NASA’s new UFO panel and why it matters

An image of stars in space.
A young, star-forming region in the Carina Nebula, seen via the James Webb Space Telescope. Scientific research has revealed that circling almost every star we see in the sky are at least a couple of planets, some of which could host life.

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Nov. 2. I’m Deborah Netburn, the faith and spirituality reporter at the L.A. Times, and I’m excited to be here with you today.

Before taking on the faith and spirituality beat last year, I spent seven years on the science desk covering an array of awe-inducing research and discoveries. One of my favorite topics to write about was the serious, scientific search for extraterrestrial life.

It turns out it’s not a fringe area of research.

On one of my first trips to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2013, I had the opportunity to interview Ellen Stofan, who had just been named the chief science officer for NASA. When I asked about her top priorities in the job, she was unequivocal: She wanted to find evidence of extraterrestrial life.


“I’m so biased to this issue of the origins of life and the limits of life,” she said at the time. “And we have such great places to study right here in our solar system to really move the frontier on that.”

A few years later, she was doubling down on that message. “I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” she said in 2015. “We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology.”

If there is indeed life in our solar system, Stofan thought it would be microbial, not intelligent, and certainly not likely to send spacecraft to Earth. Still, when NASA announced it had assembled an independent study team to spend nine months investigating Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (what used to be called UFOs), I wasn’t surprised.

The panel members, who began their work last week, include leaders in the fields of astrophysics, data science, biological oceanography and electrical engineering, as well as a former astronaut. The panel is not tasked with determining if any UAPs are actual signs of alien life, but rather with exploring how data gathered by civilian government entities and other sources can shed light on what’s behind these mysterious sightings.

The goal is to “take a field that is relatively data-poor and make it into a field that is much more data-rich, and therefore worthy of scientific investigation and analysis,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington.

There has been a surge of interest in UAPs over the past few years. In 2020, the Department of Defense released three videos of Navy jets encountering objects they couldn’t identify. Last year, a preliminary, controversial government report claimed the Navy had seen a variety of UAPs, most of which could not be easily explained. And this year, Congress added an amendment to the defense budget to create a UAP office, which the Pentagon launched this year.

In an op-ed for the L.A. Times, Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, said there’s a good reason politicians are taking the possibility of alien life seriously. Scientific research over the past few decades has revealed that circling almost every star we see in the sky are at least a couple of planets, some of which could host life. “Since life needs planets to form and thrive, this knowledge significantly increases the possibilities of life beyond Earth,” he wrote.


Part of the new panel’s job will be to think through what data researchers will need to determine if there really are alien craft flying in our skies. “NASA’s panel can begin to lay out what a rational investigation of UFOs looks like without assumptions about what UFOs are,” Frank wrote. “Is a network of Earth-observing satellites required, or upward-looking ground stations? These are some of the questions it may take on.”

Frank thinks it’s unlikely that UAPs have anything to do with life beyond Earth, but he applauds the panel’s creation. Ideally, it will demonstrate what he considers the most beautiful aspect of science: the ability to withhold judgment in favor of evidence.

“For a nation awash in science denial, that would be no small thing,” Frank wrote. “And by creating a blueprint of what evidence is demanded by a question as extraordinary as whether we’re alone in the universe, the panel can show the equally extraordinary progress science is making toward answering it.”

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Cool weather at last. Someday I will write a story about how October is the worst month in Los Angeles. (If you agree and would like to talk about it, send me an email at But for now, the dreaded month is behind us, and temperatures are falling. Highs are expected to hover in the 60s for the rest of the week with a chance of rain in Southern California and even some snow in the mountains. Hallelujah! Los Angeles Times

L.A. County to pay $47.6 million over alleged misconduct by sheriff’s deputies. The settlements resolve five cases. In three of them, deputies shot people; in one, deputies failed to prevent a man from killing himself in jail; and in another, a man whose family said he was suffering a mental health crisis died after being violently restrained by deputies. Los Angeles Times

8 places in L.A. to catch the sunset before it gets dark absurdly early. Earlier and earlier comes the darkness as we hurtle through fall toward year’s end. There’s no stopping this, so you might as well enjoy the light while you can. This week, before diving into your evening plans, take a moment to watch the sunset. Los Angeles Times

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David DePape planned attacks on other politicians besides Pelosi, prosecutors allege. Prosecutors say DePape, who was charged with attempted murder and other crimes in connection with a violent attack against Paul Pelosi, was on a suicide mission and had other targets in mind when he broke into the Pelosis’ San Francisco home last week. Los Angeles Times

Charges pile up for alleged serial S.F. harasser. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office added six more charges to the case against alleged stalker Bill Gene Hobbs after six more women came forward with claims of harassment and assault, prosecutors said Tuesday. The new allegations add to an already lengthy list of charges against Hobbs, whose allegedly aggressive and intrusive encounters with women have sparked outrage across San Francisco. Dozens of women have accused him of grabbing, chasing, kissing or leering at them. San Francisco Chronicle

Roughly a dozen women testify in sex abuse trial of prominent Orange County water polo coach. The young women have taken the stand to accuse the coach of repeatedly sexually abusing them while they were in their teens. Bahram Hojreh, a well-known coach with more than two decades experience in the sport, is on trial for the alleged sexual abuse of more than a dozen female players, mostly during practices. Orange County Register

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Orange County declares health emergency amid spread of RSV. County health officials warned over the weekend that elevated spread of respiratory illnesses, specifically RSV, was severely affecting capacity in the region’s pediatric hospitals. Los Angeles Times

Whales are swarming off San Francisco. Here’s where to see them. Abnormally cold waters have led to an abundance of krill and anchovies, which in turn has led to a superhighway of humpback whales off the California coast. In fact, the Golden Gate Bridge right now is a decent place for whale-watching. Bay area residents can grab their binoculars and check out some other top spots. The Mercury News

A 700-page report on California’s climate was released Tuesday. It’s not good. Rising temperatures were among the report’s starkest findings, with annual average air temperatures in California increasing by about 2.5 degrees since 1895 and warming at a faster rate beginning in the 1980s. Eight of the 10 warmest years on record occurred between 2012 and 2022, and temperatures at night have increased by almost three times more than daytime temperatures. Los Angeles Times

Nearly a third of southern Sierra forests killed by drought and wildfire in last decade. Between 2011 and 2020, wildfires, drought and bark beetle infestations contributed to the loss of nearly a third of all conifer forests in the lower half of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, according to a recent study. Los Angeles Times


Native voices were finally heard at California’s biggest native plant conference. Something’s happened in the four years since the California Native Plant Society — CNPS — had its last statewide conference. The state’s premier environmental group “dedicated to the preservation and celebration of California’s native flora” finally got the memo about diversity and inclusion. Los Angeles Times

In-N-Out Burger is planning a big 75th anniversary bash next year. Lynsi Snyder, the burger chain’s billionaire owner, promises a “giant shindig” in Pomona for the chain’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2023 complete with drag racing, a car show, celebrity musicians and its own food trucks. Los Angeles Times

Love and gratitude on the L.A. Times’ virtual Día de Muertos altar. Today is the final day of Día de Muertos, and if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you check out The Times’ second annual Día de Muertos altar. Readers were invited to post a photo of a loved one who died and share an anecdote or message about them — an annual rite of public mourning. The deadline to contribute is over, but scrolling through the photos and messages gave me the feeling of having my heart broken and warmed at the same time. It’s worth it. And if you want to celebrate the holiday IRL, there are still a few celebrations happening today. Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: 67, mostly cloudy. San Diego: 66, partly cloudy. San Francisco: 56, scattered showers. San Jose: 57, showers. Fresno: 59, scattered showers. Sacramento: 59, scattered thunderstorms.


Today’s California memory is from Marie Davis:

Growing up on a chicken ranch in the 1950s San Fernando Valley, I would walk to school skirting luscious tangerine groves. From the school playground, we could watch clouds gather over the distant regal San Gabriel Mountains, and played kickball with the sweet aromas of citrus blossoms and the Sunkist processing plant swirling around us. After school I would wander home through the groves, eating tangerines. A lucky Valley child.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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