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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

Are aliens coming to eat our horses? The science behind UFOs and 'Nope'

Heavy emphasis on unidentified.

By Cassidy Ward
Nope Jordan Peele final trailer UFO UNIVERSAL YT

Since making the switch from comedy to horror, Jordan Peele has been piloting a runaway train of instant classics and his latest film, Nope continues the trend. 

Nope largely leaves the realm of human monsters behind for something a little more alien — although even then Peele takes some creative liberties. His extraterrestrial creature isn’t exactly little green men in flying saucers. We’ll leave the details of the movie’s revelations for the theater, but get your tickets before it’s too late, spoilers abound online.

An extraterrestrial menace was a solid choice for his latest exploration of terror as they’ve been tormenting the popular consciousness for decades. Maybe longer. Which causes even the most skeptical among us to wonder if we’re being visited by alien tourists or if something else is going on.


Belief in the possibility of extraterrestrial life goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. While the belief certainly wasn’t popular — it resulted in the banishment of at least one philosopher — it was clear that some people were looking to the cosmos and wondering if other beings not unlike ourselves might be out there.

Despite what Ancient Aliens might have you believe, there’s little if any evidence that aliens have visited our planet throughout history. The hypotheses that megastructures like the Great Pyramids, the Nazca Lines, and the statues of Easter Island might have been constructed by extraterrestrial intelligences rests on ignorance and at least a smattering of racism. They ask you to wonder how it could be possible that indigenous peoples could achieve such miraculous feats of architecture and ingenuity. It’s a line of thinking we should examine, reckon with, and disregard.

Besides, they’re mostly built on backward engineering historical events after the fact. If we want to make the case for alien visitation, we should at least rely on first-hand accounts. Those didn’t really kick off until the middle of the twentieth century. In 1947, Kenneth Arnold was flying a small plane when he reportedly witnessed nine crescent-shaped objects flying in the distance. According to his account, they were moving several thousand miles per hour, which would have been pretty impressive considering that Chuck Yeager had just broken the sound barrier the same year. More importantly for the history of UFO sightings, Arnold described their movements as similar to saucers skipping over water.

Illustration of a Flying Saucer

That description was twisted in media reports and the public began to imagine alien spacecraft shaped like saucers. As far as we can tell, that’s where the popular image of UFOs comes from. Either aliens take their design cues from us or something else is happening. The phenomenon might have died there if not for the famed incident in Roswell, New Mexico, which happened later that same year.

Since then, countless UFO sightings have occurred and the idea has become so entrenched in the popular consciousness that anytime we see something unusual in the sky, it’s likely that aliens are among your first thoughts.


Arnold was an experienced pilot and offered himself up to authorities for investigation after his reported sighting. After an interview, the Army report indicated that Arnold’s character and belief in his account weren’t in question, only his conclusion. What Arnold really saw that day has never been definitively solved but a couple of possibilities have emerged.

According to Live Science, it’s possible that Arnold really did witness a grouping of extraterrestrial objects moving in formation. Only, instead of being piloted by aliens, they were being controlled by physics. A meteor breaking up in the atmosphere could result in fragments falling at high speed and in formation. But, that doesn’t explain the strange movements Arnold claims to have seen. The more readily accepted explanation is that he misjudged the distance and was actually looking at a flock of birds that were much closer to him than he believed. Misjudging distance is easier than we like to think, especially when you’re in the air. A viewer is lacking most of the references we’re used to on the ground and things can appear to be further away or moving much faster than they actually are.

Once we get to the events of Roswell, things get even more complicated, owing to a then-classified military instrument. The initial explanation from the United States military was that the fragments of a craft recovered at Roswell were pieces of a downed weather balloon. That explanation was touted for many years as a thin cover-up and it turns out it was, in a manner of speaking.

Roswell UFO Museum Sign

Official reports released by the U.S. Air Force in 1994 and again in 1997 reveal that the Roswell craft was actually a secret spying device intended for use over the Soviet Union. A string of connected balloons outfitted with microphones was intended to listen for evidence of nuclear tests. When it came down over New Mexico, the military had to concoct a story in order to hide their secret machinations. Allowing the public to believe in alien visitation was deemed preferable to revealing our secrets. So it goes.

Other sightings are often explained away as errant glimpses of the planet Venus. Because Venus is only intermittently visible, relatively low to the horizon, and the brightest object in the night sky, it has the makings of an unusually unsettling sight if you don’t know what you’re looking at.


Recently, in June of 2021, the U.S. government released a report investigating 144 sightings of what they have reclassified as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. Of those 144 cases, 80 included observations with multiple sensors. Regardless of their origin or explanation, the government has deemed them a potential threat to planned flight activities and worthy of investigation.

Only a small percentage of the target UAPs, 18 out of 144, exhibited unusual flight characteristics. These included remaining stationary in the wind or flying against the wind, abrupt changes of direction, and moving at high speeds with an apparent means of propulsion.

Even after the report, the majority of cases remained unexplained, and the diversity of their behaviors suggests that a single explanation may not exist. The report suggests five potential buckets for these phenomena if and when they are explained: airborne clutter, natural atmospheric phenomena, USG or U.S. industry development programs, foreign adversary systems, and "other."

Right now, they pretty much all fall into that last bucket. There’s a lot we don’t know. While it’s reasonable to be skeptical that UFOs are alien spacecraft, it might be unreasonable to say categorically that they are not. An unidentified object is just that, unidentified. It’s perfectly fair to say that we don’t know what something is, that it was unusual, and to investigate it honestly. In the meantime, we’re not holding our breath for visitors from another world. If and when they do show up, we hope they’re not so weird about it. And that they don’t eat our horses, or us

Nope is now playing in theaters.