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The U.S. Navy pilots flying maneuvers in their F/A-18 Super Hornets in 2015 did not have to wait for yesterday's leak of the classified government report on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP)—better known as UFOs—to know that they were seeing things they could not explain. The objects were, yes, saucer-shaped, and they were bobbing, darting and changing directions with a speed and nimbleness that no known technology could manage.
"Look at that thing, dude!" one pilot shouted. "Oh my gosh. There's a whole fleet of them. They're going against the wind! The wind's 120 knots [135 mph] west!"
Cockpit cameras captured what the crew was seeing, and in 2020, the Pentagon declassified the footage. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about what the crew saw that day was how unremarkable it was becoming. In the past 20 years, military pilots have made more than 120 sightings of objects with no apparent signs of conventional propulsion—no exhaust or contrails, and certainly no wings or fins.
In 2007, Congress established the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program Task Force, charging the intelligence department with determining if these UAPs really are extraterrestrial in origin or—perhaps worse—advanced military technology being developed by China, Russia or other potential foes.
That program shut down for lack of funding in 2012. But the work resumed last year, when then-President Donald Trump signed a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that also required the Pentagon to continue investigating UAPs and release its findings to the public. That release is tentatively set for later this month, but the New York Times published a copy yesterday, and the conclusions are just enough to intrigue everyone and satisfy no one: There is no evidence that the UAPs are of extraterrestrial origin, but nor can that possibility be ruled out.
The report says definitively that the objects are not American military craft, but pointedly does not discount the possibility that they could belong to another earthly nation. Russia and China are known to be experimenting with hypersonic technology—vehicles and weapons that can move at five times the speed of sound or faster—and certainly the velocity of the objects seen by American pilots would be consistent with that kind of engineering. But the suddenness with which the objects change directions would—or at least should—cause g-forces that would rip them (or their inhabitants) apart. Other objects sighted have done other extraordinary things, including diving from the air into the ocean and back out, once again at seemingly fatal speeds.
Those kinds of so-far inexplicable abilities have caught the attention of a lot of people who normally keep their distance from what could be seen as fringe beliefs. "What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are," former President Barack Obama said May 17 on The Late Late Show with James Corden.
But others with deep expertise in space-related matters are not persuaded that there is anything otherworldly to be found from investigating UAPs.
"As Carl Sagan said some time ago, extraordinary claims require for their validation extraordinary evidence," John Logsdon, founder and longtime director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, said in an email to TIME. "Apparently the government report says that there is no such evidence. So I continue to be agnostic about these phenomena, leaning strongly to thinking they are, one way or the other, of human origin."
In the event that's indeed the case, Logsdon believes that whatever the government learns will likely remain the government's business. "If these observations are indeed related to highly classified national security activity," he said, "I would not expect their origin to be revealed in an unclassified government report."
More information may arrive when the full report drops later this month. But if Logsdon's right, best to expect the unidentified aerial phenomena to remain unidentified.
--Jeffrey Kluger
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X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al; Optical: W.M. Keck Observatory
A newly released image of Uranus taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory reveals the cockeyed planet, with its vertical rings, in x-ray frequency-enhanced color.
NASA is Going to Hell
Well, Venus, at least. But when when you're talking about a blistering hot world with a surface temperature of 470° C (880° F) and an atmosphere 90 times as dense as ours made almost entirely of carbon dioxide, the comparison is apt. Either way, NASA is showing Venus some love—the space agency announced this week that it's planning to send not one but two spacecraft to our next-door neighbor in the 2028-to-2030 time frame. They will be the first U.S. Venus missions in more than 30 years.
The first of the two ships, dubbed VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy), will orbit Venus and use 3D mapping to reconstruct its surface, looking for signs of volcanism and plate tectonics. The second, named DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging), will plunge through the atmosphere while sampling its composition. It will also capture the first high-resolution pictures of surface features known as tesserae, the equivalent of Earth's continents. That will help scientists determine if the planet had—or still has—plate tectonics.
One of the biggest goals of both missions: figuring out what went so terribly wrong on Venus. Most scientists believe that the planet started off much like Earth, and three or so billion years ago might have had surface water and a balmy climate. If there are clues to what changed that, VERITAS and DAVNCI+ might find them.
And Don't Forget Ganymede
Venus might have to wait until the end of the decade for its close-up, but on June 7, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will zip within 1,038 km (645 mi.) of Ganymede, a hulking Jupiter moon that's all kinds of special. At 5,265 km (3,272 mi) in diameter, it's the largest moon in our solar system—larger than Mercury, in fact. It's also the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetosphere, and, much more importantly, it's covered in a rind of water ice. Gravitational flexing keeps the water beneath the crust in a liquid state, creating a habitable—and perhaps inhabited—ocean.
Juno, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, will make the most of its Ganymede flyby—especially with its onboard microwave radiometer, which will study the crustal ice's thickness and composition. Other instruments will study the composition of the moon's tenuous ionosphere. Juno's cameras will also capture the best-ever pictures of the moon—but there won't be many. The entire flyby will last just 25 minutes, and given the long exposure times the camera needs in the low-light environment of space, that's only enough time for about five images.
Space Station Vacation
So far, the International Space Station (ISS) is not accepting reservations via Airbnb, but it's not exactly turning folks away, either. In early May, NASA inked a deal with private company Axiom Space to host a crew of four paying visitors, who will launch to the station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in early 2022. The deal was part of a NASA agreement that allows up to two such junkets per year.
Now, according to SpaceNews, Axiom is leaping on those other open slots, reaching an agreement with NASA for three more visits to the station to be launched through the end of 2023. All of the visiting crews will be short-term guests, remaining aboard for only eight days or so, and all will be expected to work—conducting scientific experiments and doing routine maintenance chores. But there is no doubt that the ISS is fast becoming a moneymaker for both NASA and SpaceX.
The US. And China Make Nice in Space
It's no secret that Beijing and the U.S. are not geopolitical BFFs, and their relationship in space has been especially strained. A 2011 act of Congress known as the Wolf Amendment actually forbids the two countries to cooperate in such global programs as the ISS for fear of Chinese theft of U.S. technological secrets. But chilliness between governments does not have to mean chilliness among private players, and as Politico reports, American and Chinese academics and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are increasingly looking for ways to cooperate in space.
The effort began in April 2019 in the form of informal workshops on areas of possible cooperation, including working together in the increased commercialization of space. The space détente is expected to step up this fall, as NGOs including the Secure World Foundation, which works for sustainability and security in space, and the Chinese Society of Astronautics, which advocates for "the development and popularization of space science and technology..." realizing that this thought is incomplete—checked the previous versions and couldn't find anything to use
TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.
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