What are UFOs?
Because UFOs are by definition unidentified, the technical answer to the question "What are UFOs?" is "we don't know". We can however make some educated guesses based on a sighting's description. Unfortunately many UFO reports are lacking enough detail to make a good guess, so if you want to record or report a sighting, read how to report a UFO.
In my experience UFO sightings can be roughly divided into three groups:
- One third have confirmed simple explanations, so they are no longer classed as UFOs.
- One third do fit the profile of a known explanation but cannot be confirmed, so are technically still UFOs but not of great interest.
- One third have no good explanation at all. These are the ones that get my attention.
Here's a list of some well-known explanations for UFOs. It's not a complete list, just the ones I come across most often:
- Sky lanterns, AKA Chinese lanterns. These have been growing more popular both as a ritual at celebrations and as a prank. They can be deceiving in size,
distance and speed, and they can appear to move against the prevailing
- Other human-made objects. Balloons with flares, gyrocopters with lights, etc. These are popular tools for pranksters.
- The International Space Station (ISS). The ISS can look very eerie. Its appearance and apparent speed changes depending on various factors, fooling many people who think they know what the ISS looks like. Sometimes it even looks like it's on fire, and it often appears to vanish into thin air.
- Satellites. Sometimes mistaken for UFOs, they can also exhibit the vanishing effect.
- Atmospheric conditions. Light can be reflected and refracted in ways to create UFOs. Not as common as other explanations but can be very convincing.
- Venus. Seriously, the planet Venus (and occasionally other celestial bodies) can be mistaken for a UFO.
Note: It's very difficult to judge the size, distance and speed of objects in the sky at night. They can trick you easily.
What about sightings that don't fit any known explanation?
Sometimes "we don't know" is the only honest answer. The problem is that humans don't like it as an answer—we're hard-wired to insist on at least some possible answers. When we can't find a simple answer we start looking for more complex or unlikely ones. This behaviour is understandable but problematic as it often leads to unlikely answers being promoted as the only possible answer, when the truth is still "we don't know".
A common mistake is to assume that just because a UFO is not an identifiable earthly object then it must be from another world or dimension. This is wrong, there are actually two possibilities: (1) it's an unidentified earthly object or phenomena, or (2) it's from another world or dimension. Even in the case of very strange sightings, history and scientific principles tell us that the first possibility is more likely to be true than the second. There's certainly no reason to think that just because an object is unidentified it must be alien.
Could they be aliens?
It's possible but I think it's unlikely. I do believe that aliens probably exist out there somewhere (see the Drake Equation), I just doubt whether they've ever been to Earth. For a detailed discussion about this you'll need to come to one of my shows but in the meantime here are a few things to consider:
- To visit us, aliens would need the ability to travel between solar systems. We aren't even sure if this is theoretically possible, but at best it would be extremely difficult, time-consuming and resource intensive. It could only be done by unimaginably advanced aliens.
- It's unlikely they would travel in the type of spacecraft we normally associate with UFOs.
- They would be able to conceal themselves reliably and they certainly wouldn't crash-land. If people are seeing aliens it's because the aliens want to be seen. If so, what game are they playing?
- The idea of aliens stealing our resources is hard to support. They could make anything they want out of the raw material found everywhere in space. It wouldn't make sense to come all the way to Earth—it would cost less energy to make whatever they need (including food, water, etc) near their own home.
- Similarly, there is no obvious incentive for aliens to invade Earth. Our planet is unlikely to be suitable for them and they probably have better options for colonizing space than conquering Earth.
- Reports of aliens experimenting on humans are the most difficult to take seriously. Although we can't imagine what motives aliens might have, it's highly unlikely that they would need or want to use such primitive research methods.
- Finally and most depressingly... we've never seen any real evidence of alien life of any kind, despite many years searching. There are arguments such as the Fermi Paradox that cast doubt on whether there are likely to be aliens near enough to contact us, much less visit us in person.
None of this means that we can rule out alien visitations. It's not impossible at all. It's just that there are a whole lot of factors against it and precious few in favour.
Some of you will think I'm being closed-minded or too pessimistic. I'm not, I've just reached this viewpoint after many years studying astronomy and spaceflight with a side interest in UFOs. I'd love to be proven wrong. No one wants an alien visitation more than me, but until there's some hard quality evidence I'm forced to believe it probably hasn't happened.