University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

The Truth is Out There

Jacob Haqq-Misra is an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. He also has a few thoughts about UFOs.

The trouble with unidentified flying objects (also known by NASA and the National Defense Authorization Act as UAPs, or unidentified anomalous phenomena) is that, even after all these years, the darned things remain unidentified. Are they from outer space? China? The center of the Earth?

For those who are frustrated by this lack of knowledge, Jacob Haqq-Misra (B.S. ’05), a director and senior research investigator at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, has a message: Those are the wrong questions. Instead of asking what those unidentified objects in the sky are, we should first be asking how we might go about studying them.

“At this point, we don’t know what they are,” Haqq-Misra says about the numerous aerial sightings that stretch back decades, and which are now finally garnering official investigation after years of scoffing and ridicule. “We could say, ‘Are they Chinese?,’ and then come up with a bunch of reasons as to why they’re probably not Chinese. I just don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to pursue any hypothesis more than any other until we have better information about what this phenomenon is at all.”

That’s where scientists like Haqq-Misra, who lives in Clayton, Delaware, come in.

"I’ve always been interested in what’s out there and what’s beyond us. I wanted to be a space scientist even before I knew the word astronomer."

Originally from Burnsville, Minnesota, Haqq-Misra studied astrophysics at the U of M. After earning his B.S. in 2005, he went on to Penn State University, earning an M.S. in meteorology in 2007 and a Ph.D. in meteorology and astronomy in 2010. In 2012 he cofounded the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to interdisciplinary research on science-related questions. (Haqq-Misra’s areas of interest include planetary habitability, extraterrestrial life, and space settlement, but not UFOs in particular. He’s weighing in on them because he thinks scientific research is needed to provide answers.)

“I wanted to study astronomy since I was a little kid,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in what’s out there and what’s beyond us. I wanted to be a space scientist even before I knew the word astronomer.”

In 2020 and 2021, he and Ravi Kopparapu, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, cowrote articles in Scientific American and the Washington Post calling for scientific research into UFOs. This year, with mounting evidence that some sightings of UFOs are highly credible, NASA has promised to investigate.

As an astrobiologist at Blue Marble (named after the iconic photograph of Earth shot by the Apollo 17 crew on its flight to the moon in 1972), Haqq-Misra can now pursue his childhood interests in a sophisticated way.

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, distribution, and future of life in the universe,” he says. “We have one example, Earth—but we can study Earth past, Earth present, and think about Earth’s future and how we might search for any kind of life, either in the solar system or other star systems.”

One of the ways he searches for life in our solar system or elsewhere is by looking for “biosignatures” of other planets: any indications that provide evidence of past or present life.

“This gets a little technical, but you point a telescope at a planet and you use a spectrometer, which is kind of like a prism, and you can actually look at different light coming from different molecules—and there’s a unique fingerprint from each molecule,” he says. “So, you can tell if there is oxygen in the planet atmosphere, or if there is water vapor or carbon dioxide.”

Haqq-Misra has also written three books. The most recent, Sovereign Mars: Transforming Our Values Through Space Settlement, was published in November 2022 by the University Press of Kansas. In it, Haqq-Misra examines the prospects and challenges of space colonization, and argues that “liberating” Mars as a sovereign planet should be an important first step toward avoiding the kinds of mistakes associated with colonialism on Earth. He’s also currently coediting a book about the importance of scientific investigation of the UFO phenomenon.

One might guess that Haqq-Misra would be thrilled to someday pay Mars, or some other planet, a visit. But that’s not the case.

“Writing this book, I was maybe marginally excited about going to Mars if I had the chance—but after writing it, I really don’t want to go to Mars,” he says. “Standing on its surface and seeing Earth as just a point of light is terrifying to me.”

Perhaps not ironically, Haqq-Misra has found that studying space has made him appreciate his planetary home more.

“We should look for life elsewhere; I think we should think about what we could do on Mars or if there’s life on Mars,” he says. “But this is my favorite planet; this place is great. We’re not going to find another place like it.”

If you liked this story, Minnesota Alumni magazine publishes four times a year highlighting U of M alumni and University activities. The magazine is a benefit of being a Alumni Association member. Join here to receive a printed copy at home.

Read More