Inside France’s ‘UFO Bureau’ - ‘we explain what people have seen’

We talk to the head of Geipan, a tiny wing of France’s answer to Nasa that inspired a Canal + TV show

Vincent Costes the scientific service Gaipan; a ‘UFO’ from the Gaipan files
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Vincent Costes heads up the Groupe d’études et d’informations sur les phénomènes aérospatiaux non identifiés (Geipan), a scientific service from France’s answer to Nasa, the Centre National d’etudes spatiales (CNES), that has been nicknamed ‘UFO bureau’.

Although created back in 1977, Geipan has only recently shown up on the radar after being the main source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Ovnis (objet volant non-identifié, unidentified flying object), a Canal + TV show following a gang of UFO investigators in France during the 70s, in which characters use some of Geipan’s tools.

“People have come up to us saying that they were surprised it was legitimate work involving serious scientific processes,” said Mr Costes, who is pleased by the recent cross-media coverage Geipan received, considering its small budget and size.

Read more: What was the mysterious glowing object spotted over French skies?

Geipan is located in a small office in Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) and employs three full-time staff, but works with an army of volunteers, and benefits from incredible access to data from several important governmental services.

The reference to aliens and UFOs is a good communication tool that Geipan is certainly happy to play on.

It hosted its first conference with an introduction from a member of Nasa. But connections with American story-telling and grammar have their limits.

Geipan has no established partnership with Nasa or any other similar foreign organisations, nor does it comment on its recent declassified videos showing unidentified forms detected by pilots and radars.

Read more: Amateur photographer’s shot of Dordogne skies sparks NASA interest

It has developed its own terminology about what it observes in an attempt to distance itself from the overly restrictive ‘UFO.’

Mr Costes said he likes that Geipan’s terminology is used by foreign colleagues.

Our interview started with me teasing him about a new ‘UFO’ that Geipan had discovered.

However, it turns out that the new ‘UFO’ could potentially have serious scientific implications. At least that is what Mr Costes hopes for.

How do researchers at Geipan work?

It is quite atypical. It works two ways.

The first one is a witness filing a testimony to police that is sent to us, or witnesses filling out our questionnaire on our website, an increasingly more common method.

This is a relationship between citizens and scientists of the CNES.

How many ‘sightings’ are Geipan asked to explain, and I’m guessing you can deal with most of them quickly?

We receive 700 requests to investigate per year, and treat only 150 of them. You are right in saying most require very little research.

Part of our job is to explain to people that what they have seen is not what they expected.

This is sometimes very difficult, because some will not budge about what they think they have seen.

Read more: UFO spotted above Occitanie is the work of French prankster

The reality is that I am a researcher of satellites, planes, meteorological phenomena, and Thai lanterns, since these are the most common explanations behind phenomena.

Yes, our explanations are often trite and rational. Most of our interpretations turn out to be objects from daily life.

But your readers need to understand that we do not disregard their testimony. All come from observing the strange.

Our work is to study both the strange, and consistency.

‘The strange’ is based upon the witness’s perception. Consistency is about the quality of information we collect or are provided.

We have a vast amount of data and technologies to help us with the findings.

How do you rank events?

Phenomena listed under A (700 cases or 23.5% of all phenomena as of March 29, 2022) concern phenomena that have been totally identified.

B (1,197 or 40.2%) are phenomena that are most probably identified, while C (982 cases or 33% of all cases) are unidentified from lack of data.

D, the highest rank (99 cases or 3.3%) means that Geipan has no rational explanation to provide after investigation.

Not that it is unexplainable, but rather that it is not rational according to our knowledge, theories and estimations.

Geipan always writes a report explaining the reasons why we are led to believe that something is not rationally satisfactory.

Why have you chosen to categorise these events under Pan (Phénomène Aérospatial Non-identifié) when Ovni is the mainstream term most used?

This is scientific rigour. Pan implies that it is a phenomenon and not necessarily an object.

Sometimes it is an object, such as a plane or Thai lantern, but it could also be a star or meteorological phenomenon.

Through using the term Pan, Geipan seeks to help people understand that most unknown phenomena have an explanation in lightning or spatial effects and not necessarily little green men.

Read more: Why a plane will be flying low over some French towns in coming weeks

Why does the French government fund Geipan if the military already provides national security services, including threats from space? What is your role, precisely?

Geipan is unique. Very few countries have such governmental services studying unknown space phenomena.

In the United States or United Kingdom, it is mostly covered by associations and is not free of charge.

Geipan has no operational centre with radar or teams of researchers. It is a small entity without the CNES.

We hire the equivalent of three full-time workers, people who have access to tools within CNES or through partnerships with Armée de l’Air for instance.

People work on a voluntary basis for the State, something that I find wonderful.

The cost is extremely low, about one thousandth of the CNES’s Human Resources budget. However, its website generates 25% of the total traffic.

Knowing this makes me feel very useful to society. I find purpose and meaning through the partnership that exists here between people asking questions and scientists answering them.

Geipan works on long-term projects and does not solicit, assist, help or advise the government on any national security-related questions.

Considering the difficulty in telling people that what they have seen was not what they expected, do you think that Geipan takes away people’s belief in extra-terrestrial life?

Well, first of all, Geipan doesn’t have an explanation for everything.

I think engineering is a world in constant doubt. We ask ourselves a lot of questions.

As for extra-terrestrial life, Geipan respects that. I am speaking out of my role here, but I think scientists are so convinced of its reality that they look out for it. I mean, exobiology is an amazing field of study.

Our role is to explain what is explainable.

Indeed, there is a chasm between what is expected and what people are told. But this is highlighted in our conclusion, that Geipan does not take a stand on people’s beliefs.

Now I’m already predicting the question that you’re going to ask me next: Do I believe in aliens?

Well, I had not planned to ask to be honest, but do continue...

I came to Geipan because what is terrestrial is ‘extra’. There is always contact with humans at every level.

Today I am giving you an interview, tomorrow I will meet two people to let them know what they have seen.

What prevents ridicule and guarantees that you are taken seriously?

When you organise a two-day conference uniting more than 100 scientists, experts and investigators around ufology, that is presented by Daniel A. Evans, assistant deputy associate administrator for research at Nasa. I am chuffed to bits.

Your predecessor Xavier Passot said in an interview that the answers provided by Geipan have disappointed him about the reality of life in outer space, or that some unexplained phenomena may result from extra-terrestrial forms. What about you?

I would not talk about Geipan this way. Of course, there is a curiosity.

I came to Geipan to run an atypical and original service with a diverse team of partners, experts, and volunteers working on a variety of scientific fields.

Geipan deals with meteorology, satellites, astronomy, you name it.

Of course, there is a certain amount of triteness in our explanations. I do not have any problem saying it. But our utility is important.

What is the phenomenon that has impressed you the most so far?

There is a new ‘UFO’ so to speak.

Undeniably, this lady who thought she had seen something from looking through her binoculars, in reality had seen — because of complex physics and ophthalmology — her own retina.

Image: Detailed drawing of UFO turned out to be own retina; Credit: Gaipan

I made a lengthy presentation before the experts at the conference I mentioned earlier.

Everything about this case is fascinating, from her initial perception of a UFO, to the drawings she published in her report, and our own research and conclusions. The result is symbolically magnificent.

At one point, we even considered that we had resolved the polemic around Martian canals, the belief that Mars had a network of long straight lines in the equatorial regions from 60° north to 60° south latitude on Mars.

Read more: Humans will walk on Mars in 30 years: French astronaut

The discovery has strong implications because it deals with something called ‘entoptic vision’, a field with very few studies.

Because of this, I have filed a patent about this case.

I am not saying that Geipan has solved the mystery, but that it has put it before the scientific community for more study.

Do you think that with more implementation of technological tools, Geipan will be able to resolve more enquiries, as has happened with ‘sightings’ of what turned out to be Starlink satellite ‘trains’ crossing the night skies?

This is a great question. The reality is that over 40 years, the number of investigations opened, and of requests, is always roughly the same each year.

There are typically around 150 cases that we study.

We will eventually receive more emails, but Geipan only responds to people who have taken the time to answer our questionnaire.

It was carefully designed in conjunction with psychologists and experts to help them best describe what they have seen.

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