People believe that the sky is the home of the gods. Every night when the sun goes into hiding in the great shadow of our planet, the Universe reveals itself as a glorious repository of miracles, and an invitation to explore the mysteries that lie beyond our galaxy.
Later this month, US intelligence agencies will deliver a report compiled by none other than the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense on “unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP)” to Congress. The documents include detailed information Pentagon has on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). They also present data gathered from alien encounters with US Navy pilots, commercial pilots and warships. The New York Times, which scooped parts of the report, revealed that US Intelligence found no evidence that the objects were extraterrestrial in origin. They could not explain what they were, either.
UFO sightings are not confined to American aviators. In February, in Ludhiana, Punjab, people were amazed at the sight of an illuminated object blazing through the night sky. It was oval-shaped with burning lights on both sides. The immediate conclusion was that it was a UFO, going by the pictures and videos shot on smartphones. Skeptical individuals suggested it was a meteor. The World UFO Day falls on June 24 when the first sighting was reported by American flyer and business tycoon Kenneth Arnold. Another group of ufologists celebrate it on July 2.
Flying saucer or meteor, Superman or airplane, humans are obsessed with the fundamental question—is there life out there? Do extraterrestrials live among us like the creatures in the movie MIB? Did they visit us in ancient times and impart knowledge to the Incas? Did they influence mythological battles with miraculous weapons? These are questions that impact mythology, science, anthropology, and the military, too. Some X-File theories are eccentric, too—for example, the religious sect Raelians believe that Elohim, an alien species, created life on earth. Its global growth suggests that the world is looking for deliverance from other evolved galaxies because wars, climate change and inclusive economics have made Earth inhospitable to its general population.
PRESIDENTS AND ALIENS
On May 21, during a joint news conference between US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, a reporter asked Biden about Barack Obama’s comments on UFOs. Biden sidestepped the question with a joke, “I would ask him again.” Obama had confessed on television that there were some things he “can’t tell” people regarding UFOs. When he moved into the Oval Office, aliens were one of the first topics he had raised with officials is there a hidden lab where alien specimens and spaceships are kept and studied? He confirmed that the US government had footage and records of UFO sightings. Jimmy Carter recounted seeing a UFO in Georgia’s skies in 1969 before he became president. Top guns label UFO videos shot with the cameras mounted on infrared weapons as “FLIR”, “GOFAST” and “GIMBAL” videos. These feature UFOs taunting fighter pilots. A 2019 leaked Navy video on NBC News showed an unidentified spherical object flying low, skimming the ocean for a few minutes and disappearing underwater with a splash.
PROOF OF LIFE
In August 2020, the US Department of Defense established the UAP Task Force (UAPTF) to investigate and “gain insight” into the “nature and origins” of UFOs after declassifying three alien videos taken by Navy pilots in 2004 and 2015 respectively. In the opinion of Navy physicist (retd) Dr Bruce Maccabee, “President Biden and leaders of other countries may find it necessary to develop a single, uniform policy for co-existing and interacting with NHI. Allowing various countries to develop their own policies could result in some form of disaster. If the UAPTF discovers that some UAP are evidence for NHI, the task force will, I presume, write an unclassified report ready for publication.”
The US is not the only country that funds research on extraterrestrials. Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Russia, Sweden and the UK have been declassifying their X-files since 2008. The French Committee for In Depth Studies, which examined spaceship sightings in the late 1990s, noted that five percent of alien encounters were reliable. In 2017, Chile’s Committee for Studies of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena, established to study inter-galactic flights, released footage of an alien spaceship taken with a helicopter’s infrared camera. Many countries have accused America of hiding data of alien spaceships. US Forces have reason to worry. Filmmaker Jeremy Corbell late last month tweeted a 46-second video clip of radar footage that shows UFOs swarming a Navy ship.
In the clip, an unidentified man is heard shouting, “Holy s***! They’re moving fast... They’re turning around!” The US established Project Blue Book in 1952, which amassed a databank of over 5,000 alien sightings, encounters and abductions. The Center for UFO Studies in Illinois reported 60,000 alien activities in 113 nations in the 1980s of which 2,000 were close encounters, 200 were abductions and the rest were just sightings. American astronomer J Allen Hynek calls them ‘CE’—short for Close Encounters.
CEs have been classified into five categories. 1. When someone eyes a UFO within 150 metres. 2. An aerial or on-the-ground encounter with a UFO that leaves physical evidence behind. 3. You can see the aliens inside the UFO. 4. Abduction. 5. Communication. The Pentagon report, if not redacted, could be an explosive revelation of civilisations beyond the Milky Way which have been sending probes to Planet Earth. Whatever their intentions may be, depending on the movie you are watching or the sci-fi book you are reading, the information could change human life as we know it. The feeling is both exhilarating and frightening, because it is human nature to conquer or destroy perceived enemies. The great Stephen Hawking believed that extraterrestrial contact could devastate humanity. He warned of aliens draining the Earth’s resources before moving on. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he pointed out.
THE VIMANA PHENOMENON
Indian UFO sightings are aplenty. Incidentally all such visual encounters in the world have common aspects such as shape, lighting and behaviour. In 1964, Billy Meier, well-known UFO researcher, travelled to India where he shot a series of photos of spaceships in Delhi skies. A report mentions that they regularly appear in Kongka La in the disputed area between India and China. It was the site of a fierce battle in 1962. Conspiracy theorists speak of a “UFO base in the Himalayas”, which only the Indian and Chinese governments know about—a place like the controversial Area 51, the top secret US military base in Nevada desert associated with spaceships and little green men. Since time immemorial, the Himalayas have been the realm of mystery.
In 2004, a five-member team of ISRO glaciologists and geologists were camping in Samudra Tapu near Uttarakhand’s Kanatal to study the Chandra basin glacier. Around 6.45 am, a porter ran to them screaming and pointing at a white object, between three and four feet high, hovering above a mountain ridge. “Sir, the snow man is coming,” he yelled in fright. Anil Kulkarni, a senior ISRO scientist, and his team members saw a robot-like object floating a few inches above the ground along the mountain slope, towards the camp. Kulkarni and geologist Sunil Dhar took pictures as they ran to meet it. The strange object had a cylindrical head with two balloon-shaped attachments, a body, hands and two legs.
Dhar was quoted saying that “it seemed to be walking, planting and pacing its steps like a human being”. Later tests confirmed that the scientists were not suffering from high-altitude hallucinations. The object’s motion shared similarities with other UFO sightings from all over the world such as adept manoeuvres on ground and in air, gravity-defying movements, changing colours and vertical takeoffs that contradict all known aeronautical laws. In 2011, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the ISRO report in a written reply to Parliament though details about what happened later are yet to be available to the public.
Local news reports in Meghalaya surfaced about a mysterious object from the sky that dried all the water and killed plants in a small village near Cherrapunji: there is even a café named after it in the locality. Last year, a Madurai resident saw a silent parallelogram-type object with four lights each in front and back, and two lights in both corners flying away—incidentally visuals from Punjab months later showed that the Ludhiana flying object had a similar design. In 2014, archaeologists in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, found 10,000-year-old cave drawings that resemble aliens and spacecraft.
In 2013, a spaceship was reportedly observed flying above the Taj Mahal. “We don’t know who clicked the Taj Mahal photo but it has become famous in the ufology circles,” Hitesh Yadav, a UFO investigator, told the media. In October 2015, women working in paddy fields in Mysuru district reportedly saw a flying vehicle from which “some humanoid forms emerged”. In February 2016, there were media reports about the Army shooting down a UFO in Barmer, Rajasthan. In June 2018, a UFO sighting in the 2 km no-fly zone near Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s residence in Delhi put security forces on high alert. Two months later, students in a Manipur hostel claimed to have spotted a strange disc hovering in the sky. The Centre dismissed the UFO sighting on behalf of ISRO.
THE GOD MYSTERY
Mythology is a minefield of beliefs and interpretation. Pop theories suggest the ‘vimanas’ of ancient India could have been real aerial vehicles. In the Mahabharata, they are described as airborne chariots powered by “winged lightning”, which could reach both the “solar and galactic regions”. Valmiki writes about two-storeyed “celestial chariots” that “roar off into the sky like comets”. Note ‘Sundara Kanda’, Chapter 8, Verse 6; an alien race called the bhutaganas controlled Ravana’s flying machine:
Vahanti yam kundala-sobhitanana mahasana vyomacara nisacarah| vivrtta-vidhvasta- visla-locana mahajava bhutaganah sahasrasah|| (Those wonderful ‘vimana’ aircraft roamed the sky at extremely high speed, controlled by thousands of evil creatures with big round eyes, with helmets on their heads.)
Some weapons in the epics describe those “not of this earth”.
Humans, who have survived by dominating creatures a hundred times their size, are unique. Only they had the curiosity and courage to explore unknown frontiers, formed religions and sent out spacecraft in search of alien life. In 1954, Harold T Wilkins formulated the Ancient Astronaut Theory that the earth had extraterrestrial visitors who influenced the development of human cultures, technology and faiths. According to Wilkins, evolution was not just natural selection, but was also a result of DNA manipulation of early beings (Hominids).
As human understanding of the Universe grows through science, so does speculation about life in outer space. Scientists are stepping on the galactic gas to discover planets outside the Solar System. By 2000, 50 ‘exoplanets’ were found. (Exoplanet refers to any planet existing beyond the Milky Way. Some are rogue planets that circle the centre of the galaxy without being attached to a star.) By 2013, there were around 850 planets in over 800 planetary systems. More than 20 exoplanets the size of Earth orbit in a “habitable” zone around their stars. The fact that there are more planets than stars further suggests the probability of alien life. David Weintraub, Associate Professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, predicts that the number of exoplanets could reach one million by 2045 “like the stars, almost uncountable.”
THE GOD FACTOR
Alien life becoming a reality could affect religion seriously. In 2014, NASA controversially awarded $1.1 million to the Center for Theological Inquiry based in New Jersey to study “the societal implications of astrobiology”. Writes Weintraub in Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: “When in 1543 CE Copernicus hurled the Earth into orbit around the Sun, the subsequent intellectual revolution... swept the discarded remnants of the Aristotelian, geocentric Universe into the trash bin of history.” The Copernican revolution demystified god and challenged the human ego. As the foundation for later changes in liberal sciences and philosophical studies, the Copernicus effect led to religious decline in modern Europe. But alien theorists find Egypt and Latin America fertile ground for alien visits.
The construction of the over 4,500-year-old Pyramids at Giza and the 1,000-year-old Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman is attributed to gods who arrived from the heavens above. Both are marvels of precise engineering and fitting of massive stones that weigh between 1,000 and 360 tonnes each. Even using modern technology, such a feat would pose a formidable challenge. Researchers have discovered a huge spiral geoglyph (large motifs on the ground) in Rajasthan covering almost 1,00,000 sq m, much like the Nazca Lines in Peru that can be seen only from air. Scientists are intrigued how any ancient culture, however advanced, was able to create patterns of such gigantic proportions on the ground even though their people could not fly.
UFO fanboys offer explanations that range from the speculative to the outright incredulous. Some of them believe that aliens mined gold, which they used to reflect sun rays to heat up their dying planet. Then and at present, gold is a compulsive human obsession, the metal with the mystic touch. A great golden disc was worshipped at the Inca sun temple Qorikancha, which stargazers believe represents a gold-plated UFO that landed in front of Emperor Atahualpa, who was reputed to be personally friendly with the “sky gods”. Another bizarre theory is that the Great Pyramid of Giza is a reactor (like a nuclear reactor) used by extraplanetary visitors to manufacture gold. Superstition, fantasy or whatever it may be called, it is anthropologically evident that our ancestors were full of wonder about the Universe.
INEXPLICABLE FLYING OBJECTS
Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman, who visited the Soviet Mir space station in 1991, has said that “aliens exist, there’s no two ways about it”. Kevin Knuth, Associate Professor of Physics, University at Albany, State University of New York, is convinced that aliens are real. Astronomers spend most of their life examining space. The oft-repeated doubt is, if UFOs exist why can’t astronomers see them with their powerful telescopes? Apparently they do. In 1977, astrophysicist and space scientist Peter Sturrock at Stanford University sent 2,611 questionnaires regarding spaceship sightings to members of the American Astronomical Society. Of the 1,356 responses he received, 62 astronomers (4.6 percent) reported or recorded flying objects they could not explain.
This percentage tallies with the approximately five percent of UFO sightings without logical explanations. Avi Loeb, Professor of Science at Harvard University, (see box) says that intergalactic visitors came to earth as recently as 2017. In his book, Extraterrestrial, Loeb claims that a cigar-shaped alien object known as ‘Oumuamua entered the Solar System at 196,000 mph on September 6, 2017, making for the star Vega, approximately 25 light years away. It mysteriously changed brightness every eight hours. It was caught by the University of Hawaii’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope at the Observatory on Haleakala, Maui, funded by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program. Loeb argues that ‘Oumuamua is a piece of space garbage—technology discarded by a civilisation on another planet. Gurunath Gandhari, Patna-based retired astrophysicist, says that speculating about the possibility of multiple universes and their inhabitants is a healthy way of exploring what more could be out there. “Only if the scientific community moves ahead with the assumption that there is something out there that they need to unearth, can they really get to do it. Scepticism will never let that happen,” he adds.
IN BAD FAITH
The cult series Star Trek begins with the lines, “Space the final frontier.” Not any more. The Universe, as the Upanishads say, is limitless. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the outer planets in our Solar System. Voyager 1 crossed the boundary of interstellar space in 2012. Both are still space-borne. They carry recorded messages called “Golden Records”—images and natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages and musical selections from different cultures and eras, which are inscribed on 12-inch gold-plated copper disks. A committee chaired by the great astronomer Carl Sagan selected the contents of the “cultural time capsules”. If extraterrestrials exist, where are they, ask agnostics. The answers perhaps lie in the Fermi Paradox, formulated by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950. He asked, “Where is everybody?” The Fermi Paradox illustrates the contradiction between our wanting proof of alien civilisations and the presumption that denies them.
According to him, the galaxy contains about 300 billion stars, some of which are billions of years older than the Sun. A large percentage of them is likely to house millions of habitable planets. He calculated that it would take a civilisation like ours with space technology between five and 50 million years to colonise the Milky Way. There is a specific spot between a planet and its star where conditions for life become possible. Fermi postulated that conquest and decline would have happened many times already in the galaxy’s history, since the more technologically advanced a civilisation, the more likely it is to destroy itself. Hawking’s universe has 100 billion galaxies containing hundreds of millions of stars.
He said, “To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” According to him, alien life is extant in planets, the centre of stars or floating in space. “Several experts say that UFO sightings are explainable by logic and can justify space phenomena. Even if some of them are not explainable, it could be because of extraterrestrial intelligence. They require further research and understanding. New spatial technology will hopefully introduce us to more such intelligence. Till then, we cannot dismiss anything without research,” says Dr Koya Venkateshwara Rao, Secretary, Jana Vignana Vedika Scientific Society, a Hyderabad-based body of rationalists.
The reason why scientists cannot fully comprehend the scope of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is that they keep it within their chosen disciplines. The oldest contests in the world are between science and religion. SETI has three guiding principles, all of which diminish the human ego. First is Nature’s Uniformity Principle, which assumes that what happens on earth happens universally in all planets; the second is the Plenitude Principle that life is bound to form in the absence of inhibiting factors and the third is the Mediocrity Principle, which avers that Earth is not unique in the Universe. The last demeans the religious belief that God made man and placed him above other creatures in the order of things.
If we are not special, then what are we? Astronaut Sharman had remarked that there is “no greater beauty than looking at the Earth from up high”. What highly developed alien civilisations, if they exist, would see in this little planet eternally labouring in its elliptical journey through millennia is anybody’s guess. Discovery changes the world. Discovery can also be a terrible thing.
Spot your UFO
A UFO is almost always described as something with an unconventional form—a disk or cigar shape sans wings being the most common
Though UFOs exceed the speed of sound significantly, they almost travel through a vacuum-like space, resulting in no sound at all
Most sightings describe UFOs as being bright lights in the sky. Even in the rare captured images, all that is seen is a bright ball of light. There are also no vapour trails.
A UFO supposedly has no visible propulsion system. This could be the reason that it can travel at an extraordinary speed and disappear in the blink of an eye. Many have also reported how an extraterrestrial object has the ability to initiate a vertical climb or make sudden turns.
Ability to travel across environments
Some sightings describe how a UFO easily enters the ocean water without creating a ripple, despite moving at twice the speed of nuclear subs
A Galaxy of Stars and Planets
The spiralling expanse of our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains at least 100 billion stars, our Sun among them. It is estimated that there is at least one planet for every star, which means there’s something on the order of billions of planets in our galaxy alone, many in Earth’s size range. These planets outside of our Solar System are known as Exoplanets.
Similar in size to our own Neptune and Uranus, with hydrogen and helium-dominated atmospheres. “Mini-Neptunes”, not found in our Solar System, are smaller than Neptune but larger than Earth.
4,401 Confirmed Exoplanets
Typically “terrestrial”, or rocky, and more massive than Earth but lighter than Neptune. They might or might not have atmospheres.
Earth-sized, or smaller, mostly made of rock and metal. Some could possess oceans or atmospheres and perhaps other signs of habitability.
1,391 Gas Giants
The size of Saturn, or Jupiter, or much larger. They include “hot Jupiters” —scorching planets in close orbits around their stars.
Confirmed exoplanets have been validated by multiple observations. Kepler (telescope) candidates have an 80-90 percent probability to be actual discoveries but have yet to be verified.
(With inputs from Ayesha Singh, Medha Dutta Yadav & Manju Latha Kalanidhi)