Quirks and Quarks·Analysis

UFOs may be real, but that doesn't mean they are alien spaceships

Bob McDonald’s blog: The US intelligence community and military will be submitting a report to their congress on unidentified flying objects

Bob McDonald’s blog: Much anticipated Pentagon report is expected to provide detail on sightings

The Pentagon's new Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) task force is releasing a highly anticipated report, investigating sightings of UAP — also known as UFOs — through a natural security lens. (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

UFO enthusiasts are excited about the impending release of documents from the Pentagon with details on unidentified aerial phenomena that have been reported by the military and civilians. There is not likely to be enough information to determine what they are. Anything beyond that is pure speculation.

The idea of aliens visiting the Earth is a staple of science fiction and an exciting thought when you consider the vastness of the universe and endless possibilities for life out there. Indeed, just within our Milky Way galaxy alone there are between 100 and 400 billion stars, and recent surveys are showing that most stars have one or more planets. 

Scientists from the University of British Columbia recently tried to put a number on how many potential Earth-like planets might be in orbit around each Sun-like star in our galaxy. By combining simulations and data on extrasolar planets from NASA's Kepler mission, the researchers calculated that nearly one in five of the six billion stars like our Sun in the Milky Way galaxy could have an Earth-like planet. 

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft left a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, some of which could be promising places for life. Other satellites have discovered many more. ( Credit: NASA / Ames Research Center / W. Stenzel / D. Rutter)

Our galaxy is only one of an estimated hundreds of billions of other galaxies in the universe. The numbers are staggering and even at the odds of a million to one against a planet harbouring life, you still end up with millions of possible life forms in space.

Why haven't they said 'Hello'? 

But the idea of those aliens developing interstellar technology and cruising around in our atmosphere, stealthily trying to avoid detection is another matter altogether. First of all, telescopes have yet to find another nearby planet with life on it, and we have not heard any signals from other civilizations. But we're continuing to look and listen.

Secondly, life in space is spread out over great distances and time. Even at the speed of light it takes years to reach the nearest stars, decades, centuries or millennia to explore the galaxy.

Then there is the fact that the universe is very old and we are relative newcomers. There could have been civilizations that rose and fell before we existed and others that could appear after we become extinct. We could all be missing each other in time.

A visitor looking at the Anatomy of a Martian art exhibition in Melbourne in 2010 that explored the career of artist and filmmaker Tim Burton. The possibility of extraterrestrial life has long been a source of artistic inspiration. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Lacking hard evidence 

There is also the practical side of UFOs: Why would aliens go to all the trouble of crossing interstellar space, realize our planet has an intelligent civilization and not make contact? Perhaps they think we're too primitive, but it sure is a waste of a trip. 

Even if alien ships did arrive, they would have a tough time getting through the U.S. Space Command surveillance shield surrounding our planet. Objects in orbit around the Earth are tracked to protect astronauts aboard the International Space Station and make sure there are no collisions with satellites. This system can see objects as small as the size of your head, so it would be very difficult for an alien spaceship to pass though undetected. 

The image from a 2015 video provided by the U.S. Department of Defense of an unexplained object is seen as it soars high along the clouds, travelling against the wind. 'There's a whole fleet of them,' one naval aviator tells another, though only one indistinct object is shown. (US Department of Defence via AP)

The U.S. military is very interested in unidentified aircraft, but not so much those from other planets as those from other countries that enter U.S. airspace, especially new experimental prototypes that might pose a threat to national security. 

Finally, if the aliens are so clever they can sneak through our surveillance, why are there no clear pictures of their craft? In science, evidence must be strong and experiments repeatable. But UFO encounters are one-off events with very poor evidence. Why are pictures of UFOs always fuzzy and blurry, especially since people everywhere on the planet carry a camera on their phone always within reach?

An unidentified object flies over Mexico City, seen through a very long telephoto lens, in July 2000. The objects were in fact probably silvery helium filled balloons. (Getty Images)

There have been hoaxes in the past where hats or toys have been thrown into the air and photographed above buildings to look like spaceships, and there was a famous alien autopsy movie in the 1990s, one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever.

But until someone comes up with solid evidence, a crystal clear photo or movie, a single piece of metallic alien alloy or a single molecule of alien DNA, there is no scientific proof of aliens among us (unless they look like us, of course).

Signage is posted outside a gate of the Nevada Test and Training Range, commonly referred to as Area 51, near Rachel, Nevada, in September 2019. (Bridget Bennet/AFP via Getty Images)

This summer, go out on a clear night, lay on the ground, look up for a good long time and watch for UFOs. You will almost certainly see moving lights among the stars. 

If it is a blinking light, it could be an aircraft, but you still won't be able to identify the type of aircraft or the airline. You might see a bright steady light passing over, which could be the International Space Station, one of thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth, or even the flash of a meteor. If you don't know what they are, they are all unidentified flying objects. 

On the other hand, if an alien spaceship does land in your backyard… let me know. I have a few questions for them.

This will be my last blog until September. Have a great summer, everyone.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.