researchers met with Houdin 15 years later to reveal a diagram left out of that 1986 study. The diagram showed a hollow spiral shape within the pyramid that appeared to support Houdin’s theory.
Despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, people also continue to believe that primitive cultures were not able to erect pyramids in Nigeria, China or Indonesia without extraterrestrial assistance.
“It’s these suggestions that are really denigrating the people whose names, bodies, family relationships, tools and bakeries we actually find,” Egyptologist Mark Lehner, who studied the pyramids for years and wrote “The Complete Pyramids,” told NOVA in 1997.
“Everything that I have found convinces me more and more that indeed it is this society that built the Sphinx and the Pyramids,” he said. “Every time I go back to Giza, my respect increases for those people and that society, that they could do it.”
Nevada Governor Bob Miller presides over the unveiling of a new road sign for Nevada State Highway 375 on April 18, 1996, about 150 miles north of Las Vegas. The highway has been the location for numerous UFO sightings, possibly related to the close proximity of the secret U.S. airbase Area 51. Photo by Reuters
“I have no doubt that UFOs exist,” science writer and longtime investigator of unusual phenomena Benjamin Radford wrote for Space.com.
That’s because an Unidentified Flying Object is any vision in the sky that a person’s mind can’t immediately explain. But that doesn’t mean it’s piloted by alien life. The Earth’s atmosphere is bombarded by roughly 100 tons of space rock every day, and who hasn’t seen a saucer-shaped cloud in their lifetime?
The origins of the term “flying saucer” can be traced to a single, misquoted source.
The Eastern Oregonian reported on June 24, 1947, that Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine “flying objects” or flashes that flew past Mount Rainier, according to this Atlantic report. But when Arnold’s story got picked up by other news outlets, the description of the objects morphed into “flying saucers.”
Years later, Arnold said he had told the Oregonian that the objects “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” In other words, Arnold said he used “saucer” to describe the movement — and not the shape — of the UFOs.
In a 1950 interview with journalist Edward R. Murrow, Arnold repeated his claim that reporters had misquoted him.
“[W]hen I told the press, they misquoted me, and in the excitement of it all, one newspaper and another one got it as ensnarled up that nobody knew just exactly what they were talking about, I guess,” he told Murrow.
Kenneth Arnold submitted this letter, complete with rough sketches of the flying objects he saw, to the Army Air Force on July 12, 1947. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Either way, the era of UFO sightings had begun, and the flying saucer became a mainstay in science fiction.
Only weeks later, rancher William Brazel discovered a wreckage near Roswell, New Mexico and assumed a flying saucer had crashed. That Roswell incident would become America’s best known experience with UFOs. On July 8, military officials claimed the debris came from a weather balloon, but decades later the incident would resurface as a centerpiece in a government alien cover-up, as detailed by the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry.
The government was covering up the true reason for the wreckage, but it wasn’t aliens. The real reason involved Project MOGUL, a spy balloon built to detect long-range soundwaves from possible Soviet nuclear weapons.
Researchers believe the Cold War continued to fuel UFO hysteria, as the Guardian reported in 2002:
Many of the early UFO sightings were seemingly confirmed by Britain’s fledgling radar system, often scrambling fighter planes into the sky to investigate sightings. But, as the new technology improved, the number of incidents appearing on radar quickly dwindled to zero. ‘That cannot be a coincidence. Those early confirmations were just a product of a primitive radar system,’ Clarke said.
Missiles continue to be identified as UFOs, as do things like Chinese lanterns, oddly-shaped clouds, lightning sprites and the planet Venus.
UFO sightings often involve hole-punch clouds like this one, which typically occur when an airplane creates small snowstorm while passing through a cloud.
A crop circle appeared in London’s Kew Gardens on Sept. 19, 2002. Photo by Reuters
No one disputes that crop circles are real. But who created them?
Appearing first in the late 1970s in the English countryside, conspiracies often pointed to aliens sending messages to humans in fields of flattened crops. Instead, it was an Earthbound hoax.
After years of crop circle reports in southern England in the 1980s, crop circles began popping up in Canada and Australia too. But then, two pranksters in their 60s came forward in 1991 as the originators of a massive hoax.
WHEN David Chorley and Doug Bower told the London tabloid Today in 1991 that they made the circular designs overnight by using wooden planks, a ball of string, and a piece of wire attached to a baseball cap that worked as a sighting device.
In the video below, Chorley and Bower explained how they could make a circle 80 to 90 feet wide in 10 minutes, adding that they didn’t see news reports of their crop circles until three years after their initial creation.
Video by YouTube user mdftrasher
The hoaxers said they decided to confess when Bower’s wife became suspicious of the high mileage on the couple’s car. She suspected her husband was having an affair.Bower explained that he and Chorley flattened crops in southern England as many as 30 times a year. And the crop circles spotted outside their home country? That was the work of copycats.
The confessions, however, didn’t dissuade M. Night Shyamalan from featuring the crop circles in his 2002 movie “Signs.”
Area 51 border and warning sign stating that “photography is prohibited.” Photo by Flickr user X 51
For decades, conspiracy theories painted the hyper-exclusive, top secret military base near Groom Lake, Nev., as a storage bin for U.S. scientists to study little green men and their alien spacecraft.
Then in 2013, the CIA, prompted by a public records request by the National Security Archive, declassified a 400-page 1992 document that specifically acknowledged the existence of Area 51.
Or, as one UFO enthusiast told NBS News: “They say Area 51 is real? Duh!”
In fact, Annie Jacobsen, author of “Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base,” told National Geographic that only one page of the declassified report was new information. That one page literally put Area 51 on a map.
But a lot remains unknown about the remote government facility. The declassified report goes on about the U-2 spy planes used during the Cold War that were being tested at the site. There’s no mention of Roswell aliens, spaceships and the like.
The report, however, does mention UFOs, but only that the U-2 planes “led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects, UFOs.”
Alien abduction warning signs are posted in the AlienVault booth during the Black Hat USA 2015 cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters
Alien abductions have been reported across the globe, and these claims may have a neuroscientific explanation.
Our memories are prone to change and susceptible to the inclusion of false facts, which is known as false memory recall. False memory recall is common. This mental behavior can muck up eyewitness testimony and gets worse as we age. Just within the last two years, scientists have shown that they can artificially implant a false memory into the brains of mice.
A 2003 Harvard study showed that people who claim alien abductions are more susceptible to false memories. Plus their memory recall is often so strong and so physically disturbing that it is comparable to war veterans remembering battle.
Sleep paralysis is a possible explanation for how these memories form in the first place. Sleep paralysis occurs when someone’s brain wakes up before the rest of the body. During REM sleep, the body releases a chemical that prevents it from moving while you sleep. During a sleep paralysis episode, a person can become conscious before the chemical wears off. Cue the monsters that emerge from the dreams that occur somewhere in that accidental space.
“Sleep paralysis is common and no more indicative of mental illness than a hiccup, the researchers point out. But when the hallucination and paralysis occur together, many people find the combination frightening, and they attempt to find a meaning in it,” William Cromie wrote in the Harvard Gazette.
According to a 2011 study by Pennsylvania State University, as many as 7.6 percent of the general population will experience at least one instance of sleep paralysis in their lifetime.
When falling asleep or waking up, people have reported faceless shadowy figures or a dark presence in their bedrooms. Horrifically, these harbingers of doom would sometimes advance toward them while they’re unable to move.
While it’s not the work of supernatural beings, it is a brain glitch that produces some serious fuel for nightmares.