UFOs are back in style, thanks in part to the return of “The X-Files” to television this weekend, almost 14 years after the last episode had its original airing. And while Mulder and Scully are delving into new anomalies in prime time, the folks who deal with UFO reports in real life are gearing up for renewed attention as well.
“X-Files, Y-Files, No-Files, I get calls from people who say they have evidence of alien visitation,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “Either they’ve seen something, they’ve photographed something or they’re in touch with something.”
The calls generally come in at a regular rate, but Shostak does recall that there was a noticeable uptick while the original “X-Files” show was on TV.
Don Lincoln, a physicist at Fermilab who’s the author of “Alien Universe,” notes that attitudes toward UFOs tend to reflect depictions in popular culture, ranging from flying saucers and little green men to mysterious “Men in Black” and alien conspiracies. The original “X-Files” told tales of gray extraterrestrials and government coverups, and he’s curious to see whether the new series will follow the same path.
“It could well be that what the new X-Files will ultimately accomplish is to introduce a new generation to the mysteries of Area 51 and the unsettling idea of the Men in Black,” Lincoln wrote in an email. “I have said enough. They’re watching…”
One expert who won’t be watching is Peter Davenport, who’s the director of the National UFO Reporting Center, or NUFORC. He doesn’t even own a television.
“I try to avoid addressing works of fiction, because I am a scientist,” he told GeekWire from his home base in Harrington, Wash. “I collect data that is appropriate and accurate. … I find [fictional UFO tales] to be unsatisfying, seeing that I deal with the real thing, all day, every day.”
Since he took over NUFORC in 1994, Davenport has compiled more than 100,000 reports of UFO sightings. Some of the records are stored in a decommissioned missile silo that he bought years ago. Almost all of them are available online. (The exceptions tend to be obvious hoaxes or pranks.)
“From my vantage point, after 22 years of doing this work, it appears to me that this planet has been visited routinely by these objects that we call UFOs,” Davenport said. “This is very good evidence that we are being visited, apparently by creatures from other parts of our galaxy. We are just beginning to awaken to phenomena beyond what our five senses seem to tell us is the case.”
What Davenport can’t figure out is why it takes something like “The X-Files” to get the broader public interested in UFOs. Here are five of the cases that he puts at the top of his list for Washington state:
- April 22, 1998: Ten reports come in from observers as far north as Whistler and as far south as Portland, about a bright flash, oval, fireball or disk that was seen in the skies. (It’s worth noting these reports came during the annual Lyrid meteor shower, and that meteor-watchers were interested in this fireball.)
- April 8, 2000: A formation of glowing objects is sighted over downtown Seattle.
- March 13, 2001: A fast-moving orange object is seen over locales ranging from Skyway to Bellevue to Ladysmith, B.C.
- Jan. 15, 2015: Orange lights sighted in the skies over Friday Harbor.
- June 6, 2015: More orange lights, this time over Arlington.
Some folks regard Mount Rainier as a mecca for flying saucers, in part because it was where one of the seminal sightings took place in 1947. But Davenport says he sees no evidence of UFO hot spots — with the possible exception of Myrtle Beach and its environs in South Carolina, for unknown reasons.
“Many people contact me and ask where they can take the spouse and the kiddies to see UFOs,” Davenport said. “My response traditionally is, just go out on your back porch and look up at the sky, and be alert.”
So what happens when someone sees something, and then gives Shostak a call or sends him an email at the SETI Institute? He tries to keep an open mind about the sighting and reply with possible explanations if he can. “I’ve never seen something where I say, ‘This is absolutely it,'” he said.
Shostak notes that it’s a lot harder to investigate the circumstances of a UFO report than it is to report it. Because he has a day job that focuses on scientific studies using radio astronomy, he doesn’t have the time to go into X-Files mode: “You’re seldom in a situation where you can say, ‘Yeah, I know what that was. That was Flight So-and-So.'”
Investigators generally acknowledge that 95 percent of the reports that come in are easily dismissed. Even the remaining 5 percent are hard to follow up on, because the physical evidence is typically scant or non-existent.
Last fall, a project called UFODATA started trying to close that evidence gap. The UFODATA team brings together well-known names from the UFO field — such as Mark Rodeghier of the Center for UFO Studies and investigative journalist Leslie Kean — plus astronomers, engineers and even a former Pentagon official.
The project’s main objective is to develop automated stations that can record data from anomalous events — a Mulder-Bot, if you will. The instruments on the Mulder-Bot could include an all-sky camera, high-resolution imagers with spectrographic capability, a magnetometer, a weather station, a gravimeter or accelerometer, radiation sensors and perhaps a gamma-ray sensor.
“Technically, the big challenge is going to be the software, not the hardware,” Rodeghier told GeekWire.
The monitoring stations would be placed in areas remote enough to be off the beaten track, accessible enough to be serviced, and interesting enough to provide a likelihood of something happening. Someday, they could show up in Washington state, or Montana, or northern New England.
“We will be lucky to get a couple of honest-to-goodness UFOs,” Rodeghier said.
The way Rodeghier sees it, the first step is to build a community of supporters for the project. The second step is to raise the money, perhaps through a crowdfunding effort.
“If things go well, it’s possible we might do the crowdfunding by the end of 2016,” he said. “Around $40,000 should be enough.”
So stay tuned, UFO fans: The truth — along with the Kickstarter campaign — is out there.
Saturday: Meet the woman who specializes in “X-Files” science. And coming up later today: TV columnist Melanie McFarland’s review of the “X-Files” reboot.