Summary: Since 1977, the French space agency has been helping civilian and military authorities understand the precise nature of Un-identified Aerospace Phenomena (PAN). The SEPRA database is comprised of more than 2200 different cases, with some 6000 eyewitness accounts and approximately 100 sightings from aircraft.
The sky, on a summer night, is a wonder to behold, a spectacle that leads one to dream of distant worlds: the Moon, the planets, the thousands of stars and galaxies which one can more or less easily identify. The tranquillity of this celestial heaven is sometimes disturbed by a shooting star, the twinkling lights of an airplane, or the silent passing of a satellite.
It is not infrequent, however, that one is surprised by something strange, and initially unrecognisable. But before one’s imagination takes hold and prompts one to think of extra-terrestrials, it would be better to first tell the French space agency.
Since 1977, the space agency has been helping civilian and military authorities understand the precise nature of Un-identified Aerospace Phenomena (PAN).
The unit involved is the Rare Aerospace Phenomena Study Department (SEPRA) based at the CNES technical centre in Toulouse. Since 1977, the department has developed a precise analytical methodology and today has accumulated a considerable database.
"We are involved in the framework of well defined procedures with, for example, the police or civil aviation authorities" explains Roland Ivarnez, head of Satellite Operations Directorate at CNES. "We analyse the official testimonials that are referred to us and respond to the first questions that arise after eye-witness accounts. We are concerned with facts and our approach is rigorously scientific."
Most observations, whether seen from the ground or in the air, are of phenomena viewed at a distance. "We try to establish if there is any correlation with identifiable objects, such as the planets, or the Moon, according to celestial maps. We check whether any high-altitude balloons have been released, on the position of orbiting satellites and with Space Command in the United States which tracks the re-entry of satellites or rocket stages in the atmosphere" details Jean-Jacques Velasco in charge of SEPRA. "Meteorological conditions can alter the perception of an object. People in all good faith can be mislead by some kinds of lighting, for instance laser beams used at night-clubs."
The SEPRA database is comprised of more than 2200 different cases, with some 6000 eyewitness accounts and approximately 100 sightings from aircraft. "With the observations by pilots or air controllers we have the advantage of receiving a first analysis, as a result of their professional experience" explains Jean-Jacques Velasco.
A statistical review of all the cases studied since 1974 shows that about 20% of them have been immediately understood. The reasons are often banal and earthly: meteors, satellite or rocket re-entries, sounding-balloons or celestial objects that were seen in particular circumstances.
Most of the remaining eyewitness accounts lack the information necessary for a thorough investigation. SEPRA then collects further details from those concerned and may solicit the opinion of specialists in other fields of research. The precise nature of the phenomena can then usually be provided in practically all these cases.
But there does remain a small percentage (4-5%) where SEPRA has been unable to offer an explanation, given the state of present understanding. The enquiries in these rare cases have confirmed the physical reality of certain phenomena which have been impossible to analyse. The Trans-en-Provence affair in 1981 (an oval shaped phenomenon which moved silently in the air and which left traces on the ground, including important biological changes), and the case of the Air France AF-3532 flight on 28 January 1994 (where something seen by the crew was correlated to an radar observation) are two examples of unsolved enquiries.
Such case studies therefore remain open. "The fact that we do not understand should not lead us to speculate. As a scientific organisation, it is not our role to take sides in such unexplained cases, even less to enter into the debate over the existence or not of extra-terrestrials" stresses Roland Ivarnez.
The subject is sensitive, yet CNES refutes the arguments of those who criticise its work in this field. "It is entirely normal that, as a space agency, we should be asked for our assistance, it is part of our duty as a public service," says Roland Ivarnez. "We devote a certain limited effort, but the manpower and budget are adequate given the relative importance of this subject compared to CNES’s principal areas of activity. It is true however that because of public and media interest in such questions, we are called upon far more than the true importance of such phenomena."
For his part, Jean-Jacques Velasco recognises the difficulty of the job: "Some people consider me as the authority who will systematically decree that all such phenomena are but the fruit of the imagination, or that they are all understood after analysis. For others, I am the person who will comfort them in their beliefs that little green men do exist". Given such differing views, CNES can only reaffirm that it is open-minded but that its approach in this field is strictly scientific.