Summary: Meet the scientists who are serious about explaining strange flying phenomena. (This article is about the National Institute for Discovery Science, a scientific research organization that studies anomalous phenomena.)
Meet the scientists who are serious about explaining strange flying phenomena.
A white light glows brightly on the black-and-white videotape. It's a ghostly, fuzzy dot hovering in midair, caught on surveillance video. Then, it leaps back and forth across the screen. Video experts say it's not faked. This is a UFO -- not necessarily an alien, but certainly an unidentified flying object. It appears on a videotape shown to TechTV.
"That's what the basic premise of the whole organization is," biochemist Colm Kelleher says, "to transfer as many cases from the UFO category to the IFO. But even when you do that, you still have that percentage of cases that are unexplained."
On tonight's "Tech Live," meet a member of a UFO-hunting organization, and see the incredible ways in which he's trying to explain the unexplained.
Just off the Las Vegas strip, bathed in the other-worldly glow of the Luxor's giant white beacon, is a two-story office building with a nondescript marquee that reads National Institute for Discovery Science(NIDS). Behind the tinted glass windows, however, may lie the answers to phenomenon such as unidentified lights, mutilated animals, and extrasensory perception.
Colm Kelleher Ph.D. is deputy administrator for NIDS. "We don't study aliens," the scientist clarifies. "We study anomalies. They're the same thing in a lot of people's minds, but not in our minds."
Businessman and space tourism advocate Robert Bigelowfounded NIDS in 1996 as a central clearinghouse for scientific investigations into anomalies, mostly UFOs. Kelleher and other scientists work with teams of former police detectives, interviewing witnesses and corroborating evidence of strange anomalies.
"There have been disc-shaped objects, large triangular objects, objects swooping down and following people in their vehicles," he says. "We're talking daytime -- we're not talking distant lights in the sky or anything. We're talking up close and personal."
Since establishing a 24-hour hotline in 1999, NIDS has received more than 5,000 phone calls and email messages reporting UFOs. Most reports are of missile launches from places such as White Sands Air Force Base, meteors, or strange military planes, such as the newly declassified Boeing Bird of Prey. Several hundred filings, however, have no explanation, and those are the ones on which Kelleher is staking his career.
Worthless research ridiculed
"The vast majority of scientists dismiss this type of research as being absolutely worthless," he says. "The scientific community generally tends to reject anything without evidence, obvious evidence."
Kelleher himself has seen strange floating lights that he could not explain, and he says it's scientific curiosity that drives him. He knows there must be some explanation, and he thinks it's a travesty that mainstream scientists are not doing more to solve the mystery.
"There's a real aura of ridicule and trivialization surrounding the UFO field which makes scientists run a mile the other way," Kelleher admits. "To many scientists, studying UFOs is really a career killer, and that hasn't changed in 50 years."
Many mainstream experts do get involved, however, by anonymously analyzing data. Videotape and photo analysts narrow down the documented sightings. One that no expert could explain was a videotape taken at a wedding party in Chile in 1998.
The footage, which was shown to TechTV, was taken by amateurs. It shows a formation of several ant-shaped objects hovering in the distant sky. Kelleher's video expert says, "This video footage was not faked, it is not fraudulent, it is not an airplane, it's not people parachuting, it's not insects, it's not birds. In short, it is unexplained."
The tape is one of dozens stacked in a room full of VCRs and TVs, but that's just the tip of the iceberg for this data-gathering organization. A remote area in Northeast Utah is getting the majority of NIDS' attention.
Focus on the Southwest
"For some unknown reason, for the last 50 years, and I'm talking continuous, there've been hundreds, literally hundreds of sightings over the small area," Kelleher says.
A biology teacher started cataloging the sightings in the 1960s, and he gave his database to the institute. Now they're all documented on giant maps covering two walls of the room where this reporter is interviewing Kelleher.
NIDS has round-the-clock surveillance set up at the UFO hot spot, with an infrared camera scanning the heavens. He showed TechTV a missile launch from Vandenberg Air Force Baseas an example of the camera's sensitivity. The launch was thousands of miles away, but appeared as a brilliant plume on the black-and-white display.
"If there is evidence of an anomaly, we start looking for physical evidence," Kelleher says.
Tools of a UFO hunter
Kelleher pulls out a giant, ominous-looking black suitcase filled with technology that would be at home in a James Bond movie, or maybe in "Ghostbusters." It's the field kit for a UFO hunter, and it's packed with all the electronics he needs to record something monumental.
"The Holy Grail in the UFO field is to get a good light spectrum from a UFO, and that has not been possible in the last 50 years," the scientist says. But modern technology is changing that.
His kit includes a spectrum analyzer called a spectophotometer that can analyze light and tell scientists what elements are producing the glow. Spectophotometers have only recently become small enough to fit in your hand, Kelleher explains.
"Before that you were talking about something that would fit on a lab bench, where if you're going out into the field and talking about tracking these lights, that's just impossible."
A Fresnel lens gathers light from an unidentified object and sends that down fiber optics into the device. The spectophotometer is then linked to Kelleher's Dell laptop computer, which can instantly give a real-time analysis of what elements are generating the light.
With that, he can tell whether something comes from Earth or from another planet.
"The definition of 'extraterrestrial' is linked to different isotope ratios: carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen," Kelleher says.
Kelleher doesn't just want to stand around gathering light, however. He's got a light of his own. A powerful LED array is attached to a battery that looks like it came from a small car. The LED array can be seen from more than a mile away.
"The instrument is based on the 'Close Encounters' mentality," he laughs.
The computer controls the LED, generating a signal in Morse code or ASCII text that he can beam at a flying object. It can also collect a reply and store that information on the laptop and on a tape backup.
All UFOs not alien?
Why would aliens be able to read Morse code, and how does he know he wouldn't be signaling to them something hostile? The answer, at least for Kelleher, is that there's no reason to assume UFOs are alien.
"The UFO field is saturated with bizarre explanations of what UFOs are, but those explanations are not founded on data, they're founded upon interpretation and/or imagination," he says. "We're really taking several steps back and we're just going to gather data before we make a hypothesis."
When pressed, however, he'll admit he's got a few thoughts. Yes, it could be alien, but it could also be something more mysterious, like a "storm in time" that provides a wrinkle in another dimension, offering a peek into something from ancient times, or into the future.
The more obvious explanation for many of the sightings is top-secret stealth military projects. The Bird of Prey was one top-secret plane that was recently unveiled by Boeing, and Kelleher thinks the military will soon pull the wraps off another top-secret project that many UFO observers call "Big Black Deltas."
Since September 11, 2001, Kelleher says, UFO sightings have decreased, except for in one category: Big Black Deltas.
"We think this BBD [Big Black Delta] object may be a combination of lighter-than-air and aircraft hybrid technology," Kelleher says.
Imagine a black triangle longer than a football field that is able to move silently across the sky and seems to appear and disappear quickly.
"Currently we have 250 sightings of these objects in our database from all over the country," he says. "Superimposed on that map we have the locations of the air mobility command air force bases in the US."
Kelleher shows the mapand reports a clustering around certain bases, including spots in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Seattle, and of course near the famous Area 51 in Nevada known as Groom Lake.
"We have an interview from a person who claims to have seen one of these objects on the runway at Groom Lake," Kelleher says. "He said it was a gigantic triangular object on the ground."
Possible explanation for sightings
The BBDs are also thought to be behind the March 1997 sightings of strange lights over Phoenix, which were captured by several television new crews and tracked across the entire desert Southwest.
These proposed aircraft would be a good candidate for UFO reports because of their hypothetical quiet propulsion system, blimplike structure, and advanced stealth capabilities.
Electrochromatic displays are the key. The idea is to project images of the sky above an aircraft onto the machine's underbelly.
"There are a lot of indications that military soldiers have that kind of technology," Kelleher explains.
"They say you can see star fields in these. Some people even tell us if you really look, you can see the leading edge as it moves across the stars," Kelleher says.
So far the military is not confirming anything about the Deltas, but if past experience with the unmanned drones, the B2 Stealth Bomber, the SR-71, and other revolutionary aircraft is any indicator, the Deltas may be flying for years before anyone tells the public what they are.
The UFO field remains bizarre, frightening, speculative, and mysterious, and Kelleher and NIDS hope to demystify the unidentified objects. They may not get much help from scientists, but the public, he says, is ready for answers.
"There's huge interest in the investigation of the UFO phenomenon, but the gap between the public interest and the interest in the scientific community is huge," Kelleher says. "It's a chasm, and that chasm I don't think has narrowed in the last 50 years."
It's Kelleher's hope that the next 50 years may bring some answers.