Psychologists and specialists in aviation medicine say there are plenty of reasonable explanations for such sightings other than extraterrestrial beings.
The Navy caused a bit of a sensation this spring when it implemented a formal process for pilots to report unexplained aerial phenomena — what most people call UFOs — after being accused in the past of not taking such reports seriously.
Alas for those who might be tempted to make the leap, such sightings are not evidence of life on other planets.
No one doubts that the pilots are seeing something, but psychologists and specialists in aviation medicine say there are plenty of reasonable explanations for such sightings other than extraterrestrial beings. Earthly sources of light reflected by clouds or haze, for example, or optical illusions wrought by fatigue after staring through a cockpit window for hours on end.
Another possibility is that the pilots were seeing some sort of experimental drone or other advanced technology about which they had not been briefed. Or, the objects were simply satellites, such as those launched in May by the Elon Musk-founded company SpaceX, which prompted a flurry of UFO reports from puzzled observers, the news agency AFP reported.
That does not mean scientists doubt the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. On the contrary, they say there is a good chance we are not alone. That is the view of astronomers who search for other planets that might have water — an essential substance for life as we know it — and geologists who study the conditions on Earth when life arose more than 3.5 billion years ago.
But it would not be the sort of complex organism that could communicate with us, much less send a spaceship our way. Think instead of microbe-like organisms — possibly something that derives energy from a chemical process other than photosynthesis, said Alexandra Davatzes, an associate professor of earth and environmental science at Temple University.
The odds of extraterrestrial life are reasonably good even in our own solar system — given the ample evidence that liquid water has existed on Mars and is present today beneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, Davatzes said.
“I am optimistic,” she said.
But first, some explanations for what those pilots might be seeing.
Seeing and believing
Though we treat our sense of vision as if it provides an exact representation of our surroundings, it is far from perfect in many respects, said Alan Stocker, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of psychology who studies the neuroscience of perception.
First, most objects do not emit light, so we see them only because they are reflecting light from another source.
“It’s an indirect signal,” Stocker said. “It’s not the object itself.”