Inside the French Space Centre headquarters, a small team consisting of four staffers and a dozen volunteers is tasked with analyzing reports of unidentified flying objects — and sometimes, the agency dispatches trained investigators to visit the locations of the strange sightings. They are the Agents of G.E.I.P.A.N.
Okay, in truth, their acronym is not the least bit cool. It stands for Group d'Etudes et d'Informations Sur Les Phenomenes Aerospatiaux Non Identifies (Study Group and Information on Non-Identified Aerospace Phenomenon). And, as the agency explains on its website, it is not a research organization "dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life or the existence of very advanced extraterrestrial technologies."
But, GEIPAN does take its actual mission very seriously — playing "a vital role to make the information it collects available to the scientific community and, of course, the general public."
As the BBC reports:
The team receives, on average, two UFO sightings a day. The department insists an 11-page form is filled out for each one. The idea is to provide details including photographs where possible but also weed out jokers and time-wasters.
If someone claims to have seen strange lights in the skies, the UFO team might go online to see whether the observation took place on a flight path— it can trace commercial air traffic going back more than a week.
The team also has access to military flight paths and is in touch with the air force and air traffic controllers.
Sometimes if its staff is really intrigued by photos they have seen or if there have been several witnesses to the same sighting, they will call the local police to ask whether they can be considered credible.
The department can explain away nearly all these phenomena and, believe it or not, the most common culprits are Chinese lanterns sent up at night during parties. The investigators often telephone the local town hall to ask if, perhaps, there had been a wedding going on at the time.
But there are around 400 UFO sightings going back to the 1970s that the French team cannot explain. One, an alleged flying saucer landing near Aix-en-Provence in 1981, they take very seriously— there were landing marks and multiple witnesses.
One point that the BBC report overlooks is that GEIPAN doesn't like the term UFO, preferring instead the acronym PAN. As their website explains:
The acronym UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) is the translation of the English term UFO (Unidentified Flying Object). The review of the evidence and the results of investigations show that this term is often misused: in most cases, observations describe a phenomenon known or unknown, generally light but no evidence of the presence of a material object with characteristics comparable to those of flight of an aircraft. The use of the general term PAN (Unidentified Aerospace Phenomena) is more appropriate.
Whether you call them UFOs or PANs, GEIPAN's website offers an extensive library of the software tools they use in their analyses. The only software not publicly available is an in-house tool developed for tracking satellites. It's called — wait for it — "Scully."