The new report is less a major turning point in our understanding of life in the universe and more a product of our current cultural climate, a time when expertise and authority are increasingly being called into question. The debate over UFOs instead highlights the limits of knowledge and humanity’s continued need to believe in something beyond our mundane experience of the world.

It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time the government has acknowledged that its pilots on occasion see things that bewilder them. “The US military has done this before, in multiple ways, at multiple times,” says Kathryn Dorsch, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Last summer, for instance, the Department of Defense authorized the release of three videos showing purported encounters with unidentified phenomena, which featured oblong dots hovering and moving in eerie ways. In April, the Pentagon also confirmed that leaked video of a bizarre triangular object taken in 2019 was a legitimate recording of something it had yet to explain.

Dorsch, who specializes in scientific knowledge production, points out that UFOs are very much a Cold War phenomenon. Almost as soon as World War II ended, US military officials began reporting observations of funny lights and odd-shaped entities.

It was perfectly reasonable for the Department of Defense to be concerned that these represented some kind of advanced Soviet technology, and so the Air Force launched Project Sign and Project Grudge in 1947 and 1948, respectively, to study UFO sightings among its soldiers. The longest such investigation, Project Blue Book, ran from 1952 to 1969 and ended with the public release of the Condon Report, which concluded that the study of UFOs was unlikely to yield much of interest.

Each of these documents has stated that the vast majority of these sightings can be traced back to some common object—a bird, plane, or planet, Dorsch says. But a certain slim percentage of encounters have always remained unidentified, and the military has vowed to keep investigating them. True believers hold up these unknowns as potential evidence of visitors from somewhere else.

“The chances of this technology being Russian or Chinese is infinitesimally small,” says Semivan, speaking about the objects captured in the Navy videos released in recent years. “These things have been flying around since the ’40s, and the Russians would have won the Cold War if they had this technology back then.”

The way he and DeLonge see it, there are really only three options that can account for what people have been spotting over the years: the extraterrestrial, the interdimensional, and the ultra-terrestrial, meaning members of a lost human civilization here on Earth, à la Atlantis.

“Either there’s a group so much more advanced that we never knew they were here,” DeLonge says, “or they’re popping in and out of what we can perceive, and using machinery to do that.”

But before rushing off into such flights of fancy, it might be good to consider that another group of sky watchers, astronomers, rarely report seeing unidentified aerial phenomena. “No one would be happier than astronomers if UFOs turned out to be alien spacecraft,” says Andrew Fraknoi, a retired astronomer and member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which promotes critical investigation of extraordinary claims. “Imagine getting to talk about astronomy with creatures that traveled through the stars.”