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They can shoot down the UFOs, but they can't shoot down our hopes of meeting aliens

We've been seeing a lot of unexplained UFOs lately. Can you blame folks for thinking E.T has finally decided to drop in for a visit?
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We've been seeing a lot of unexplained UFOs lately. Can you blame folks for thinking E.T has finally decided to drop in for a visit?

Welcome to a new NPR series where we spotlight the people and things making headlines — and the stories behind them.

After days of the United States shooting random objects out of the sky, the White House was forced to puncture some circulating thoughts as well. They told the nation that yes, they've been hearing your alien speculation. And no, this isn't it.

Who are they? You might know them as UFOs, or their more formal name: UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). They are the sudden unidentified flying objects passing over North America.

  • First there was the balloon that started it all, dubbed the "Chinese spy balloon." While it was eventually shot down by authorities (and made a cameo on Saturday Night Live) it began this strange aerial saga, and put the spotlight on an already-tense relationship between the U.S. and China.
  • Then this past weekend, the UFOs just... kept coming. On Friday, the U.S. military downed a "high altitude airborne object" off the coast of Alaska. Saturday, it was a cylindrical object in Canada's Yukon territory. And Sunday, it was an unidentified flying object that was taken down over Lake Huron.
  • What's the big deal?

  • There was a brief, glimmering, potentially extraterrestrial moment over the weekend when a U.S. official said he hadn't "ruled out anything" when discussing aliens — but that's now apparently off the table
  • Still, officials aren't offering much speculation as to what these objects were being used for until they can track the remains for analysis.
  • In an interview with NPR, Mike Dumont —  a retired vice admiral who was deputy commander of Northern Command and vice commander of NORAD —  said that regarding the more recent objects that were shot down, surveillance is a likely option, though there are other more innocuous possibilities (including weather balloons or even a science experiment from a college).
  • Chinese officials have denied the claims of espionage. And they say that the U.S. has flown spy balloons into their airspace more than 10 times since January 2022, a claim authorities in the U.S. have quickly denied.
  • What are people saying?

    White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made it clear when speaking to journalists on Monday that there will be no calls for Agent Mulder and Agent Scully to make a return:

    "There is no – again, no — indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent take-downs.

    ...I wanted to make sure that the American people knew that, all of you knew that, and it was important for us to say that from here because we've been hearing a lot about it.

    ...I loved E.T. the movie, but I'm just gonna leave it there."

    Here's what Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR this week, after cancelling an earlier planned trip to China when news of the first balloon came out:

    "We're committed to responsibly managing the competition between the United States and China, and we look to Beijing to do the same thing.

    This particular action, sending the surveillance balloon over the heart of the United States was an irresponsible act and, of course, a violation of our sovereignty and of international law. So that's what's critical. But it doesn't take away from the fact that we are committed to finding ways to responsibly manage it, to engage."

    And Dumont said there are a few potentials here:

    One is that these have been going on before in the past, and we haven't detected them. There have been detections where our radars have picked up various phenomenon. We haven't been able to clearly define what it was that they detected because, quite frankly, the equipment is not that refined. It cannot discern down to an exquisite level of detail what an anomaly in the air might be. And then the other thing is, occasionally we will pick up weather phenomena which will indicate, you know, that there's a presence of something, maybe a balloon or an aircraft. And it turns out to be a weather anomaly just in the atmosphere. And again, some of this could be corrected with newer technologies."

    So, what now?

  • Blinken told NPR he will only consider rescheduling his visit to China when Chinese authorities demonstrate that they "want to engage in a responsible manner." However, Blinken and China's top diplomat Wang Yi may also meet at a security conference this week.
  • Inclement weather has made it difficult to recover the objects that have been taken down. Once they've been recovered and examined, we might have more answers surrounding where they came from and what their purposes were.
  • Senators will receive a classified briefing on Tuesday about the unknown objects, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told NPR.
  • If any real aliens want to make a big entrance, now would be a pretty good time.
  • Learn more:

  • For a breakdown on the last few days: UFOs? Airborne objects? What we know about 4 recent shootdowns
  • On some history of this happening in the past: This wasn't the first Chinese balloon over the U.S. Why were the others ignored?
  • And for some extra analysis: Where U.S.-China relations stand after suspected spy balloon was shot down
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.

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