What exactly is Harvard theoretical astrophysicist Avi Loeb doing co-founding a $1.755 million academic effort to look for UFOs? Yesterday, Loeb revealed the Galileo Project, which aims to develop an artificial-intelligence-powered network of telescopes that can search for evidence of technological alien civilizations on or near Earth. The project has received mixed criticism from outside researchers, who maintain that while there is no harm in at least looking for such things in a rigorous manner, the possibility of finding anything seems slim.
Galileo is an outgrowth of Loeb’s particular passion—making the case that ‘Oumuamua, the first interstellar comet ever discovered, might actually be a probe from an intelligent species looking to learn about our solar system. For the past few years, he has been trumpeting the idea both in the scientific literature and in a nonfiction book, Extraterrestrial. While on a publicity tour for the book, Loeb says, he was contacted by many people interested in UFOs—which are now more politely referred to as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP. Several of those people turned out to be both wealthy and generous, gifting him with large sums of money to use for further, more formal, investigations
“I always emphasize the fact that it’s not a philosophical question whether an object is an artifact from a technological civilization,” Loeb says. “It’s very easy to answer by taking a high-resolution photograph.”
That is what he and his research partners at Galileo hope to do, by building small arrays of instruments that would continuously scan the skies to capture data about anything out of the ordinary. The project also intends to develop sensors to hunt for any unusual, artificial and potentially alien satellites orbiting Earth, as well as to look for other ‘Oumuamua-like interstellar objects to study in greater detail. Despite its outlandish focus, scientists not associated with the group still think Galileo can provide useful information. “In the sense that this could serve to legitimize those kinds of investigations, it can be a very positive thing,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
“I’m glad to see Avi and others not being afraid of silly associations,” says Jason Wright, a Pennsylvania State University astrophysicist who works on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). “So much of UFO stuff is far from the way we actually do science; it’s hard to associate yourself with it and still be taken seriously. I appreciate that Avi is going to do some systematic data collection and study it with a clean sheet.”
Both Walkowicz and Wright emphasize that they don’t believe UAP to have exotic extraterrestrial explanations, considering them much more likely to be mundane things like planes, birds, insects, meteors or atmospheric phenomena. Given their highly random nature—most eyewitness accounts describe them appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly—building detectors to monitor them might be quite difficult.
“It’s really hard to see how you establish a search strategy that would have a chance of seeing one,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “I suspect there are more well-motivated SETI projects, or even UFO-search projects, that could be funded for less money.”
UAP are having something of a cultural moment, with the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence releasing a highly anticipated report last month on their own investigations into the phenomena. The government concluded that most of the events were likely terrestrial in origin, things like weather balloons and foreign drones, but added they merited further study.
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