Highly anticipated report to shed new light on what U.S. knows about unidentified flying objects

After quietly and seriously investigating reports of unidentified flying objects for years, the United States military has until Friday to present an unclassified report to Congress on what it has uncovered about these mysterious sightings.

'It may turn out ... it's not of human origin,' says former military UFO investigator

Luis Elizondo is the former head of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which investigated sightings of unidentified flying objects in the U.S. He hopes the public will keep an open mind when the military releases an unclassified report sometime this week. (Katie Simpson/CBC)

What we think about our space and place in the universe may soon be challenged in ways that not long ago would have seemed downright absurd.

After quietly and seriously investigating reports of unidentified flying objects for years, the United States military has until Friday to present an unclassified report to Congress on what it has uncovered about these mysterious sightings.

The former leader of an official team that investigated UFOs is asking the public to keep an open mind.

"This is a conversation that may lead us down a road that may turn out ... it's not of human origin," said Luis Elizondo, former director of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which began in the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency.

Reporting by the New York Times ahead of the document's release suggests that "a vast majority of more than 120 incidents over the past two decades did not originate from any American military or other advanced U.S. government technology."

In other words, pilots have not stumbled upon secret U.S. government technology.

The newspaper also reports that while there's no evidence to prove these objects are a product of alien technology, it can't be ruled out either.

That leaves two leading theories to explain these mysterious moments: something other-worldly or perhaps new technology developed by an adversary, likely China or Russia.

WATCH | 'Look at it fly!' say navy pilots who spotted UFO: 

U.S. navy pilots track a UFO

1 year ago
Duration 0:35
In this 2015 video declassified by the U.S. Department of Defence, U.S. navy pilots track an unidentified flying object off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla.

Authenticity of leaked videos confirmed

In recent years, the U.S. Defence Department has confirmed the authenticity of leaked videos showing fast-moving objects that at times have caught pilots off guard.

"What you see now in the public media, in my opinion, are some of the least compelling videos," Elizondo said during an interview with CBC News.

He said he can't elaborate further because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed. 

In this image from video provided by the U.S. Department of Defence labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at the centre as it is tracked soaring high along the clouds. Under orders from Congress, the U.S. government has been taking a hard look at UFOs, and a report summarizing what officials know is expected by Friday. (U.S. Department of Defence/The Associated Press)

"My hope is that at some point, we can be transparent enough where we can share that information with the general public, without compromising sources and methods," said Elizondo, who did not want his location to be revealed for security reasons.

This is a mystery that has both stumped and fascinated some of the most powerful people in the world.

"There are things flying around up there that we haven't fully identified yet," said former U.S. president Bill Clinton during an appearance earlier this month on ABC's morning talk show Live with Ryan and Kelly.

Former president Barack Obama says he doesn't have all of the answers either.

"There's footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are," Obama said in an interview in May on The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS.

Elizondo said he is not taking a position on what the objects might be — although he says if these sightings turn out to be the work of foreign adversaries leapfrogging past U.S. aerospace capabilities, it would be a serious intelligence failure.

"We're talking about a national security issue. Something is in our airspace, our controlled airspace that we don't know, that can out-perform anything that we have," he said.

Hadfield rejects alien theory

There are few people in the world who know more about flying and outer space than Col. Chris Hadfield.

Before becoming Canada's best-known astronaut, he was a fighter pilot and a test pilot.

During an interview with CBC News, he completely ruled out these objects being some form of alien technology.

"It doesn't even pass the basic common sense test," Hadfield said.

Former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, shown atop the International Space Station in 2013 singing David Bowie's Space Oddity, completely rules out objects in the sky seen by military pilots as being some form of alien spacecraft. (Chris Hadfield/YouTube)

"I mean, it just makes no sense at all, you know, that intelligent life — from somewhere, we have no idea, it's obviously not from our solar system because we've had a good look at every planet so far — could cross interstellar space and they wouldn't try and communicate with anybody. They would just sneak around and only be caught on strange-looking video by some fighter pilots. It doesn't pass any basic sniff test of logic," Hadfield said.

He said he understands why the public might be transfixed with this story, given its prominence in popular culture.

But pilots see things they can't explain all the time, since "it's just a really complicated environment to try and understand everything that catches your eye," Hadfield said.

"I couldn't count ... the number of times in a cockpit that I have whipped my head around to see something, and it was just a reflection — just a glint of light off some part of the cockpit or off a roof somewhere on the ground where it just got lined up with the sun just right, and it made a great big glint."

WATCH | Col. Chris Hadfield doesn't buy the alien technology theory: 

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on alien technology

1 year ago
Duration 1:03
Retired Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield has been following the conversation about UFOs, but says the idea that they're alien technology 'doesn't even pass the basic common sense test.'

Reports of UFO sightings in Canada

By no means is this just an American phenomenon. In Canada, there are roughly 1,000 UFO sightings every year — a combination of reports made by pilots and members of the public, according to Paul Kingsbury, a professor and associate dean at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studies paranormal activity.

Canadian authorities handle these sightings differently than their U.S. counterparts. When pilots see something they can't explain, Nav Canada, which owns and operates Canada's civil air navigation service, is typically notified.

Pilots must then fill out a report with basic information, including a brief description of the incident, the date and time, and any other relevant information.

The Royal Canadian Mint released a silver glow-in-the-dark collector coin last year marking what's known as the Clarenville Event. On Oct. 26, 1978, an RCMP constable responded to a call from witnesses in the town of Clarenville, N.L., who saw a brightly lit oval-shaped craft in the sky above the water. (Royal Canadian Mint )

"Depending on these details, Nav Canada may send a report to the Department of National Defence, the North American Aerospace Defence Command, Transport Canada and/or the Federal Aviation Administration" in the U.S., said Brian Boudreau, NAV Canada's manager of media relations.

Some of these reports can be found online in a publicly searchable database, including a report from last month made by a Delta Air Lines pilot who spotted something mysterious while flying over Saskatchewan.

Library and Archives Canada also has a publicly searchable database that includes reports dating back to the 1950s.

A government spokesperson says the reports that are shared specifically with the Department of National Defence are generally not further investigated.

"The Canadian Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Air Force do not typically investigate sightings of unknown or unexplained phenomena outside the context of investigating credible threats, potential threats or potential distress in the case of search and rescue," said Jessica Lamirande, a senior communications adviser at the Defence Department.

In an email to CBC News, she added that "although we collaborate closely with the U.S. for aerospace control, we are not aware of any Canadian nexus or participation in the U.S. Department of Defence's UFO studies at this time, nor does the [Canadian Armed Forces] have a unit dedicated to investigating UFOs."

Kingsbury of Simon Fraser University says the U.S. has far more resources to investigate these incidents.

"It's backed with millions of dollars, which was revealed by the New York Times story in 2017 in December, that there was indeed a program that studied these anonymous anomalous aerial vehicles," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Paul Kingsbury, shown in 2015, is a professor and associate dean at Simon Fraser University in B.C. who studies paranormal activity. In Canada, he says, there are roughly 1,000 UFO sightings every year — a combination of reports made by pilots and the public. (The Canadian Press)

The upcoming report in the U.S., Kingsbury says, could help advance scientific research into the phenomena.

"Arguably, all governments around the world, including Canada, would do well to urge the U.S. to release the data so it can be studied scientifically."

Public wants 'transparency'

While there is no consensus about what these objects could be, there is growing public momentum to get to the bottom of it.

Peter Ragone is the co-founder of a new bipartisan political action committee in the U.S. called UFO PAC, dedicated to fundraising and supporting politicians who pursue this issue.

"It's better to have as much information as possible and to be completely transparent about it," he told CBC News.

Ragone said he believes this is one of very few subjects where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground.

"America is ready for a mass movement, a popular movement around transparency on this issue," he said.

"We believe this secrecy is dead. You're not going to be able to continue to hold these things in a room somewhere with only a few people seeing them. And so let's put it all out."

No side in this debate will likely be satisfied with what is included in this week's report.

But with public interest becoming increasingly intense, pressure is building on authorities to be more transparent about what they know for sure — and to be honest about what they don't know.


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.