In 1947, pieces of rubber and metal found in Roswell, New Mexico, likely started the hunt for UFOs and alien life on our planet. That collection of debris was officially from a crashed weather balloon — but that official explanation hasn’t satisfied many who claim it was the remains of something out of this world.
Nearly 80 years later, a balloon has sparked another round of fear and excitement over an alien invasion. In recent days, the US military has shot down a series of unidentified objects — which followed the downing of what is believed to be a Chinese weather balloon — and has offered little explanation as to what they are or what they may have done.
In the decades since those Roswell events, the world has seen a growing interest in UFOs, and where they might come from. And skeptics have long argued that many of those sightings could indeed be weather balloons, rather than new technology — either from this Earth or another planet.
It is fitting, therefore, that the latest excitement has been prompted by what appears to be some sort of observation balloon, although that has not yet been confirmed. And that official secrecy, too, is consistent with the mystery surrounding those objects since that material fell to Earth in the New Mexico desert.
People have speculated for centuries about the possibility that the sky could be alive with something extraterrestrial. Indeed, a conspiracy theory all its own — known as “ancient astronauts” — has pointed to what it believes are references in historical texts describing unusual events in the sky.
But the modern excitement about UFOs really started in the mid-20th century. During the war, some pilots described seeing lights in the sky that became known as “foo fighters” that have still not been definitively explained.
Then came Roswell, which helped spark a buzz about UFOs that began shortly after the debris was found in 1947 and continued through the 1950s and into the present day. Those sightings came at a time of tension between the US and the Soviet Union, and many have speculated that the interest in the sightings could at least be a result of that fear.
In 2023, the world is in much the same state: pilots have been reporting unusual flying objects in the sky for years, and – amid rising global tensions – downed objects have sparked theories of UFOs.
In recent years, officials have tried to avoid using the word “UFO” and instead refer to the objects as UAPs, or unidentified anomalous phenomenon. That’s partly an attempt to make the word more accurate and neutral, but it also comes at a time of increased, serious interest in the objects.
In recent years, new reports have made it clear that the US takes at least some reports of objects seriously. In 2017, videos were published of fighter jets encountering objects that seemed to move in a way that seemed impossible with existing hardware.
Since then, more videos have been released and new reports have shown that the US had been conducting its own – largely classified – work to investigate what those unidentified aerial phenomena might be. Reports also revealed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a US government program to investigate such events.
Amid these revelations, US military and government officials have become increasingly open about the fact that unknown things seem to be in the sky. Few have given any indication as to what they might believe they are, but possible explanations include everything from aliens to classified military hardware.
Late last year, NASA announced it would launch an independent study of UAPs. Over the course of nine months – ending this summer – a team will analyze information from a variety of sources to explain what they are.
“Exploring the unknown in space and the atmosphere is at the core of who we are at NASA,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Understanding the data we have on unidentified anomalous phenomena is critical to helping us draw scientific conclusions about what’s happening in our skies. Data is the language of scientists and makes the unexplainable explicable.”
The space agency noted that the work was important in part because it’s task is to ensure that spacecraft remain safe. The data collected through the study will be important in helping inform that work, it said.
NASA’s announcement followed the release, in 2021, of a report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence summarizing public information about UAPs. It was launched in recognition of that newfound interest in the objects – and also out of fears that they could be the result of a leap forward by a foreign military force.
That report looked at 144 sightings of “unidentified aerial phenomena,” mostly collected from the U.S. Navy between 2004 and 2021. It could only explain one of those sightings — which it said was a “deflated balloon.”
Weather and other observation balloons have long been cited as an explanation for sightings of UAPs. They have a number of features that make them good suspects: they can seem to move oddly, their shape and lack of detail can make it hard to tell how big or far away they are, and there are many of them.
Every day about 1800 such balloons are launched worldwide. And so officials and experts have suggested that the new wave of weather balloon reports — and the new tensions between China and the US that have spawned — is not so much a result of more balloons, but more people going to them. are looking.
It may just be that the air has been filled with such UAPs for years or even decades without people taking much interest in them. As such, the new focus may mean that we become more aware of those objects – and that we only learn more about what we don’t know about them.
For now, officials have been reluctant to confirm anything about the unidentified objects: including whether they are alien or something else. Historically, that lack of information has mostly been filled with speculation about flying saucers and alien visits.