12 Declassified UFO Secrets

The U.S. government has been keeping an eye on unidentified flying objects for decades. Here’s everything they’ve been keeping from you.

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The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program

In December 2017, a blockbuster report in The New York Times revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense had been funding a program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), focused on investigating reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. The Defense Department told the newspaper that the secret program started in 2007 and had been shut down in 2012, but Luis Elizondo, the military intelligence officer who came forward to say he had been in charge of it, insisted that the investigation efforts had continued after that date without specific funding.

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Fighter jets catch UFO on video

Although the revelation that the U.S. government had been studying UFOs was exciting, the two videos that accompanied the article got lots more play—they show 2004 infrared footage of an unexplained object filmed from Navy fighter jets. One of the pilots, David Fravor, described the scene to the Times: “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen.” He told the paper the encounter left him feeling “pretty weirded out.”

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Alien behind a matte glass. Blurred image.
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Scientists aren’t convinced the footage shows extraterrestrial visitors

“The only real piece of evidence that was widely available were some short videos showing a peanut-shaped object in front of a Navy jet,” says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer and fellow at the SETI Institute, which is dedicated to exploring the origins of life and intelligence in the universe. James Oberg, a space journalist and historian and a former NASA engineer, is similarly skeptical: “Nobody’s seen the original material and its context,” he says. Oberg also points out that although we think of pilots as particularly reliable witnesses, they are also susceptible to the tendency of the brain to try to make sense of confusing sights by using past experiences to fill in gaps. He explains that fireball swarms caused by satellites re-entering Earth’s atmosphere have been perceived as “a structured object with lights mounted on it” by people of varying education levels watching from both rural and urban areas of many countries.

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AATIP was requested by Congress

Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was Senate majority leader in 2007, requested funding for the project, which was co-sponsored by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens and Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Inouye. Reid told The New York Times that he’s proud of the program: “I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going.” While it ran, the program collected pilot reports, camera footage, and radar data, and tried to match it all with known aircraft. Luis Elizondo, the official who ran the program, told Wired that they often couldn’t match aircraft they investigated with anything they knew about.

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Man with astronomy telescope looking at the stars. Man telescope and starry sky. Night sky. Milky way galaxy.
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UFO enthusiasts were ecstatic

Jan Harzan, the executive director of the Mutual UFO Network, which collects and investigates sightings, told Space.com columnist Leonard David that the publicizing of AATIP data would “make it safe for our scientists and engineers to study this phenomenon without fear of ridicule or retribution, but with funding provided by Congress and private industry.”

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Aerial View of Pentagon and United States Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia
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The Pentagon shut down AATIP in 2012

Still, Seth Shostak points out that the closure of the program doesn’t exactly make him think that it was finding lots of useful UFO information. “If there were compelling evidence for out-of-this-world craft, I would expect that the AATIP study would have continued, and not been cancelled,” he says. “Programs are killed for lack of progress, not in the face of significant progress!”

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To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science

Elizondo resigned from his post at the Defense Department around the same time he was speaking to the press about AATIP, and he took a job with a new private organization called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science. The new venture aims to raise money for UFO research, new technology development, and entertainment projects, including documentaries and science-fiction novels. To the Stars released a new video clip in March 2018 that shows Pentagon footage of an object being tracked by a Navy jet over the East Coast three years earlier. This new video isn’t any more convincing to James Oberg, who thinks the releases are part of the To the Stars publicity push. “These selected portions [of military footage] were released by a private group raising money,” he says.

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 Fragment of iron meteorite called Campo del Cielo discovered in 1576
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AATIP collected metal alloys from unidentified aerial phenomena

This point in the AATIP exposé included very few details, but The New York Times specified that the company running the Defense Department program (a private contractor) had modified buildings in Las Vegas to properly store the materials for study. A Live Science article by Rafi Letzter ran this idea past some metallurgists and chemists, who didn’t think there could be any metal alloys (mixtures of elements) that would be difficult to identify. May Nyman, a professor in the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry, told the site that it would be possible to determine if an alloy had come from space by studying it for signs of ionization. (And alloys do come from space—most often in the form of nickel-iron meteorites.)

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Project Blue Book

AATIP isn’t the first U.S. government UFO investigation program—between 1947 and 1969, Project Blue Book collected more than 12,000 reports of UFO sightings. More than 90 percent were explained away (as being weather, known astronomical events, etc.), but 700 didn’t have ready explanations. However, after a research committee headquartered at the University of Colorado examined the unexplained reports and found no evidence of extraterrestrial visitations, Project Blue Book was shuttered.

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Other countries keep UFO secrets, too

The United Kingdom’s Air Ministry (and later Ministry of Defence) collected UFO files between 1959 and 2009, when it too closed down its program. In France, a UFO program started in 1977—known now as GEIPAN, it’s still operating. Residents who see something they can’t explain file official reports, and the agency collects them for researchers and scientists but doesn’t independently investigate them. When GEIPAN put its archives online in 2007, so many people logged on to read them that the website crashed. As of May 2018, more than 2,700 cases had been submitted to the database.

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China’s new radio dish was built to listen for extraterrestrial signals

It’s more than 480 metres in diameter, which is twice the size of the biggest U.S. radio telescope, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. That means it will be sensitive enough to find celestial objects such as distant galaxies and pulsars, but China’s government also specifically built it in order to search for signals sent from intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe.

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A UFO spaceship hovering over an alien landscape with water and mountains.
Photo: M. Cornelius/Shutterstock

Project 1794

In the 1950s, during flying-saucer fever, the U.S. government actually tried to build a disk-shaped aircraft. They were hoping it would go as high as 100,000 feet (30,000 metres) and fly at around 2,600 miles (800 kilometres) per hour, and it was meant to take off and land vertically. After spending more than $3 million (that would be more than $26 million today) on the top-secret development program, it didn’t pan out and was scrapped.

Now that you’re up to speed on these declassified UFO secrets, check out the most chilling UFO sightings ever recorded.

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