“Can we talk UFOs?” I asked Nicholas Suntzeff, the regents professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University. “I’d be happy to,” he replied, letting out a chuckle. “But just so you know, the government now wants us to call them unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP.”

The wiry, good-natured Suntzeff, who’s 71, is one of the most respected astronomers in the world, a specialist in cosmology and supernovas. He majored in mathematics at Stanford University, earned his doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and for two decades worked at the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory facility in Chile, studying distant galaxies through giant mountaintop telescopes beneath some of the darkest skies in the world.

In 1994 Suntzeff cofounded the High-Z Supernova Search Team, which discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. (Two members of his team later won the Nobel Prize in physics.) In 2006 he moved to College Station to build an astronomy program at A&M, which at the time didn’t offer even an undergraduate introductory course. Under Suntzeff’s leadership, the department established itself as a world-class entity; less than a decade after its founding, it was inducted into the prestigious Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. 

Suntzeff loves all things astronomical: black holes, curved space-time, exoplanets, asteroids that come close to Earth, eclipses, and yes, supposed UAP sightings by everyday citizens. 

Nicholas Suntzeff: I sometimes get calls from people who believe they have seen something. When I was still living in California, a group that was gathered in a parking lot called late one afternoon and said they were looking at a UFO that was moving across the sky. I drove there, got out of my car, and said, “That’s Venus” [which on occasion is visible before the sun sets]. When I told them, there was some backpedaling—maybe some embarrassment that their imaginations had put more detail into what they saw than what was really there. But I appreciated the fact that they had looked up at the sky and noticed something weird. 

TEXAS MONTHLY: Let’s go way back. When did you start studying the night sky? 

NS: In October 1957, when I was four years old, growing up in California’s Bay Area, my father [a clinical social worker] took me outside one night to look for Sputnik [the Russian-made satellite that had just been launched into Earth’s orbit]. I kept going back outside to look at it, and when I was still in elementary school, I built my own telescope, grinding a six-inch mirror by hand so I could get a better look at what was up there.

TM: Later, during those nights when you were working in observatories, peering through telescopes, did you ever feel your heart pound and think you had spotted some unknown object? 

NS: There were nights when I observed something so bizarre that I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I once saw a doughnut-shaped object in a low Earth orbit split into three pieces and fly off in three different directions and disappear. But I never saw something that I couldn’t eventually explain. [The doughnut, he later discovered, was an experimental telecommunications satellite.] 

TM: Let’s talk about the congressional hearing convened this past July by the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Security. Two U.S. Navy pilots testified that they had seen mysterious objects zipping around them, with no apparent method of propulsion. A military intelligence officer, who had spent fourteen years with the Air Force and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, testified that top government officials had told him about a secret program that had spent decades recovering crashed UAP. He said he had also been told that “nonhuman” life forms—alien bodies—had been found in the wreckage. The hearing made headlines worldwide, and it got a lot of people, including me, asking if we were really alone in the universe. 

NS: Let’s think through this. We are being asked to believe that aliens have flown hundreds of light-years to get here in crafts with fantastic technology. Some of these aliens apparently like to harass U.S. Navy pilots. A few of them get careless and crash-land their aircraft, which seems odd, considering how advanced these machines are supposed to be. And then the federal government finds these UAP and hides them from the rest of the world for years and years.  

TM: Are you saying the Navy pilots didn’t see anything?  

NS: They weren’t seeing anything with their own eyes. They were looking at jumpy, out-of-focus images coming from their onboard infrared cameras. In that footage you could see triangle-shaped objects that looked like flying saucers. But the reason the objects were triangular was because the camera’s pupil [the shutter] was triangular. Also, one of the Navy jets was flying off the coast of Los Angeles, where there is lots of air traffic. The triangles blinked just like a commercial aircraft did. I looked at that video and my first question was “Why are you guys showing us this? It’s obvious that the pilots were looking at airplanes.” 

TM: What about the military intelligence officer? Do you think he was he lying?   

NS: I don’t think he lied. But he admitted that he had only been told about recovered UAP. He had no firsthand, verifiable data. As the great astronomer Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

Suntzeff holds a photographic plate of the Andromeda galaxy that was taken on December 11, 1923, by the astronomer Edwin Hubble.
Suntzeff holds a photographic plate of the Andromeda galaxy that was taken on December 11, 1923, by the astronomer Edwin Hubble.Photograph by Brian Goldman

TM: On March 8 the Pentagon released its long-awaited report on UAP. As you’ve more or less been saying, it found that there was no evidence to confirm that alien spacecraft came to Earth and no truth to the allegations that the government was covering up its knowledge of extraterrestrial technology. Do you think the fascination with UAP will now diminish? 

NS: Never. The most profound question in all of science is whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. That’s why we’re building new telescopes. It’s why some astronomers are working to create experiments to obtain verifiable, well-calibrated data. And a new generation of astronomers is taking the search seriously. It will take years, but let’s wait to see what they find rather than mull over secondhand stories. 

TM: You’re 71 years old. You’ve basically spent your entire adult life looking at the night skies. Do you want to keep looking for UAP?

NS: Of course I do. There’s always the possibility that if you don’t investigate claims about a sighting, you’ll have a chance of missing something big.

TM: The astronomy program you helped launch at A&M eighteen years ago now has 1,077 students enrolled in undergraduate classes, 21 graduate students, and 10 faculty members. Why do so many young people like spending their evenings at A&M’s observatory, looking through telescopes?  

NS: This is another good thing about staring at the night sky. It feeds our sense of wonder. We tend to beat the sense of wonder out of kids in grade school and high school. They get the message that figuring stuff out is totally uncool—which is unfortunate, because what’s wonderful about human beings is their ability to wonder. That’s why astronomy appeals to students who are exposed to it. It’s why we’re all so interested in UAP. It restores our natural sense of wonder.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Astronomer Who Knows Intelligent Life When He Sees It” Subscribe today.