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UFO theories end up on space archaeologist's junk heap

Science & Tech

The release of UFO videos by a secret American government agency has many people believing in the X-Files, but Flinders University’s Alice Gorman says there is a much more mundane answer.

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Last month the Pentagon’s Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force (UAPTF) re-emerged from the shadows after it was forced to officially release videos of UFO sightings that had been leaked to the media.

The UAPTF is responsible for recording sightings of UFOs in the United States and despite assertions the program was disbanded in 2012 it continued to operate within the Naval Office.

The once-secret agency was thrust into the spotlight following the authorised release in May of previously leaked footage of encounters between US military pilots and UFOs.

The three infrared videos captured in 2004 and 2015 had been leaked in 2007 and 2017 respectively.

The New York Times published two of the videos and Tom DeLonge’s organisation To the Stars published the third, causing widespread speculation about the flying objects and alien invasion theories.

However, Flinders University space archaeologist Associate Professor Alice Gorman says that although the idea of Scully and Mulder discovering hidden extra-terrestrials on the X-Files captures the imagination, the UFOs are probably caused by something much more mundane.

“These things are far more boring than when you can imagine anything you’d like,” Gorman says of the alien theories.

“It’s almost like a cultish belief. And you could believe within the US military, that there could be groups of people who kind of reinforce each other’s beliefs,”

Gorman, who wrote the book Dr Space Junk vs The Universe, says a more likely explanation for the objects in the videos is space junk returning to earth.

She says there were more than 8000 metric tonnes of space junk – ranging from cosmic dust to inactive satellites – orbiting Earth at the beginning of this year.

“The stuff that comes back into Earth is generally space junk – the most common component to survive [re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere] is titanium alloy pressure vessels that are used to fuel systems that are really robust,” Gorman says.

“I would also say I think it’s incredibly unlikely that you would find the remnants of stuff that was not a human [made] or a natural object.

“Even if we don’t know what it is just now, the likelihood that it is some natural phenomenon or it’s a misinterpretation of some kind of vehicle we already know about is the most likely explanation.”

Gorman says that our skies are so well monitored it would be hard to miss alien craft.

“There are so many government organisations and amateur organisations who are watching the sky that I think it is very unlikely that some non-human spacecraft would slip through the net,” she says.

“Now there are things like drones and other types of aerial vehicles that we didn’t use to have.”

Gorman says the UAPTF plan to make its findings public in the next six months could be to limit the speculation caused by the previously leaked videos.

“I do think the timing is really interesting because they weren’t terribly interested in being transparent [about UFOs] before,” Gorman says.

“They probably figured it was better to let some stuff out and let the public speculate about what that is than have uncontrolled speculation.

“It could be damage control… The easiest way to say something is not alien is to say, ‘here it is, judge for yourself’.”

No matter the plausible explanations, further sightings of unidentifiable objects over military bases in the US have caused concern amongst some American politicians.

Republican senator Marco Rubio says adversaries may be responsible for the UFOs, suggesting there have been technological advancements allowing other countries to spy on the US.

Around 72 different government space agencies were in existence worldwide as of 2018, with 14 boasting the capacity to launch spacecraft.

Gorman says concerns surrounding espionage are overblown because agencies often engage with researchers to allow the development of technological advancements to be transparent.

“The idea that there are super-secret technologies seems a little far-fetched,” she says.

“There are new technologies being developed all the time – some of those are in the military domain and some of them aren’t.

“If there was some secret aerial technology that other countries were using to spy on the US, I think there would be issues as there are heaps of people keeping an eye on these things.”

The three declassified videos

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