These topics represent the commonest questions that people new to the subject ask about the UFO phenomenon. We have tried to keep the answers simple, so that students and interested persons of all ages can grasp the essentials of this very complex subject. The questions here are concerned with the UFO phenomenon in general. For information on Roswell, Abductions, or Related Phenomena, please refer to those pages. Find out how to become a ufologist here.
What are UFOs?
UFOs are unidentified flying objects, but no one really knows what they are. Many researchers (called ufologists) have theories about what UFOs might be, but because no one can examine a UFO in a scientific laboratory, all of these ideas are really only educated guesses. We can offer a definition of a UFO, however, that you may find useful when you study the subject:
A UFO is the reported sighting of an object or light seen in the sky, on land, or underwater, whose appearance, trajectory, actions, motions, lights, and colors do not have a logical, conventional, or natural explanation, and which cannot be explained, not only by the original witness, but by scientists or technical experts who try to make an identification after examining the evidence.
Recently the acronym UAP has been used instead of UFOs, especially by US government projects studying the phenomenon. UAP stands for Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon, broadening the label to include UFOs that aren’t objects and aren’t flying. At CUFOS we will continue to more generally use UFO instead of UAP, both for historical reasons, but also because it has been long recognized that ‘unidentified flying objects’ comprise a diverse collection of sightings.
Who sees UFOs?
All kinds of people see UFOs. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, where you live, are young or old, already interested in UFOs or not. In fact, almost all people who report seeing UFOs were not even looking for them when they had their sighting. The chances for seeing a UFO are greater for those people who are outside at night, as more UFOs are reported then. But UFOs are seen in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, and in the daytime as well. Although most of us at CUFOS have never seen a UFO, some colleagues say that their interest in UFOs was sparked by seeing a UFO when they were children or young adults.
What types of UFOs do people see?
UFOs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are only small spots of light that move in strange patterns across the night sky. These are called nocturnal lights (NLs) and are the most commonly reported type of UFO. Nocturnal lights are not really very interesting because the witness can see little detail; without details, ufologists cannot learn anything new. Faraway objects, often disk- or saucer-shaped, most often seen in the daytime are called daylight discs (DDs). When UFOs approach much nearer to witnesses (within 500 feet), these sightings are called close encounters. There are three types of close encounters, designated as CE1, CE2, and CE3. (Abductions are sometimes referred to as CE4s.)
CE1 events can involve any type of UFO that is in close proximity to the witnesses, but the UFO doesn’t interact with the environment or the witnesses. CE2 sightings involve some type of physical effect, such as traces on the ground, effects on automobiles or mobile phones, or on the witnesses themselves. CE3 events are those in which some type of entity is reported in association with the UFO, whether a small alien-like being or something even more strange. When a UFO is observed visually and picked up by radar simultaneously, this case is cataloged as a Radar-Visual (RV) sighting.
How fast do UFOs move?
The reported speed of UFOs varies dramatically. UFOs can hover silently for a long time then instantaneously fly off at great speeds—certainly much faster than conventional aircraft. They can move slowly across the sky, or perform unbelievable maneuvers, such as right-angle turns, at incredibly high speeds. We do not know what might power UFOs or why and how they have such maneuverability.
When did people first see UFOs?
Many UFO researchers argue that UFOs have appeared throughout history. There are many myths, legends, and stories that tell of strange things seen in the sky or beings who came from the sky to help humans develop civilization. Because modern scholars cannot directly check the facts of these stories, most ufologists concentrate on more recent reports, although some recent research has been able to explain some of these older reports (see Redemption of the Damned: Vol. 1: Aerial Phenomena, A Centennial Re-evaluation of Charles Fort’s ‘Book of the Damned by Martin Shough and Wim Van Utrecht).
In the 1890s, people across North America watched strange dirigible-shaped airships with very bright searchlights flying above their farms and towns. Some people claimed they had met the airship pilots. Researchers disagree about the authenticity of these accounts. Many investigators think the airship reports were hoaxes spread by local liars’ clubs or sensational stories written by creative journalists hoping to sell papers. A few ufologists, however, are convinced these airship sightings represent the first reliable UFO reports in history.
During World War II, pilots saw strange, glowing balls of light flying beside their airplanes. They called these lights “foo fighters,” a term based on an expression (“where there’s foo, there’s fire”) from Smokey Stover, a popular comic strip at the time. At first, the Allied command believed the foo fighters were secret German weapons or surveillance devices. Only after the war did they discover that German pilots had also seen the glowing lights, which were thought to be American or British secret devices. The same situation occurred in the Pacific Theater.
During the summer and fall of 1946, a number of unusual aerial objects were sighted over Sweden and Norway. They were given the name of “ghost rockets” and it was believed that they were secret Russian weapons developed from the German wartime rocket program. The Swedish defense ministry stated that 80% of the 1,000 ghost rockets could be explained by natural phenomena, but about 200 cases could not be explained as either a natural phenomenon, Swedish or Russian aircraft, or misperceptions.
Although the airship and foo-fighter reports are more detailed and credible than ancient stories of strange prodigies seen in the sky, many ufologists question whether these sightings can be accepted as true UFO reports. As a result, many researchers say the modern UFO era started on June 24, 1947, with the sighting by businessman and pilot Kenneth Arnold. While flying his small plane along the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, Arnold saw nine crescent-shaped objects flying along the contours of the mountains. Although he saw them for only a three and a half minutes, Arnold knew they were not regular airplanes. He radioed in his report, and when he landed at the airport, reporters were waiting to ask questions. He described the motions of the objects as “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” This is where the term “flying saucer” came from.
How can you recognize a UFO hoax?
To eliminate the possibility that a UFO report is a hoax, one must examine the credibility of the witnesses, the details of the report, and any physical evidence, especially photographs. The reliability and validity of these factors must be ascertained before a researcher can have confidence in the data. A witness’s reliability can be checked by interviewing neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers, and other associates. In particular, an investigator is interested in determining whether the individual has a reputation as a sincere, responsible person, or as a practical joker, prankster, or hoaxer.
The researcher also examines the UFO report to determine if there are any unbelievable claims or glaring inconsistencies. For example, are there elements in the report similar to those found in science fiction or so unusual that they do not appear in other UFO accounts? Does the witness claim to have seen the UFO many times, although other witnesses cannot be found? Does the witness claim that important evidence is mysteriously missing or taken by unknown “government agents”? While such facts may not prove a hoax, they can cast doubt on the report and must be considered during the investigation.
It is the judgement of experienced UFO investigators, and not only those at CUFOS, though, that hoaxes are not that common among UFO reports. The vast majority of explainable sightings (IFOs) are honest reports by the witnesses.
What do UFO entities look like?
Because we do not know for certain that UFOs are spacecraft, we cannot be sure aliens are visiting the earth from other planets. Many ufologists argue that there is enough evidence to show that UFOs are really spacecraft operated by intelligent aliens. Among the reports of encounters with aliens (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or CE3s), there is a wide variety of descriptions. Some witnesses describe beings who look very human. In fact, they say these aliens could easily blend into the crowd on any street in any city of the world. These types of aliens are sometimes called Nordics, because they most closely resemble the people living in northern Europe. Others report seeing short, gray beings with large, almond-shaped eyes, and large, bulbous heads. These aliens have been called Grays. The Grays are sometimes divided into subgroups depending on other physical characteristics, such as height. On some occasions, witnesses report seeing creatures that resemble robots or androids. Only in the most unusual cases do people claim to have seen monstrous creatures so often depicted in popular movies about beings from outer space. (The beings in the illustration are those described in the book Encounter at Buff Ledge, by Walter Webb.)
Are people ever hurt by UFOs?
People occasionally report feeling pain or receiving an injury during a UFO encounter or abduction. Physical effects include eye irritation, sunburn, skin cuts, and sickness. After the experience, witnesses may have nightmares and feel anxious, and they may undergo personality changes or changes in their beliefs about important life issues. Witnesses, especially abductees, claim later UFO encounters and other experiences with the paranormal, such as poltergeist activity or the development of psychic powers.
When has the US government studied UFOs?
During the past 50 years, there have been several projects and investigative panels that examined the UFO evidence, at least superficially. Because UFOs are an aerial phenomenon, between 1947 and 1969 the US Air Force was charged with organizing several projects to investigate UFO reports. The most famous was Project Blue Book, which existed from 1952 to 1969. Although there were many UFO reports during those years, including numerous sightings by military and civilian pilots, and other technical personnel, the Air Force maintained that UFOs were not real. The military considered UFO reports seriously only because it believed that they could be used to confuse and overwhelm our intelligence and communication operations, thereby making America vulnerable to surprise attack by some foreign power.
Through its investigations, the Air Force was able to explain most sightings as natural phenomena or misidentified aircraft. However, there were still hundreds of UFO reports that it could not so easily explain, and re-evaluation of these reports, including by CUFOS, shows reason to believe many “explanations” lacked solid support. (See The Hynek UFO Report).
In 1966 there was a wave of spectacular UFO sightings across America that received widespread press coverage. Political leaders, especially congressional representatives, were pressured by their constituents who demanded explanations for their sightings. A congressional committee conducted hearings on the UFO sightings, and pressure was placed on the Air Force to resolve the issue once and for all.
In response, the Air Force contracted with the University of Colorado to conduct what it hoped would be the definitive study of the UFO phenomenon—a study that would finally settle the UFO question to everyone’s satisfaction and allow the Air Force to get out of UFO investigation. The project was headed by Edward U. Condon, a physicist, who had expressed negative views about life on other planets and the existence of UFOs. Several members of the Colorado study (which became known as the “Condon Committee”) charged Condon with failing to act in an open-minded and impartial manner, thereby biasing the study. Despite becoming mired in controversy, after several committee members were fired and Congress organizing its own symposium on UFOs, the Condon Committee continued its investigation and eventually released a final report. The study’s conclusion, written by Condon, stated that the 21-year study of UFOs had not added anything to scientific knowledge and that further study could not be justified. Critics charged the report’s conclusion did not follow from the study’s own data, and the Condon investigation was a sham from the beginning. Despite the controversy surrounding the Condon Report, the Air Force used its conclusions as a justification for disbanding Project Blue Book in December 1969 and severing its connection with the UFO subject. And the scientific community used those conclusions to justify its own neglect of the UFO phenomenon.
At present, the US Department of Defense has been actively investigating UFO sightings since 2022 through its All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office.
Why are UFOs more accepted today by the government and scientists?
A very good question, not just because its answer is somewhat complicated. Things are so dynamic; today’s response may literally change tomorrow!
The December 16, 2017 New York Times and Politico revelations of US government semi-secret UFO studies since 2008 and two (and soon after a third) Navy videos greatly changed perceptions about UFOs. Individuals claiming knowledge about these still-ongoing efforts came forth. This produced an avalanche of interest in the subject.
Decades of government statements claiming disinterest in UFOs were proven erroneous. Shown absurd were the 1953 Robertson Panel and 1969 University of Colorado UFO Project (“Condon Committee”) claims that UFOs were explicable and dangers only to public sanity and/or as potential “masks” or diversions for Cold War enemies’ use. While the relationship between government efforts AAWSAP (Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program) and AATIP (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program) became muddled, it was clear UFOs were “serious business.” In April 2019 the Navy announced it was drafting new guidelines for reporting encounters with “unidentified aircraft.” On May 26, 2019, The New York Times again broke a blockbuster story, now about 2014 and 2015 Navy encounters off the U.S. East Coast.
Another major factor is a sustained, bipartisan Congressional interest in the UFO/UAP matter. On June 17, 2020 the Senate Select Intelligence Committee submitted a report supporting efforts of the “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force” at the Office of Naval Intelligence “to standardize collection and reporting on unidentified aerial phenomenon,” and directed the Director of National Intelligence to submit a report on unidentified aerial phenomena within 180 days after passage of the Fiscal Year 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act. On August 14, 2020 Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist formally approved the establishment of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF). Specific provisions in National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) requiring additional focus on UFOs/UAP followed. And language within these NDAAs providing “whistleblower” protections has produced intriguing testimony.
Many more developments have occurred beyond what can be covered in this FAQ.
What is an IFO?
An IFO is an Identified Flying Object. In essence, it is a natural or man-made object that people reported as a UFO. About 90%-95% of all UFO reports prove to be IFOs, after an examination of the evidence by a trained investigator. People report natural or conventional objects as UFOs because they do not recognize them as such, due to unusual environmental conditions, ignorance, or the rarity of a natural event. For example, people have reported the planet Venus as a UFO, unaware of how bright the planet can appear at certain times of the year. Stars near the horizon are sometimes reported as UFOs because atmospheric turbulence and thermals (columns of warm air) cause them to twinkle rapidly in red and blue colors. Stars may also appear to dart back and forth because of autokinesis. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person’s eye movements create the illusion that a bright object seen in the dark without a frame of reference is moving.A
Among manmade objects reported as UFOs, recently both drones, which are being flown in the thousands, and Starlink satellites, have often been reported as UFOs. The latter have become a problem for astronomers as the satellites, clustered in a long group, can interfere with photography. For UFO investigators, reports of Starlink satellites increase IFO reports and require more work to separate those from more interesting sightings.
In order to distinguish between UFOs and IFOs, an investigator must find as much information about a sighting as possible, without leading witnesses into giving false details. It is also important that UFO reports are investigated soon after the sighting, so all relevant information about possible IFO explanations can be considered.
What are the most interesting cases for ufologists to study?
The most important cases for learning more about UFOs are those with multiple witnesses and reports in which the UFO leaves some sort of physical trace or effect. Physical trace cases involving ground markings or electromagnetic effects are called Close Encounters of the Second Kind (CE2s). Radar-Visual (RV) cases are also valuable as they include both visual sightings and radar detection of a UFO.
One of the most famous CE2 cases occurred in 1971, at Delphos, Kansas, where a teenage boy, Ronald Johnson, saw an illuminated object hover near the ground. After the object flew off, a glowing ring appeared on the spot. Analysis showed that the soil had undergone considerable physical and chemical changes that lasted for several months.
A fascinating RV case occurred on July 17, 1957. An Air Force bomber, an RB-47, was followed by a UFO for 700 miles across four states as it flew from Mississippi to Oklahoma. For about 90 minutes the object was seen by the flight crew, detected by the aircraft’s electronic gear, and tracked by ground radar. Because of the multiple witnesses, radar confirmation, and the duration of the sighting, most UFO researchers rule out misperception and radar malfunction. The RB-47 case is still unexplained.
Where and when are UFOs most often sighted?
UFO sightings are a worldwide phenomenon, with reports coming from almost every nation. Some countries, however, have more reports than others. In particular, a large number of UFO reports come from the United States, Argentina, Brazil, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Russia. By contrast, few reports (considering their large populations) are received from most African countries or those in Asia. No one is sure why the number of UFO reports varies from country to country, but cultural, religious, and political factors are probably involved, as well as reporting opportunities, and not necessarily anything intrinsic to the UFO phenomenon.
In the United States, UFOs are sighted in every state. Statistical analysis indicates that sightings most often peak in the early evening. with a secondary peak at about 2:00 a.m. UFO reports are evenly distributed throughout the week, with peak periods of reports coming during the summer months, especially July. Since the modern UFO era began, there have been extraordinary numbers of sightings (called waves) in the United States during the years 1947, 1952, 1957, 1966, and 1973.
To find out if there have been UFO sightings near your town will take some investigative work on your part. Ask your relatives and friends if they have seen a UFO. You may be surprised how many people have seen UFOs but never reported their sightings. Some studies suggest that only one in ten witnesses actually report their sighting. Check your local newspapers, especially editions published during the wave years listed previously, for news reports and articles about area UFO sightings. Read as many good UFO books as you can. You may discover a UFO report from where you live. Check out online report databases, such as the National UFO Reporting Center (https://nuforc.org/). CUFOS also has the largest database of sighting reports, UFOCAT, which you can read about on this website.
What theories do researchers have to explain UFO reports?
There are three general theories that try to explain UFOs. They are:
1. Non-human intelligent beings;
2. Unusual natural phenomena;
3. Psychological and sociological causes
The most popular theory (especially in America) is that UFOs are spacecraft built and operated by aliens from somewhere else in outer space. They may be autonomous probes without living entities. Some researchers reject the idea that they are space vehicles and speculate that UFOs might be another type of intelligently controlled device. These devices might create a holographic image that people see as something unexplainable, or they may stimulate the brain to create a hallucination that the witness interprets as a real UFO.
Another possibility is that UFOs originate in another dimension or universe (the multiverse theory popular among some physicists lends support) and access our own universe through portals or “wormholes.” Again, the UFOs could be unmanned devices, or include entities from this other universe.
All of these ideas, including the aliens-from-outer-space theory, still lack conclusive proof and unambiguous evidence. Individuals who are skeptical of the existence of UFOs specifically direct their criticism most often against this first theory. They argue that the vast distances between stars would make interstellar travel nearly impossible. These skeptics also believe that the many varying descriptions of UFOs and their occupants would imply that many alien groups are visiting the earth, which they consider very unlikely. They also argue that aliens would not be so secretive about their activities and would announce their presence in more obvious ways. Finally, skeptics point out that there is no undeniable evidence, such as a truly authentic photograph or metal from a UFO, that would prove their existence.
The second theory states that UFOs are unusual natural phenomena. Ball lightning is an example of a rare and incompletely understood phenomenon. Proponents of the “earthlight theory” argue that geological stresses in the earth’s crust produce glowing balls of ionized gas that are ejected into the atmosphere. They think that the properties of this gas (called a plasma) may have strange effects on the people that come near it; plasma may stimulate areas of the brain to produce vivid hallucinations, which might be the basis for abduction cases.
Opponents argue that the earthlight theory does not take into account all the data. They do not think that geological stress can create a plasma with the size, shape, and duration of reported UFOs. They also question whether an electromagnetically-induced hallucination could create the consistent type of memories reported by abductees.
The third theory proposes that UFOs are the result of psychological or sociological factors. Many scientists, particularly those who are skeptical of the existence of UFOs, argue that all sightings are really misperceptions of natural phenomena or conventional aircraft. They say that these misperceptions are the result of the witness’s ignorance, emotional state, or psychological health, or caused by unusual environmental conditions affecting an individual’s perception.
Other researchers believe that the stresses and upheavals in modern society have created a need in many people to establish “contact” with UFOs or aliens. They say that such a need exists because modern society has rejected traditional values and beliefs, leaving individuals adrift with no direction or hope. Through their belief in UFOs and technologically superior aliens, some people can place their faith in something or someone who can help humanity solve its problems and restore purpose to the world. Arguments against this theory point out that witnesses usually describe their sightings with a certain level of precision and consistency. UFO reports from emotionally disturbed individuals are rare and easily identifiable. However, there are individuals who claim to have received messages from alien beings, often by “channeling” these messages in a trance-like state. This undoubtedly comes from the channeler’s belief system rather than a seemingly objective source such as the UFO phenomenon..
Is there intelligent life on other planets?
Although the Center for UFO Studies is not specifically involved in the search for intelligent life on other planets, the idea that some UFOs are alien spacecraft makes this question relevant to ufology. While there have been many fanciful tales about life on other planets, most scientists search for intelligent life by using radio telescopes, or other techniques, to detect evidence of other technologically advanced civilizations. Projects involving the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are referred to by the acronym SETI. One of the first organized attempts to discover extraterrestrial life was Project Ozma (named after the queen of Oz), which was initiated by the American radio astronomer, Frank Drake. The project tuned its telescopes to detect radio emissions from nearby sun-like stars, such as Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. Although signals proving the existence of intelligent life were never detected, valuable information about the universe was discovered.
Despite the lack of success in discovering extraterrestrial signals, most astronomers consider the probability for extraterrestrial life to be very high. This conclusion is based on the Drake equation developed by Frank Drake, who conceived it as a way to stimulate discussion about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Some scientists reject the idea that extraterrestrial life exists; a position best expressed by Enrico Fermi’s statement (now known as the Fermi Paradox) that if extraterrestrial life exists in the universe, they (the extraterrestrials) should have arrived here by now. So where are they? The argument essentially states that if extraterrestrial intelligent life exists, we would have the evidence for its existence by now because the age of the earth would have given the extraterrestrials enough time to reach here. Of course, if intelligent beings exist elsewhere, many factors may have prevented them from contacting us, or they may have simply chosen not to do so. Then again, the possibility exists that the extraterrestrials have reached the earth. Most scientists involved in SETI projects, however, have not shown an interest in examining UFO data as a way to test this hypothesis.
What do you say to skeptical people who don’t believe in UFOs?
The study of the UFO phenomenon should not involve the issue of belief. Serious ufologists are not trying to make people believe in UFOs; they are trying to show that the UFO phenomenon–whatever it is–deserves serious scientific study. A constant problem ufologists face is ignorance about the subject. Even well-educated skeptics–often professors or professionals–are unaware of the evidence for UFOs, the subject’s serious literature, the history of government involvement and civilian investigations, and the details of significant cases. In fact, serious ufologists are often the best skeptics; they possess greater knowledge about the pros and cons for studying UFOs than debunkers.
Skeptics often argue against the study of UFOs based upon assumptions unrelated to the evidence. They assume aliens would not visit the earth in the large numbers that UFO reports suggest or that people don’t report accurately what they see. Because very few scientists study UFOs, you might assume that the evidence must be lacking. In practical terms, scientists generally study topics that are academically acceptable, have an abundance of data, and can attract funding from government and private sources. This latter point has been perhaps the most important: without funding almost no serious science can be done in any field, and the UFO field is no different.
To those who remain skeptical about the value of UFO research, here are some suggestions:
- Read the serious and relevant UFO literature.
- Learn about the UFO investigators and research organizations.
- Know the facts behind the phenomenon.
- Study the data and do not confuse facts with speculation.
- Examine the research methods and arguments of skeptics.
Remember that honest and serious skepticism requires an understanding of the data, relevant scientific and social research, and the world-wide history of the UFO mystery.
What should you do when you see a UFO?
First, you should call for other people to come and watch the UFO with you. The more witnesses, the more credible the report will be to investigators. Second, you should observe very carefully. If you have a mobile phone, take pictures or videos of the UFO that include known objects in the foreground and background. Remember as many details as possible, especially the time, date, duration, and location of the sighting, the UFO’s appearance, shape, apparent size and distance, lights, colors, direction, estimated speed, trajectory, motions, actions, sounds, and how you lost sight of it. Third, after the sighting ends, write down as many details as you can remember. Draw a sketch of the UFO (even if you took photographs) and a map of the area where the sighting occurred. If the UFO left any physical traces or effects, protect the evidence so researchers can investigate and analyze it. Finally, and most importantly, contact the Center for UFO Studies to file your report.