Science

The Big Idea: Why We Should Take UFOs Seriously

Whether you call them UFOs, UAPs or flying saucers, Canada should treat the objects that fly in our skies as scientific phenomena, not pop-cultural quackery
Chris Rutkowski
BigIdea_UFO_WEB

Most kids go through a space phase. But mine kept going after I watched NASA launch its Gemini and Mercury spacecraft on TV. And it kept going after I joined my high school’s UFO club in Winnipeg. When I enrolled at the University of Manitoba, I opted for a science degree; I wanted to be an astronomer. I would have been happy to spend all of my days looking up.

At the time, my professors were receiving tons of calls from civilians about UFO sightings. Convinced they were nonsense, they stopped picking up. I asked if they’d pass the calls along to me. All through my freshman year, I fielded reports from UFO spotters and sometimes even visited them at their homes. Their sightings were mostly things like stars and planes—honest mistakes. But others, like one family’s tale of a “Ferris wheel of lights,” didn’t have simple explanations. One professor asked me to give a presentation on what I’d heard. Hundreds of people packed the auditorium. I became the “UFO guy” overnight.

As UFO enthusiasts go, I’m not the one saying, “Aliens are here stealing our water and abducting people.” I often get flak for being too much of a skeptic. I’ve always looked at UFOs—which are separate from aliens—as a scientific problem, one that should be researched using proper tools and rigorous methods. Since the ’80s, I’ve produced the Canadian UFO Survey, an annual collection of sightings from all across the country. It pulls data from government documents and reports from pilots, police and civilians, then breaks them down by criteria like number of witnesses  and “level of strangeness.” Between 700 and 1,000 reports are filed in Canada every year, two to five per cent of which defy categorization. Roughly 10 per cent of all Canadians have experienced sightings, and that number only includes those who report. Whether you call them UFOs or UAPs—unidentified anomalous phenomena, a term that’s gaining traction—they’re real entities worth studying seriously.

A number of recent, high-profile incidents kicked off our latest UFO frenzy: last February, an American military jet shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina, then three more benign objects over Lake Huron, Yukon and Alaska within a week. UFOs were also the subject of a two-hour American congressional hearing in July, followed by a Mexican congressional hearing in September (complete with fake alien remains presented by a local journalist). 

As our airspace becomes more commercialized, with package-delivery drones from Amazon Prime Air joining Elon Musk’s internet-providing Starlink satellites in the sky, there will be more and more valid reasons to track UFOs. A major one is safety: airline pilots, for example, regularly report UFO sightings, which often turn out to be civilian drones. However, if they’re seeing lights or other curiosities—ones invisible to air-traffic control—that’s a huge concern. Whether these sightings indicate a malfunctioning of a plane’s collision avoidance system, a pilot with tired eyes or a true UFO, they could present a danger to passenger safety. UFOs are also a matter of national defence. Objects that matched descriptions of last spring’s infamous spy balloon were spotted floating over parts of Canada months before the balloon was officially acknowledged by the U.S. military. We need to pay better attention.

The first fix should be to the way the Canadian government handles sightings. Right now, a patchwork network of agencies accepts reports; many do, and they don’t communicate with each other. The Royal Canadian Air Force passed official control of the file to the National Research Council, or NRC, in the ’60s, when UFOs were no longer deemed purely a security issue, but a scientific one. (Sightings usually turned out to be meteors.) The NRC delegated some incidents to RCMP detachments for local investigations, then gave up the file in 1995 for cost reasons. After that, the UFO file became an administrative hot potato, eventually landing in the hands of Transport Canada and Nav Canada, a non-profit that manages the country’s aviation incidents. Nav Canada isn’t subject to access-to-information requests, so right now, there’s a giant black hole around what’s being investigated.

Canada should establish a central repository where new UFO reports can be collected and analyzed. Every year, that office should produce a public report, much in the same way the Supreme Court of Canada releases its annual year in review. This summary should include sightings from civilians—farmers, birdwatchers, even accountants who happen to glance upward during their daily commute. Science has always been advanced by the observations of regular people.

The broader scientific community will also need to participate in UFO studies to provide Canadians with proper data. There’s already good news on this front. This past September, NASA released a 33-page report that called for better UFO data gathering, possibly aided by AI technology and open-source smartphone apps. Also earlier this year, news broke that Canada’s Office of the Chief Science Advisor had launched the Sky Canada Project, the Canadian government’s first known UFO research effort in three decades. The goal is to examine how UFOs are tracked in Canada. (The results are expected in 2024.) These developments open the door for the use of scientific tools, like video surveillance, remote-sensing technology and telescopes. They can help us identify what we see, and also answer questions like how long it was there and how it moved. Scientists like tangible, replicable data, not anecdotes. These tools could provide it.

I’d like to see Canadian post-secondary institutions include more UFO-focused coursework in their disciplines—and not just in astronomy. Engineers, for example, could speculate on the technical details of how interstellar travel might work. There’s been some UFO research at Canadian universities, like the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies. But for the most part, ufology—the study of UFOs—has remained within the “invisible college,” among scientists who’ve conducted research for interest’s sake, without institutional support. 

There’s also the issue of misinformation: when scientists dismiss the validity of studying UFOs, Canadians don’t become less fascinated by them. We’re just forced to settle for less-reputable, fringe sources of information. (One Sky Canada document, for example, lists “preventing conspiracy theories” as a priority.) We get caught up in the wild speculation on Reddit or X, or watch Encounters, Netflix’s new and popular (but incomplete) UFO docuseries. Pop-cultural touchstones, like Star Trek and Unsolved Mysteries, feed our fundamental desire to know whether or not we’re alone in the universe. But the civic duty of scientists is to give us the facts. 

I am, of course, intrigued by the idea of aliens. A number of Canadians, including myself, are currently working on the Galileo Project, an international research project based at Harvard. Its goal is to systematically search for extraterrestrial life; I’m advising the team on how to obtain better UFO data. I don’t think I’ll meet any little green men in my lifetime, and the possibility that aliens are visiting Canadians is remote. But it’s not zero. Like any science buff, I believe the truth is out there.