GRAND FORKS — A recently released government report and grainy but compelling videos captured by the U.S. Navy have brought the topic of UFOs to the forefront of the nation's attention.

A June 25 report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence focused on 144 encounters with unknown objects that occurred between 2004 and 2021, 80 of which were observed through multiple sensor systems, and only one of which — a large deflating balloon — has been identified.

At the University of North Dakota, some space studies professors have their own opinions on the objects, mostly on what they might not be. They agree that further scrutiny is needed to understand what military officials have come to call UAPs — unexplained aerial phenomena.

“Well, the definition is in the title: they’re unknown,” said Mike Gaffey, Chester Fritz distinguished professor of space studies at UND. “Anything that’s unknown is of potential interest for a variety of reasons.”

To some, the mention of a UFO means extraterrestrials, or aliens. The government report, mandated by Congress, makes no mention of the unidentified objects as being alien-made, or even the existence of aliens. In the report, explanations of UAPs are broken down into five categories:

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  • airborne clutter,
  • natural atmospheric phenomena,
  • government or industry developmental programs,
  • foreign adversary systems
  • and “other,” a catchall category that includes a smaller set of phenomena that require scientific advances in order to be understood.

UAPs in the “other” category include objects that “display unusual flight characteristics or signature management.”

Gaffey, who said he is familiar with the report, said the possibility of UAPs being alien in origin is “not zero,” but so unlikely it may as well be.

One of the courses he teaches at UND is about possible life in the universe. He notes that the star nearest to Earth is so far away, scientists don’t have a concept of how that gap could be crossed in a finite lifespan.

How far is that distance? Far. Really, really far.

Gaffey has an example to illustrate that gap: Imagine putting a dime on a street near UND to represent the sun. The earth would be 3 feet from that dime, and considerably smaller. The nearest star would be somewhere in eastern Montana, making it all but impossible to cross, and especially for a being that — in his example — would be a fraction of the size of an ant.

Gaffey said he is convinced there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe; he just doesn’t think it’s visiting Earth due to that massive gap

“I can't even hypothesize what would allow intelligent organisms to cross that distance,” he said. “It may be possible. I don't rule it out.”

Gaffey also said he is familiar with videos the Pentagon released last year. They are available online on video streaming sites, and have been viewed millions of times. One video shows U.S. Navy pilots tracking a spherical object, and another video from the night of July 15, 2019, shows the crew of the USS Omaha, west of San Diego, tracking multiple unidentified objects. One object was described as being 6 feet in diameter. The video shows it disappear near the water.

Gaffey said it's difficult to hypothesize what those UAPs could be. Drones are one possibility, technology from a hostile nation another. They could be ball lightning – floating balls of plasma said to flitter about, and then expire.

“At this point, I don't exclude anything other than alien spacecraft from consideration,” he said.

The videos don’t mean UAPs are buzzing UND aviation students while they complete their flight training. Fred Kitko, assistant chief flight instructor for helicopters, said he has never seen anything strange in the sky. He said he doesn’t know what the reported UAPs could be, but he’d sure like to. He spends his time focused on the students he is teaching, and being mindful of other air traffic, not gazing at the sky.

But Sherry Fieber-Beyer, an assistant professor of space studies at UND, does just that. She runs UND’s Space Studies Observatory near Emerado, west of Grand Forks. Like Gaffey, she said the probability is low that the UAPs tracked by the U.S. Navy are alien in origin, but she “can’t dismiss the possibility completely.”

“Sometimes you see stuff in the sky, and you don't know what it is,” she said.

Also like Gaffey, Fieber-Beyer believes humanity is not alone in the universe. The UAPs, she said, don’t likely belong to the U.S. government; another branch of the military would have owned up to it after all the attention. They could be foreign assets — technology not seen before, though they conducted maneuvers that known drones can’t do.

Or, perhaps, they could be something else.

“I know that you're probably going to find this really far out there, but they could be small satellites sent from the mothership,” she said.

Fieber-Beyer referred to a celestial object that passed through the solar system in 2017 that caused a stir among astronomers. The object was dubbed Oumuamua, a Hawaiian word meaning “scout.” According to a Feb. 1 report in Scientific American, the 100-meter-long cigar-shaped object displayed unusual characteristics, including being more reflective than run-of-the-mill space rocks. Its speed increased after it passed the sun.

Harvard astrophysicist Avi Loeb hypothesized the object could be a probe from a long-gone alien civilization, and that Earth had just had its doorbell rung by an alien object, passing by to release smaller probes to gather information for beings that probably will never be able to analyze the data.

Fieber-Beyer said it’s possible Oumuamua is the intergalactic version of the Voyager space probes launched in 1977 by NASA. The probes are still in operation, and Voyager 1 is now more than 14 billion miles from Earth, still transmitting data.

Whatever they are — drones, foreign technology or the remnants of a civilization that has died out — Fieber-Beyer will keep her eyes on the sky. Who knows, she said, how many things go unnoticed when humanity isn’t looking. And as for the UAPs tracked by the Navy, the only thing known about them is that they are unknown.

That’s good enough for Gaffey to keep looking at them.

“At this point we don't understand what they are, which is a reason for studying them,” Gaffey said.

Correction July 14, 2021: Voyager 1 is now more than 14 billion miles from Earth. The distance was wrong in an earlier version of this story. This story has been corrected. We regret the error.