Flight operations at Imphal’s Bir Tikendrajit International Airport in Manipur were affected for several hours on Sunday (November 20) after an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) was seen hovering above the airport, officials said. Two flights were diverted and three departing flights were delayed before flight operations could be resumed, according to a statement from airport director Chipemmi Keishing.
Objects in the distant sky have fascinated humans for long, drawing feverish speculation about their nature and origins. But not all UFOs refer to the existence of life beyond Earth, and in some cultures, there are specific reasons behind the popularity of such ideas. We take a look.
What are UFOs?
According to the US Air Force Declassification Office, UFOs “is the popular term for any apparent aerial phenomenon whose cause cannot be easily or immediately identified by the observer.”
It credits the Air Force for coining it in 1952, saying it “initially defined UFOs as those objects that remain unidentified after scrutiny by expert investigators.” Although the term “UFO” originally referred to unidentified flying objects under investigation, it is now used more casually to describe any type of unidentifiable object.
While the US is not the only country that reports such sightings, its government and society at large have often given the phenomenon an unusual amount of attention. Former US President Barack Obama said in a 2021 interview with CBS, “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory…They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so, you know I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is…”
An example of the government’s involvement in such activities is Project Blue Book. Time Magazine reported on it 40 years later, “From 1952 until 1969, more than 12,000 reports were compiled and either classified as “identified” — explained by astronomical, atmospheric or artificial phenomenon — or “unidentified,” which made up just 6% of the accounts. Because of such a meager percentage and an overall drop in sightings, officials axed the program and ended the research.”
Another recent US government report said in 2021 that the limited data available on such objects’ sightings is “largely inconclusive”, though some patterns are spotted, such as the fact that most of these sightings tended to be around US training and testing grounds.
But these objects need not point to Outer Space origins, they are simply unidentified and could range from being birds, balloons, drone-like objects, a result of natural atmospheric phenomena (ice crystals, moisture), or even foreign adversary systems, the report noted.
Notably, this heightened interest came right after World War 2, when the Cold War had set in. The ideological and material battle between the capitalist USA and the communist USSR, never manifesting into a direct ‘hot’ war between them, meant there was significant government focus on protection from Soviet ‘threats’. In this context, unidentified objects in the US airspace became a cause of concern.
Also, as rocketry and the technology to capture images and videos became more advanced, there developed a greater interest in the analysis of such sightings.
What about UFO sightings in India?
UFO sightings have not been as significant a part of culture in India. However, the proliferation of televisions and increased accessibility of cameras has boosted the numbers of such claims.
But before the TV era too, a well-known representation of aliens in Indian culture was given by the legendary writer-director, Satyajit Ray. In his 1967 script, titled The Alien, he described an other-wordly being who lands on Earth. He also planned to turn it into a Hollywood movie, but it was not to be. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was later accused of plagiarising Ray’s script for his own iconic film, E.T. (release in 1981). Spielberg has denied the claims.
Another one of Ray’s stories, which had an alien, was titled Bonkubabur Bondhu (Bonkubabu’s Friend). It appeared in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1962 and provided the idea at the heart of his later project.
Yet another early film to feature aliens was 1963’s Tamil film Kalai Arasi. It starred actor and future Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, and the actress Bhanumathi.
And what are UAPs?
UAP or Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon is seen as a newer, broader term that is used to avoid “the confusion and speculative associations that have become attached to UFO”, according to the US Air Force. The term unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP) is used by the Pentagon to refer to UFOs.
NASA also uses the term now. In June 2022, it said it would commission a study team to examine UAPs “from a scientific perspective”, focusing on identifying available data, how best to collect future data, and how “NASA can use that data to move the scientific understanding of UAPs forward.”
According to the journal Scientific American, a preliminary report of the study said in June this year, “Gaining any new clarity about surging reports of unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, will take time, better data gathering and diagnostic tools and, perhaps most importantly, a hale and hearty dose of nit-picking scientific scrutiny.”
This was echoed in a recent official statement. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a press briefing on July 26, “What we believe is that there are unexplained aerial phenomena that have been cited and reported by pilots — Navy and Air Force; that these phenomena have in some cases had an impact on our training ranges, on our pilots’ ability to fly, train, operate, and stay ready. That alone makes it a national security issue worth… We don’t have the answers about what these phenomena are.”
This is an edited version of an earlier explainer first published in July 2023.
First appeared on indianexpress.com