UAP Meaning: Understanding Unidentified Aerial Phenomena

By: Allison Troutner & Austin Henderson  | 
U.S. Navy pilots tracked and photographed what appeared to be a fast-moving object off the Florida coast in 2015. Department of Defense

As you gaze up at the vast night sky, spotting flying objects and flashing lights, you might wonder if you're witnessing evidence of extraterrestrial visitors or simply natural phenomena. Historically, most people would label these mysterious objects as UFOs or Unidentified Flying Objects.

But did you know that there's a more modern terminology now in play? Enter "UAP" or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. So, what exactly is the UAP meaning?


The Evolution from UFO to UAP

Throughout history, from ancient Greece to present times, people have reported sightings of unidentified objects in the sky. These events, often linked with extraterrestrial origin, have been the focus of many enthusiasts and government agencies alike.

But the term UFO isn't without its issues.


When we hear "UFO", our minds often jump straight to alien spacecraft. Blame it on pop culture or the association the term has built over the years.

A Brief History of UFOs

The term "UFO" came into our lexicon after a significant event on June 24, 1947. Pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine bright, flying discs moving at high speeds near Mount Rainer.

This report birthed the terms "flying saucer" and "flying disc," laying the groundwork for what we commonly refer to as UFOs. Following Arnold's report, government officials and military units started establishing UFO investigation task forces.

Over the past decades, UFO sightings became synonymous with aliens. Reports from pilots, military personnel, and civilians alike about flying saucers, hovering lights and objects moving at high speeds always seemed to suggest visitors from outer space.


The UAP Era Begins

This screenshot of a leaked video of a flashing, triangle-shaped object that flew over a U.S. warship was confirmed by the Pentagon as real, though it declined to label it a UAP. SETI

The shift from "UFO" to "UAP" was subtle but significant. UAPs encompass a broader definition, including any unidentified anomalous phenomena in the sky. This change in terminology was partly due to recent years of data collected by national security departments and civilian star gazers.

In 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a comprehensive report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena called Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.


This report mentioned the rigorous scientific methods applied to UAP research, using advanced technologies like radar. It was no longer just about eyewitness accounts. The focus had shifted to hard evidence and understanding the nature of these events.

In a leap towards understanding these phenomena better, NASA has now commissioned an independent team of 16 scientists and astrophysicists. They aim to analyze unclassified UAP data and work towards ensuring aircraft safety.


UFOs, UAPs and the Quest for Answers

Whether it's UFOs or UAPs, the essence remains the same: unidentified flying objects in the sky. Both terms, while carrying different connotations, point towards humanity's eternal exploration and desire to understand the unknown.

While UAPs might be the preferred term in government circles, it doesn't exclude the possibility of extraterrestrial origins. The UAP terminology might just be the scientific community's way of embracing these unidentified objects without fear of, well, sounding a bit out of this world.


The change in terminology represents a more data-driven, scientific approach to understanding mysterious flying objects in our sky. As the stars twinkle and mysterious objects continue to whizz by, our search for answers continues, regardless of what we call them.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.