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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

Are recent UFO sightings evidence of secret alien visitation? (Probably not)

Are there more of them or are we just better at seeing what was already there?

By Cassidy Ward
Men In Black (1997)

In the 1997 science fiction classic Men in Black (streaming now on Peacock!), James Darrel Edwards III (Will Smith), an officer in the NYPD — which, of course, stands for “I will knock your punk a** down — is in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. It should be just another day at the office, but this particular perp has an unnatural ability for parkour and the inhuman talent of scaling sheer brick buildings. As Edwards will soon discover, there’s a good reason for those inhuman abilities, and it’s that the suspect isn’t human at all.

In the aftermath of the arrest, Edwards learns that humans aren’t alone in the universe, not by a long shot, and there’s a secret organization tasked with keeping humans in the dark and keeping the planet safe. They are called the Men in Black. If you’ve been keeping up with the recent news of UFO sightings around the world, you might be wondering if Men in Black needs to be reshelved to the non-fiction section.


While Men in Black and its sequels (also streaming on Peacock!) lean pretty heavily into adventure and laughs, there are those among us who believe that the events depicted onscreen are closer to documentary than farce. Fascination with unidentified flying objects — the UFO designation was recently changed to Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena or UAP — really kicked off in the middle of the 19th century. The events at Roswell and the abduction stories of Barney and Betty Hill helped to set the stage for the modern image of semi-secret extraterrestrial visitation.

While the popularity of alien visitation and abduction has undergone some ebbs and flows over the last several decades, it has never totally gone away. Moreover, public interest in these unknown objects has increased in recent years, thanks in part to a couple of investigations from government entities in the United States.

RELATED: U.S. Defense Department to investigate UFO sightings going back to 1945

UFOs were probably primed to have another moment in the spotlight (or in the tractor beam) and that was before a foreign balloon was spotted cruising over North America in recent weeks. According to Gallup’s most recent data, more than 40% of Americans believe that at least some UFOs are actually alien spacecraft.

While the purpose of the balloon isn’t wholly known, its origin is and it was entirely terrestrial. That said, to the casual observer it seems almost as if the balloon heralded an increase in weirdness in Earth’s skies. As though the balloon laid out some cosmic red carpet welcoming every alien within earshot into our airspace.

In the aftermath of the balloon’s discovery and subsequent destruction, there appears to have been an increase in the number and frequency of UAP sightings. That’s the sort of thing which practically begs for its own conspiracy theory, but we can’t help but wonder if there’s a more mundane explanation for our mysteriously crowded skies.


Part of the uptick in announced sightings could be explained by the creation of the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), under the umbrella of the Department of Defense, in July of 2022. That office is tasked with, among other things, spotting and identifying UAPs in and around the United States. Since their creation nearly a year ago, the AARO has established new protocols, combed through existing reports, and continued gathering new ones. In short, we might be seeing more UAPs, not because there are actually more, but because we’re looking more rigorously than we were before. When you cast a wider net, you catch more fish, and all that.

A flying triangle floating above the countryside at night.

In the Pentagon’s first UAP report, released in 2021, they listed 144 incidents of which only one was explained. After the AARO got set up, a second report was released which bumped the number of incidents up to more than 500, but this time 195 of them had explanations. As reported by Scientific American, the majority of the explained UAPs are thought to have been balloons. And given what we now know about the history of spy balloons in recent years, it’s likely that at least a few UAP sightings were not unlike the balloon which recently made global headlines. Others were likely drones or airborne trash like shopping bags and holiday balloons.

RELATED: U.S. government reportedly finds UFOs are more likely to be airborne trash than aliens

It’s certainly possible that the recent burst in UAP sightings is the result of alien visitors who, upon seeing a spy balloon traipsing over North America, thought it an invitation to drop by. But it’s wholly improbable.

Alternatively, the public revelation that a balloon sent by one nation could get so deeply into another without announcement or invitation, and that it wasn’t the first time, caused groups like the AARO to look more closely at the data. Things like balloons and drones, whether controlled by foreign governments or civilians, probably slipped literally under the radar because they didn’t meet pre-defined criteria. Now that it’s clear those criteria are broken, the leash has been tightened and we’re catching a whole bunch of stuff we weren’t seeing before.

It isn’t that there are more UAPs, it’s just that we’ve sharpened our focus. That means we’re going to catch more actual threats, whether terrestrial or cosmic in origin, but we’re also going to catch a lot of noise that we’ll probably never be able to explain. There are things which are unknown and there are things that are unknowable and that’s as true of rogue plastic bags as it is of aliens. That’s probably something we just have to get comfortable with. The universe is a mysterious and thrilling place, whether there are aliens buzzing our planet or not.

Catch Men in Black, Men in Black II, and Men in Black 3, all streaming right now on Peacock!