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ufo

Searching for Saucers: Here’s a list of scientifically-oriented UFO projects

Last week I wrote about Dr. Avi Loeb’s public support for a scientific study of UFOs. In that article I briefly hinted at how the kind of research envisioned by Loeb is actually not something UFO investigators hadn’t ever thought of before; so today we’re going to take a look at some of those projects from both the past, present and future.

Project Magnet (Wilbert Smith)

Wilbert Smith was an engineer employed by Canada’s Department of Transport (DOT) in the 1950s. UFOlogists love to quote a top secret memo Smith wrote in which he describes how seriously the Americans were taking the flying saucer problem:

I made discreet enquiries through the Canadian Embassy staff in Washington who were able to obtain for me the following information:

a. The matter is the most highly classified subject in the United States Government, rating higher even than the H-bomb.

b. Flying saucers exist.

c. Their modus operandi is unknown but concentrated effort is being made by a small group headed by Doctor Vannevar Bush.

d. The entire matter is considered by the United States authorities to be of tremendous significance.

Since there was a fear that flying saucers could represent a threat from the Soviets, the DOT allowed Smith after-hours access to one of their laboratories so he could run a research study he called “Project Magnet” –the idea behind it was that UFOs traveled within magnetic fields. In 1953 Smith presented the results of his study which concluded that UFOs were not Soviet weapons, but were instead of otherworldly origin. The Canadian government even allowed him to install a little ‘UFO observatory’ located on Shirley’s Bay, near Ottawa. Grant Cameron’s website Presidential UFOs includes the text from a 1954 Fate magazine article explaining the purpose of the first official scientific study of UFOs:

Tremendously complex and expensive equipment has gone into the tiny building at Shirley’s Bay. The equipment is designed to detect gamma rays, magnetic fluctuations, radio noises and gravity or mass changes in the atmosphere.

Installed in the tiny little structure is an ionospheric reactor to determine the height, pattern, and conduct of the ionized layers of gases several hundred miles in the atmosphere.

There is a new-type instrument called a gravometer, imported from Sweden, to measure the earth’s gravity, a magnetometer, to record the variations in the earth’s magnetic field; a radio set running full volume at 530 kilocycles to pick up any radio noises, and a counter to detect atomic rays from the outer atmosphere.

Peter Dempson of the Telegram staff reports that all the instruments are connected with a control panel filled with lights, dials and other instruments, which record the individual findings on paper.

The station is not manned, but is connected directly by an alarm bell system with the nearby ionospheric station at Shirley’s Bay, where a staff of telecommunication experts are on 24-hour duty.

Eventually, relays will carry the information recorded by the instruments in the sighting station to the main building. Any unusual variations in the information they provide will trigger the ionosphere recorder – an instrument that transmits a radio signal 250 miles into the sky. The signal bounces off the heavy layers in the ionosphere, and is reflected back to be picked up by a radar-like instrument. Officials believe that it would record any flying saucer in the area.

“If anything should happen, the findings of this recorder would prove very valuable,” one official said.

The effective range of the other instruments is limited to about 50 miles.

Canada’s ‘UFO Observatory’

By 1954 Canada pulled the plug on Smith’s Project Magnet, deeming the results of the Shirley’s Bay observatory as ‘inconclusive’ –even though it is said the instruments did detect an unknown object one time. But Smith’s public opinions about what he called “the boys from topside” were just too big of an embarrassment for the government.

Project Starlight International (Ray Stanford)

Ray Stanford

In the 1950s Ray Stanford and his twin brother Rex became figures in the American Contactee world while still in their late teens. Decades later Ray became a psychic channeler and in 1971 he founded the Association for the Understanding of Man (AUM) in 1971. As it is stated in the entry dedicated to him in the book ‘A is for Adamski: The Golden Age of the UFO Contactees’, one of AUM’s projects was an undertaking called “Project Starlight International” (PSI) –the project wasn’t really ‘international’ in scope, but I guess the ‘I’ was needed to complete the acronym.

With PSI Stanford assembled a team of researchers and instrumentation said to be worth a million dollars, designed to attract and record evidence of UFO activity. Here’s an old video showing Ray Stanford explaining the goals of this project:

Those few who have made the trip to Stanford’s home and sat through his multiple-hours-long Power Point presentation, say Ray has some of the most tantalizing evidence of UFOs; but since he has stubbornly refused to share it openly, I guess most of us will never find out. Still, Ray has managed to attain a lot of prestige in the field of paleontology and is considered one of the best dinosaur track finders in the world.

UFOTOG (Douglas Trumbull)

Douglas Trumbull is the VFX wizard behind such memorable films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind. But Douglas doesn’t only know how to make UFOs look cool on the silver screen; he also designed a scientific ‘capture system’ intended to prove UFOs are not just a Hollywood moneymaker.

As we explained in an article about Trumbull in 2016:

UFOTOG – the name is a contraction of ‘UFO photography’ – is a UFO video tracking and capture system that came about when Trumbull considered how his own skill-set could best be put to use in seeking answers to the UFO mystery: “I had access to these high-end cameras, access to engineers who build motion-control systems that we use for movies that could be adapted to tracking systems and things like that.”

Interestingly, even with his legendary status, Trumbull soon discovered how heretical the idea of scientifically researching the UFO phenomenon can be. “That’s when I started finding out that talking about science fiction is fine,” he notes, while “talking about actually capturing UFOs is not fine…it’s actually antagonistically greeted.” Trumbull even tried pitching the idea to ‘reality TV’ producers, but “couldn’t get any traction at all…and I’ve got a really good resume.”

Five years later, the UFOTOG system has never been deployed. Maybe Trumbull should pitch his idea to Rogan, in exchange for a badass memorabilia of his.

San Luis Valley Camera Project (Chris O’Brien)

Chris O’Brien

Chris O’Brien is a long-time UFO and cattle mutilation investigator –he was one of the first to study the mysterious events surrounding the infamous Skinwalker ranch—who has written many books, including Stalking the Tricksters’ and ‘Stalking the Herd’. In 2018 Chris launched a crowdfunding campaign for the San Luis Valley Camera Project. Here’s an excerpt from Chris’s Patreon page explaining the objectives of this brainchild of his:

The SLVMP will be using triangulated hi-def cameras, advanced scientific instruments i.e., recording magnetometers, gravimeters, MADAR, RADAR, EM, VLF/ULF, detectors and a telescope, working together via Internet linking software to capture hard data pertaining to the many UAP sightings and other anomalous aerial objects reported in and around the SLV.

The project itself will shortly be the focus of a gofundme campaign that will generate the necessary funds for equipment, monitoring site personnel, Internet and maintainance costs and all the costs involved w/ website setup, maintenance plus the the inherent costs for streaming the live video feed. All moneys from the gofundme campaign will be used for these costs, but my personal costs, travel, lodging, bill back home etc will  defrayed by the involvement of my Patreon partners.

This important work is the culmination of 25 years of field investigation, research, networking and system development and together, we can finally make this dream a reality. Imagine real time data streaming 24/7 synchronized, triangulated hi-def footage to the world!

Here is an interview with Chris on Radio Misterioso further explaining his project. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if the SLVCP ever managed to lift off the ground.

Project UAPX (Kevin Knuth)

Kevin Knuth

Kevin Knuth is a former scientist with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. Unlike most of his former colleagues, Knuth takes UFOs seriously, and think it’s perfectly possible for extraterrestrial civilizations traveling at relativistic speeds to visit other planets like ours –here’s a 2019 interview with Knuth on Radio Misterioso.

After the encounters with unexplained objects reported by pilots onboard the USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego became public, Knuth and other researchers planned an expedition to that same area of the Pacific Ocean, called Project UAPX. The rationale behind the project is pretty elegant: visit the location in November, the same time of the year the Nimitz encounters took place, and using the migrating gray whales as biosensors.

As explained in an interview for Space.com, “We are hoping to detect UAPs, determine their characteristics, flight patterns and any patterns in activity that will allow us to study them more effectively.” “In addition to monitoring a region for UAPs, we are also looking into using satellites to obtain independent confirmation of prominent UAP sightings and to obtain quantifiable information about those UAPs.”

Unfortunately, the expedition was postponed last year because of the COVID pandemic. But perhaps this November they’ll be able to deploy.

The Gulf Breeze Research Team (Bruce Maccabee)

Gulf Breeze, a region in the Florida panhandle, attained international attention in the late 80s and early 90s after a series of residents reported sightings of UFOs on an almost daily basis. The figure at the center of this controversy was Ed Walters, a local resident who took Polaroid pictures of what looked like structured craft with portholes and glowing underneath.

While many thought Walters’s photos were hoaxed, Bruce Maccabbee –an American physicist formerly employed by the US Navy and a veteran in the UFO field—took them to be genuine. As mentioned in the book ‘Hunt for the Skinwalker’ by Colm Kelleher and George Knapp, Maccabbee launched the Gulf Breeze Research Team (GBRT) which logged about 170 sightings, most of which involved multiple witnesses and most of which included still photography with telephoto lenses and/or recording by videocameras.

One of Ed Walters’s controversial UFO photos.

Eventually the UFO activity in Gulf Breeze stopped, and the case lost a lot of credibility after someone allegedly found a model of a UFO in a property previously owned by Ed Walters. To this day, Maccabbee still supports the authenticity of the sightings, and he is currently associated with the UAPX project.

Skinwalker Ranch

Aerial View of Skinwalker ranch
Bigelow

The most controversial of UFO studies is, without a doubt, the research conducted by NIDS (National Institute of Discovery Sciences) at the so-called Skinwalker ranch in Utah in the 1990s. NIDS was founded by business mogul Robert Bigelow, and the Utah property was also purchased by him after he learned how the previous owners had suffered frightening experiences there for years. In 2005 the book Hunt for the Skinwalker was published, and the public learned for the first time about the seemingly fantastical events occurring at the ranch.

Unfortunately, aside from the book, a 2018 documentary produced by independent filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, and the entries written about the ranch on Jacques Vallee’s ‘Forbidden Science’ vol. 4, there’s been almost no other information obtained by NIDS that has been released to the public; which has caused many to question whether the tales of bullet-proof giant wolves and humanoids creeping out of interdimensional portals are just modern myths, or perhaps even tales designed to conceal top secret military programs.

Fugal

Colm Kelleher and Eric Davis, two scientists who were involved with NIDS, went on the record on Corbell’s documentary to explain that the reason there was never a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, was because the elusiveness of these phenomena is not amenable to the constraints of the scientific method. “The only consistency was the inconsistency of it,” says Colm Kelleher to Corbell.

Now the infamous Utah property is in the hands of another rich impresario, Brandon Fugal, who has vowed to continue where NIDS left off. On a recent Twitter exchange, Fugal expressed great admiration toward Dr. Avi Loeb and claimed he would love to collaborate with him. But I’m not sure how you attract someone of Loeb’s academic calibre when the only thing you have under your belt so far is a TV series on the same network that airs Ancient Aliens

Project Hessdalen

Hessdalen lights
Hessdalen lights

When people refer to the Skinwalker ranch as “the most investigated UFO hotspot in the world,” chances are they have never heard of a little valley in central Norway called Hessdalen, where a group of scientists conducted what is possibly the longest study of UFOs in all of history: Project Hessdalen.

As explained in their 90s vibe official webpage:

Hessdalen is a small valley in the central part of Norway. At the end of 1981 through 1984, residents of the Valley became concerned and alarmed about strange, unexplained lights that appeared at many locations throughout the Valley. Hundreds of lights were observed. At the peak of activity there were about 20 reports a week.

Project Hessdalen was established in the summer of 1983. A field investigation was carried out between 21.January and 26.February 1984. Fifty-three light observations were made during the field investigation. You may read the details in the technical report. There was an additional field investigation in the winter of 1985. However, no phenomena were seen during the period when the instruments were present.

Lights are still being observed in the Hessdalen Valley, but their frequency has decreased to about 20 observations a year. An automatic measurement station was put up in Hessdalen in August 1998.

Unfortunately the project stopped in August of 2004 due to a lack of funding.

The light phenomena observed at this region of the world is somewhat similar to lights observed in other places, like the Brown Mountains of North Carolina, which leads most to suspect we’re dealing with an as-yet not understood natural phenomenon. However, other more exotic UFO sightings have been reported in Hessdalen as well, and the locals have even suffered from what is currently known as ‘alien abductions’, though the Norwegian engineers were not interested in studying that angle of the phenomenon. Dr. Massimo Teodorani –the Italian scientist we interviewed on a past article—visited the site in the early 2000s as part of the EMBLA research project (Electro Magnetic Behavior of Luminous Anomalies) which further expanded the instrumentation installed by the Norwegians; and as he told Greg Bishop on this 2018 interview, he once observed a strange rectangular object.

The Norwegians thought the Hessdalen Project could bring up new ideas in the field of energy generation. Teodorani on the other hand thinks some of these plasma manifestations could have some sort of intelligence, which would send UFOlogy into a new revolution –not to mention our understanding of Consciousness.


Our look at scientifically oriented UFO studies from the past, present, and future comes to an end. As you can see, many have tried to use scientific tools to study this mystery, but have failed to come up with conclusive proof for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, the scientific research of UFOs suffers from a catch-22 in which a lack of funds halts the study or prevents it from launching altogether, and the reason money is so scarce is because most people do not believe UFOs are real and demand to see proof to the contrary!

On the other hand, the latest generations of researchers use their belief that the US government already knows everything about UFOs to justify their lack of enthusiasm for independent studies –why waste time and money trying to analyze UFO activity, when all we have to do is patiently wait for Daddy Pentagon to release their UFO report later this year?

But what if the report does not say what everyone wants to hear?

What if Elizondo’s successors are just as confounded by the elusive nature of the phenomenon as the NIDS scientists when they were investigating the Skinwalker ranch? What if after all these years, their conclusions are no better than the ones reached by the Hessdalen researchers in Norway? Then what do we do?

“[…]So many people get into science looking for power, or for a chance to make some big discovery that will put their name into history books… For me the challenge was to find out the very limitations of science, the places where it broke down, the phenomena it didn’t explain.” These were the words the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek told to Jacques Vallee, as they were driving through the Denver mountainscape en route to visit the team led by Edward Condon at the University of Colorado, in 1967. The two colleagues were still hopeful back then that the Condon committee would be able to prove UFOs were real; unfortunately, Condon was not interested in pioneering into the places where science breaks down.

More than 50 years have passed since the Condon Report pontificated that UFOs were a waste of time for professional scientists. The world has gone through several scientific revolutions since then, and perhaps a few more will be needed before UFOs become a respectable study subject in the halls of Academia. The problem is that, as quantum physicist Max Planck knew fully well, science tends to advance one funeral at a time.


CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article stated that Project Hessdalen ended in 2014. In fact, the date was August of 2004.