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Are we alone? Tracking UFOs and alien life through technology

Hack Reactor

Are we alone? Tracking UFOs and alien life through technology

By Wendy Gittleson for Hack Reactor

In the few hundred thousand (give or take) years that human beings have been walking the earth, it seems we’ve always had our heads turned toward the stars in hopes for answers to humanity’s biggest and most unanswerable questions. 

Some look at the trillions of stars and planets above our head and see proof of God. Others look to the stars to gain a deeper understanding of science and of our own planet. There is a third group of skywatchers who until recently were considered conspiracy theorists -- tinfoil hat types. They believe that aliens regularly visit us on Earth via UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomenon), or as they’re more commonly known: UFOs. Some aliens, many believe, even live among us. A portion claim to have been abducted by aliens.

There’s even a name for people who study UFOs. They are called ufologists. While my brief search didn’t locate an accredited degree program for ufologists, some hold doctorates in astrophysics. 

Earlier in June, some videos were leaked to the media that showed images of UFOs as first seen by Navy pilots. Intelligence agencies are expected to release reports on the sightings to the Senate by June 25th. 

Luis “Lue” Elizondo, the former director of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), an unpublicized U.S. government program created in 2007 committed to the investigation of UFOs, has come forth as a UFO whistleblower, claiming that visitors from outer space are very real. 

I have a confession. When I was handed this assignment to write about tracking UFOs through software and data science, I didn’t know where to start. I am a run of the mill stargazer, which means I might be able to identify a couple of constellations on a very clear night. Occasionally I’ll see a random light careening through the atmosphere, and I might wonder, but then I assume it’s an airplane and go about my business. 

The first people I contacted might be considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. I emailed a few astrophysicists at schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley, both with world-renowned programs. They didn’t have much interest in talking to me about UFOs or even UAPs. I also contacted a friend of a friend who is a space buff and very open to the idea of UFOs, but he didn’t know much about technology used in tracking UFOs. Between referrals and some research, though, I was able to find some true experts on the subject. None of them wore tinfoil hats.


Dr. Seth Schostak -- SETI

One of the astrophysicists I emailed suggested I speak to a colleague who works with NASA’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute). Within hours, on a Sunday, I was on a Zoom call with SETI Senior Astronomer, Dr. Seth Shostak. Shostak has a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Caltech. I quickly learned that Shostak is no ufologist. 

“SETI has always been a subject of interest (to UFO skeptics and believers),” said Shostak. “The conflation with UFO stuff has always been there. The first month I was working for the SETI Institute, I was called up by a Fox TV show called ‘Sightings’ to do something on that show.”

He understands the confusion. “One-third of the public believes that UFO stories are real. It’s not a niche kind of belief.” 

Shostak does believe that there is life, even intelligent life, in outer space, but he doesn’t believe they’re visiting us. Although he doesn’t rule out the possibility.

“It doesn’t violate physics,” he said. “It’s really hard. Building a rocket that doesn’t go much faster than our own would never get you between the stars. It has to be at least 10,000 times faster than our rockets. That’s not easy. There are energy considerations that make it very very difficult. But,” he added, “as I said, it doesn’t violate physics, so it could be, but the evidence is so poor you would never accept it as evidence in a court of law.”

Shostak did cite a recent study of data obtained by the Kepler Satellite which indicates that “every second or third star has a planet that’s roughly the same size as Earth with roughly the same average temperature. So, the number of cousins of Earth, if you will, are on the order of 100 billion in our galaxy. We can see 2 trillion other galaxies, each with 100 billion cousins of Earth. The default estimate,” he said, “is there is lots and lots and lots of life. Either that, or there’s something very special about Earth. If there is, no one has been able to find it. There isn’t anything about Earth that you can’t find all over the place.”

When asked about the software used to power SETI's antennae and telescopes, he revealed only that it was custom. He is excited about one technology, though. NASA is supposed to launch the James Webb telescope later this year. It might be able to tell us about the atmosphere of some planets in our galaxy, which could tell us more about the possibility of life. 

While SETI has access to some of the most advanced technology in the world, and collects enough data to fill a hard drive every 10 minutes, the search for UFOs is something very different, and not as high tech as you might think. 

Dr. Mark Rodeghier -- CUFOS

I started narrowing in on my topic with my second call, to Dr. Mark Rodeghier, the President and Scientific Director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). Rodeghier has a B.S. in astrophysics from Indiana University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. 

When asked about his own experiences, Rodeghier said “I’m one of the more unfortunate ones that hasn’t even seen a UFO. Most people in the UFO field,” Rodeghier said, “have had an experience, which is one of the ways they get interested. I’ve talked to hundreds of witnesses who have.”

“The search for extraterrestrial life,” Rodeghier said, “can be done in many ways. One way is to do it like SETI has done in the past, which is with radio telescopes and things like that. As time has gone on, though, the people in the SETI community have realized that it’s worthwhile to search closer to home and look for what they call ‘technosignatures' (technological signs, such as radio signals, radiation, etc. that would indicate intelligent life). Technosignatures can be far away. If aliens are very advanced,” Rodeghier added, “they can actually modify their solar system and their sun and we can detect that from hundreds of lightyears away.”

“But,” Rodeghier said, disagreeing with his SETI colleague, “they also might send probes to our solar system that we can detect right here. They may have done this many, many years ago, and left something on the moon for us to find, or an asteroid. Those are technosignatures that are closer to home. If you place the aliens that close, why not come a little closer and say we can see them in the Earth’s atmosphere?”

When asked about the software used by CUFOS, he admitted that they didn’t have any specialized software other than database software. He did add, though, that one of his associates is a chemist, but he didn’t know the software she used to analyze samples. For data analysis, though, Rodeghier said they use STAT programs or R.

As for the UFOs themselves, Rodeghier doesn’t rule out artificial intelligence. “There are good reasons to believe that (the aliens) might not be biological. They might be machines. The reason is this,” Rodeghier added, “we’re already talking about building really intelligent machines. Imagine if 2,000 years from now, we can build something that’s like us and is just as intelligent. Who would we send across space to investigate and do things? We might send robots because it’s dangerous in space.”

2020 was a record year for UFO sightings. Surprisingly, Rodeghier isn’t convinced most were in fact UFO sightings. “I am involved with investigating that exact question with a couple of colleagues,” said Rodeghier. “While I can’t give you exact details, I can tell you that many of the sightings were caused by (Space-X’s) Star-Link satellites.”

Peter Davenport -- NUFORC

My last call was to Peter Davenport, the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, which surprisingly is a one-man operation. NUFORC has maintained a database of UFO sightings since 1974. Most reports are submitted online, but NUFORC has a telephone hotline as well. The reports are downloaded into a database. 

“Sometimes,” Davenport said, “there are obvious explanations for reports or there are out and out hoaxes. We try to label them. Unfortunately, the volume of reports doesn’t allow me to put comments in each individual report.”

If you look at NUFORC’s reports sorted by dates, you’ll notice that since the organization’s founding, there has been a steady increase in reported UFO sightings. Davenport warns that by looking at the volume of reports, we’re looking at the wrong data. “A flight of Star-Link satellites can fly over San Francisco or LA and you get a pulse of reports but they’re not about genuine UFOs. They’re about terrestrial events.”

When asked if some areas get more reports than others, Davenport said “no, there are no hotspots. There are UFO reports coming in from almost every state and every city. The only exception,” he added, “is Horry County, SC. In April or May of 2013, we started receiving a type of report that has persisted. It’s a report of red, orange or yellow, amber or gold spheres. Sometimes up to dozens or even hundreds (of reports) in a case.” He had no explanation.

A lot has changed since the founding of NUFORC. In 2004, Davenport penned a paper about passive radar technologies for detecting UFOs. “With technology that has appeared over the last two or three decades,” Davenport said, “we are now able to detect UFOs directly by listening to the reflected radio and television signals off their skin... off the outer surface.”

“The day my paper was published,” Davenport said, “I got a call from a CIA agent who called to congratulate me on my line of reasoning. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘if you build the system you describe in your paper, you will be successful in answering the question of whether UFOs are real or not.’ He has a Ph.D. in physics. He had spent the first 20 years of his life at the CIA constructing passive radar systems to detect clandestinely, targets.” Davenport believes the government might already be secretly tracking UFOs through passive radar.

UFO tracking software

For students and graduates of Hack Reactor’s coding bootcamp who might be interested in UFOs, there are plenty of opportunities. Ufology is in desperate need of reporting and recording software. 

UFO data science

Graduates and students of Galvanize’s data science bootcamp have a little more to work with. NUFORC’s data is available on Kaggle. Davenport would love the help of some highly-skilled volunteers. Another data collection organization, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) is similar to NUFORC but with a larger staff. They enlist the help of people from several fields of science, including computer science, to ensure that their methods are scientific.