Scientists Want You to Say 'UAPs', Not 'UFOs'

U.S. Navy pilots tracked and photographed what appeared to be a fast-moving object off the Florida coast in 2015. Department of Defense

You're in good company if you often look up into the dark night — into the glittering specks of space and sky — and think you see something extraordinary, fantastic or even unexplainable streak across the sky. People have been reporting unexplainable objects in the sky since the time of the ancient Greeks. We're used to hearing them called UFOs or unidentified flying objects.

NASA now even has an independent team of 16 scientists and astrophysicists who will be studying and attempting to understand more about these mysterious observations in the sky, or as they call them unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs).


For nine months starting Oct. 24, 2022, the team will pour over unclassified data collected by civilian star gazers, national intelligence and security departments. The purpose is to discover new ways to collect and understand UAP data in the future and to determine the best ways to use that information to ensure the safety of aircraft. They'll release their findings to the public in mid-2023.

This isn't the first time a U.S. government agency has studied UFOs. One of the most famous is Project Blue Book, which was in the 1950s and '60s. But it might be the first time they've focused on UAPs instead of UFOs.

We know. We were confused, too, at first. UAPs? Why not UFOs?


A Brief History of UFOs

The acronyms UFO and UAP both refer to the same unidentified events reported in our sky: unidentified objects and balls of light. The issue with using the term UFO is that you can't say it — or hear it — without also thinking about extra-terrestrials or aliens from outer space.

That's because we've been calling those flying saucers, hovering lights and floating discs that suddenly zip off and disappear into the night UFOs since the late 1940s.


One of the first and most notable discussions of unusual flying objects was June 24, 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold flew over Mount Rainer on his way to neighboring Oregon.

Arnold reported seeing nine bright circular discs moving in what appeared to be an organized echelon formation in the sky, at speeds as fast as 1,200 miles per hour (1,931 kilometers per hour). It was the first time in reported history that the terms "flying saucer" or "flying discs" were used to describe unexplained events. After 1947, the U.S. government created UFO investigation task forces.

As more sightings like Arnold's were reported around the U.S. and the world, these events were referred to as "unidentified flying objects" or UFOs. The term morphed out of "flying saucer" and was coined by civilians and the government officials in the '50s.

They've fostered a fascination with the unexplained world of space and sky for generations and always have been tied to aliens. But if we're all familiar with UFOs, why would the government bother to rename them?


What Is a UAP?

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

Why the shift to UAPs? First, UAPs are considered unexplained sights in the sky, rather than unidentified flying objects. UAP is a pretty new term, but it came into our lexicon after the U.S. Department of Defense declassified several Navy videos that captured UAPs.

Then in 2021 the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released its much anticipated Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena report without a single mention of extra-terrestrials.


Scientists also are beginning to apply the scientific method to study UAPs, similar to what SETI has been doing since the 1970s. They're doing this using advanced technology like radar.

This was reiterated in the Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena report released June 25, 2021:

Most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers and visual observation.

It might be easy to dismiss eyewitness reports, but it's much more difficult to reject a UAP observed by eyewitnesses and corroborated on radar.

This is all to say the renewed focus on UAPs in government intelligence circles is a good thing. It indicates they're taking unexplained aerial activities in our skies seriously. The Navy videos were, well, so alarming, it's good news they're being investigated.

Now, that doesn't mean extra-terrestrials are left out of the picture or scientific investigations. The UAP moniker might be the scientific and intelligence communities ways of finally admitting these objects are out there. And saying it's OK to talk about unexplained aerial phenomena without the concern of being, ahem, alienated for sounding crazy.