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What’s the deal with flying saucers? There’s no drag in space, so alien engineers don’t have any limitations placed on them when it comes to ship design. Yet the ships portrayed by media look like disks, sometimes with a dome in the middle. They could be spherical or even fractal. So then why settle on a disk shape of all things? Is there some benefit I’m not seeing? Are they holding a banquet in space and cows are the servings? Are they like crabs that converged toward the optimal shape?

enter image description here

To clarify: I’m looking for a practical reason for the flying saucer shape. Does it have any functional use? Varied explanations are welcomed.

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    $\begingroup$ We don't see flying saucers in space. We see them when they come down to mess with things here. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 18 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ Because they are not wasting their high-end space ships for investigating earth, in their early alien days they created some ships prototypes that are disk-shaped. Now alien graduation students are using these ships to investigate earth for their assignments. These ships are useless for their govt. for war and business purposes, so they are available to students for free. :) $\endgroup$
    – V.Aggarwal
    Aug 19 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ "There’s no drag in space" is only true for slowpokes. Get up to a decent interstellar speed and drag is very much an issue. Of course the real reason for the shape is the Aliens' phallic fixation. Yes, that is the shape of theirs. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Aug 19 at 7:56
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    $\begingroup$ Because when you hang it by a string it doesn't matter which way it's facing. Film was expensive. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Aug 20 at 1:53
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    $\begingroup$ The thing on your image is identified as flying saucer, thus no UFO. UFOs are also shaped like weather ballons. $\endgroup$ Aug 21 at 23:37

26 Answers 26

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They have a ring-shaped fusion reactor, like a Tokamak, inside the ship

The crew quarters is smaller than the reactor. It is necessary to make the ship circular, so that the donut-shaped reactor fits around the edge.

Or some other large, circular piece of alien tech powering the ship and requiring it to be that shape. The Tokamak is ring-shaped because that's a good shape to magnetically contain plasma. Perhaps the UFO's reactor is ring-shaped because they are magnetically confining something else, such as antimatter.

The ship needs to spin to provide gravity

This might not be an issue on Earth (or it might; maybe their native planet had gravity like Jupiter) but in space they want gravity so they need a ring-shaped ship that can spin. The bulging center of the ship is where the drive is, with living quarters around the perimeter.

They find rotational symmetry aesthetically pleasing

Just a question of style. They like the saucer shape the same way humans in the 60s liked fins on their cars.

They need rotational symmetry so their warp drive calculations aren't too complicated

They need to warp space into a specific shape, conforming to the ship, in order to travel long distances. If the ship is symmetric, then they can warp space in a symmetric way too, which is computationally easier/less energy-intensive.

Omni-directional aerodynamics

Their ship is capable of changing direction very rapidly and abruptly at high speeds, as UFOs have been observed to do, but air resistance is an issue. This rapid maneuvering capability is necessary because the UFO is built as a dogfighter against other UFOs. A saucer shape lets the UFO change direction very rapidly, without needing to rotate the ship first, while being aerodynamic in any direction.

The tractor beam works like a tornado

UFOs are often depicted as projecting a beam below them, which levitates unwary cows or farmers up into the ship. One thing on Earth that is column-shaped and can pull people straight up, is a tornado. Perhaps the UFO or some large component of it needs to rotate very fast as well, whirling some mysterious ambient energy into an "energy tornado" that can pull up passengers/test subjects.

Gyroscopic stability

Rockets spin for stability. Perhaps on an interstellar trip, especially in warp drive, it's very important to thrust straight backwards, so you don't drift even a little off target. If the disk spins, that ensures that the exhaust coming out the bottom of it is aimed straight back.

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    $\begingroup$ Many old movies do indeed show the saucers rotating when still or when in flight. Without wings or traditional control surfaces, it's hard to steer in an atmosphere. Spinning not only gives stability against wind, but lets you use the Magnus Effect to steer. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Aug 21 at 0:20
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Easier reentry

An airplane or rocket shaped vessel should enter an armosphere facing forward, or the drag acting onto it will cause it to spin, twist or bend catastrophically.

A saucer shaped vessel only needs to get the reentry angle right.

Saucers are supposed to spend a lot more time in space than in atmospheres. In interplanetary space your shape does not matter much, so the aliens pick the shape that facilitates going onto and off of planets.

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The shape of our re-entry modules (prior to the space shuttle) were similarly circular and NASA has been reconsidering them because they are simpler and safer.

The UFO's are for planetary use, and despite all the flashy technology the re-entry is simply safest and most efficient with this shape.

Any other advantages, like aerodynamics and being able to go any direction without turning, are just extras.

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    $\begingroup$ For atmospheric travel mentioned in paragraph 2, "aerodynamics and being able to go any direction without turning" are highly important. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:13
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Discs (or cylinders) are a good trade-off between the volume-to-surface-ratio maximization of spheres and the maximal usable floor space of cubes. Spheres may maximize volume but a lot of that is very difficult to make useful.

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  • $\begingroup$ but the saucer thins towards the periphery, with a rather pointed shape at the edge. That doesn't seem too effective for maximizing volume $\endgroup$
    – ilkkachu
    Aug 21 at 14:45
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For the same reason that our armored tanks put the big guns on turrets. It allows a single weapons array to fire in any direction on a 360 degree plane.

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    $\begingroup$ You're thinking like a human :-D $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    Aug 20 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ I know no other way. $\endgroup$ Aug 20 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ But tanks itself aren't circular, and the stereotypical flying saucer doesn't have a turret. If they have guns, it doesn't appear there would be any reason the guns couldn't be placed where ever on a more asymmetrical hull. Unless of course you're proposing there's some kind of a gun mounted on the saucer so that the gun itself can move along the saucer's periphery $\endgroup$
    – ilkkachu
    Aug 21 at 14:43
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Ah, yeah, try the 'Doctor Who' explanation... Disks are the simplest 3D expression of a trans-dimensional interior that has a completely different architecture. The 'UFO' is more like a portal between dimensions or realities; instead of physically flying to a new place, aliens send the portal there, then open it to step through (or to pull hapless rubes back through for experimentation).

This also explains the speed and maneuverability of such craft, since the visible 'disk' has little appreciable mass or substance in our three dimensions. They can do high velocity right-angle turns because there's literally nothing there to suffer from inertia or air resistance. It's as easy as flicking a laser-pointer across a wall; the movement of the pointer itself may e slow and physics-laden, but the projection can seem to make wild and erratic movements.

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It has simple engineering reasons. Most ufonaut can not say the details, because they are not scientists or engineers. But the rough explanation is known for all of them.

The ufos are using a gravitational propulsion. The science behind it could be learnt by a human physicist in some years, but they do not share this knowledge with us. The humanity probably requires some decades or some centuries to discover its secrets on its own.

What is known: this gravitational propulsion generates also a constant, roughly 1g gravitational field inside the ship. Beside that, it can accelerate or rotate the ship unthinkably quickly for the humans. It is also used to control the atmosphere around the ship, this is why the UFOs do not generate sonic booms, or ionize the air even with hypersonic speed.

In our chemical rockets, the power generation happens in the nozzle:

enter image description here

Did you ever seen a rocket nozzle without an axial symmetry? Probably no rocket has ever existed with a not axial symmetric nozzle. It would be possible to develop one, if we would need it on some reason. But it had huge disadvantages, and the benefit would be close to zero.

But in the UFOs, the important reactions and gravitational control happens in the whole spaceship and even around it. This is why the whole spaceship has to be axially symmetric.

Simply engineering reasons.


P.s. Theoretically would be possible to detect the gravitational radiation created by the UFO engines. Why it do not happen, also that has simple engineering reasons: the engines generate waves in the order of at most some Hz, while the LIGO is the most sensitive for some hundred Hzs. The generated waves are simply not enough strong for us to detect them. Furthermore, even if it would happen, the results would be likely discarded as noise from unknown and irrelevant terrestrial origin.

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    $\begingroup$ "Did you ever seen (sic) a rocket nozzle without an axial symmetry?" Yes! Check out the Aerospike engine: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerospike_engine Especially, the XRS-2200 (link under top photo on Wikipedia) $\endgroup$
    – Shadovv
    Aug 19 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadovv The wedge shaped versions of the Aerospike like the XRS-2200 never got past proof of concept. Newer Aerospikes like the CSULB have gone back to using conical designs because they are lighter and more efficient than linear aerospikes. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Aug 20 at 21:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadovv Right. Probably also not axial symmetric ufos exist or existed, but they never got past proof of concept. $\endgroup$
    – Gray Sheep
    Aug 21 at 13:48
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Circles are apparently the optimal shape for flying

On earth, scientists have experimented with circular craft, and found them unstable at supersonic speeds. Perhaps alien engineers have worked out the bugs and the kinks and found a stable way to make them fly.

They've tested them in a variety of environments, and the optimal shape for an aircraft for maximum speed and maneuverability is a circle.

They have a sphere at the center to maximize volume to surface area ratio

Spheres are the optimum shape to maximize volume to surface area ratio, and as such, the best option for packing a large amount of useful stuff like engines, pilots, supplies and such into a small area for use, while minimizing the surface area exposed to space and other dangers.

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  • $\begingroup$ The obvious (and already implemented) solution to aeronautic instability is fly-by-wire-control with computers constantly updating trim. The Avrocar was developed 10 years too early for that, though. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:24
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It's the gravito-magnetic propulsion system. For technical reasons (which I'm not allowed to divulge, and which would in any case entail me writing a lot of LaTeX code), the device has to be constructed as a thin ring around whatever you want to move with it. It needs quite a bit of power, which is generated by reactor in an approximately spherical vessel located in the middle of the saucer. The rest is just providing space for the crew, and a bit of aesthetic streamlining.

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No Directionality

It's a circle, i.e., radially symmetric, simply because it can travel with equal efficiently in any direction. in order to change direction, it doesn't need to turn. It just moves in a different direction. There is no "front", "back", or "sides".

If it wasn't radially symmetric, then it would be different in some directions than others. It would behave differently when flying in one direction vs. others. Some directions would be preferred. It would, in some circumstances, have to turn. Like a disgusting primitive Earth plane!

"Up" and "down" are already special, because of gravity. Alien engineers would hate to make additional directions different than others for no practical reason, so you get a disc by default.

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  • $\begingroup$ I want to add: the fact that UFO is non-directional can startle humans because intuitively humans perceive an aircraft's speed/momentum/trajectory/whatnot associated with its directional shape, so, yeah.. Having this weird stuff flying around would definitely challenge/confuse humans' basic perceptions, or even makes them surrender in inferiority.. $\endgroup$ Aug 20 at 8:57
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Because the shape is easier to blend into other airborne object like clouds, the sun, and aircrafts. From the ground up, a gleaming white flying disk can blend into the cloud and pretend they are an aircraft flying pass. A big prism of metal and cannon, like the Pillar of Autumn in Halo, or even a conical spaceship like the Spear of Adun in Starcraft II is going to give us a sense of violation when appearing in real life sky of planet Earth, but a disk shape will not--at least, people will have to spend more time to look at it before sensing this "cloud/aircraft" is not natural or from Earth. This will help the extraterrestrial being inside to keep their craft hidden as they move around the planet downloading memes, anime, and you-know-what

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It's because if you look at an airplane from side view, it looks like a flying saucer. The concept of "flying saucer" did not exist prior to the popularity of seeing air planes in the air.If you look at history of "UFO Sighting" vs airplane wing structure you are faced with the fact that planes like the P-51 Mustang, which became popular in the early to mid-1940s coincides nicely with the "flying saucer" concept, which became popular in 1947. Looking at a bi-plane from a distance from the side view, may not accomplish the effect, but mid-body wing attachment makes the difference. Basically, it's all about human psychology and imagination.

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They've seen earth media and like the design.

Big spaceships are made in certain ways, but the tech is so good that smaller touring spaceships are made for style and can pretty much look like anything (it's an engineering problem, but it's a popular design). Aliens who want to visit earth like earth. To them our high-def TV's and special effects are still pretty crude, and they equally enjoy the old X-file series, 60's movies with spaceships on wires, and so on. Having a family spaceship (which is about the same as buying a camper) in a classic earth design, to visit earth, is an obvious thing to do. They'd love to land and have earthlings be amazed at seeing a "real" spaceship. They probably also have a set of non-functional silver space suits (roughly the equivalent of holiday sweaters) where the mom makes them recreate poses from old movies to send to the relatives.

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A disc-shaped UFO is Impossible

And that's exactly why they are that shape. To explain: There are many other wise species creating spacecraft with practicality (and possibility) in mind. To them, a spaceship is a big capsule with assorted parts bolted to the outside, and seeing something that looks like it belongs on a table zooming around like that would probably put them in dire need of a mop or washing machine

In short, a disc-UFO would, on account of its implausibility, be rather useful in intimidation

But why a disc?

They made their first magic-ship as a disk, and now, after centuries of neglecting to update the design, the disk is too heavily associated with their dark arts for them to change it

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Only some UFOs are disc-shaped, which is believed to be because of the physics involved.

In real life, many UFOs are not disc-shaped. Luis Elizondo, the official that was responsible for the US Government UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, the new US government term for UFO) investigation task force, has made statements in interviews noting that the shape of a UAP seems correlated to its size. The smallest UAPs tend to be saucer-shaped, then the medium-sized UAPs tend to be cylindrical ("cigar" or "tic-tac")-shaped, and the largest are usually triangular or boomerang-shaped. He has further stated in interviews that this variation of appearance is believed to be for practical reasons, as a result of the physics behind their operations:

Lue Elizondo: I will say, George, there are some…there was some speculation and some theories within the department on the shapes of these craft and what I will say is it was the conclusion of many within the organization that the shape of the craft was a result of the function of the craft. And I’ll leave it at that, but whether it’s a disc or a Tic-Tac i.e. or a cigar or a triangle, may very well just be a function of the craft. What’s it’s intended purpose is.

George Knapp: So they’re not building something to look good and have tail fins like a Cadillac, they’re building something as a function of whatever the technology is, the physics of how it works.

Lue Elizondo: Correct, correct.

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They are not spaceships

They are the landing modules attached to spaceships. Since they are released at high speed they need a sharp edge to enter any atmosphere without being destroyed by the impact with dense air. Since they can be difficult to manoeuvre at high speed the circular shape gives them a lot of possible angles for re-entry.

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    $\begingroup$ While this seems true to the layperson, wind tunnel studies have definitively shown that sharp edges quickly heat up to shockingly high temperatures. Blunt curves (like in the Apollo reentry vehicle, Space Shuttle and ICBM payloads) are the best for reducing temperatures. Of course, that should not interfere with Tradition. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn If the outer edge was not part of the hull, but an appendix made of ceramic resistant to very high temperatures by heating up it could dissipate energy. $\endgroup$
    – FluidCode
    Aug 20 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ I'd keep it simple and enter the atmosphere belly first, and then fly edge on (kinda like how the Space Shuttle entered high-nose belly-first, and then nosed down to fly. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:39
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UFOs are disk shaped because this guy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Arnold

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Arnold_UFO_sighting

and because this toy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frisbee

After aviation boon following WWII end people started to "prophesy" that the new step could be disk shaped airplanes. Why? Have you ever threw a frisbee disc or a can lid? They fly extremely steady. No airplane can fly this way. So, they were seen as the future in 40's and 50's collective imagination.

When Kenneth Arnold related his personal vision of a not identified fling object he described it stably flying like a disc. Arnold never told he had seen a disc, he said the things he had seen flew like a disc.

Arnold originally described the objects' shape as "flat like a pie pan"...

But because the idea of frisbee shaped airplanes was in the American collective imagination the press quickly coined the new terms "flying saucer".

Plain and easy explanation for an weird thing. But after 80 years of media exploitation the truth lies buried under controversy.

Notwithstanding, the UFO phenomenon does exist. Problem is honest people keep seeing UFOs, and because these UFOs seeings the phenomena is due of serious study. I have never seen an UFO. I saw some UFWFO (Unidentified For a While flying object) :).

But several people in my family and some friends saw UFOs. I paid especial attention to histories from people who was born and grew up before the start of the UFO mania, before K. Arnold's famous sighting. And in 100% of the cases no one saw a disc shaped UFO. In 99% of the cases they saw foo fighters.

And finally to answer your question because the (folkloric) disc shaped UFOs do exist I suggest the obvious one: they are disc shaped because this way they are easily stacked and can be randomly accessed.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/c4/Set_of_Poker_Chips_in_Case.jpg/800px-Set_of_Poker_Chips_in_Case.jpg

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There is no appreciable drag in normal space, but maybe UFO's don't travel through normal space. Maybe they do interstellar travel via wormhole, or an alternate dimension, and in this other region, there IS significant drag. That would also explain how they handle the speed of light limit. They take a short-cut, but this short-cut does require worrying about aerodynamics.

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  • $\begingroup$ There is drag in "normal space" if you go fast enough. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn It doesn't work like drag in an atmosphere though, it's more like getting sandblasted. At relativistic speeds, even gas will ablate your hull. Mushroom-shaped ships, with a big, bulbous, well-armored shield at the front protecting the rest of the ship from being ablated work best in normal space at relativistic velocity. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 20 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drag_equation makes a distinction between "atmosphere" and "space", just that space will have a (very!) low mass density and drag coefficient, counteracted by the naturally very high flow velocity (aka speed) and reference area (which is why the SR-71 is shaped like it is). $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn That equation doesn't apply at low Reynolds numbers or velocity above the speed of sound, both of which are present in interstellar travel. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 20 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Never let actual science get in the way of reasonable-sounding technobabble! $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 20 at 15:51
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UFOs aren't disk shaped really. They are multidimensional craft that cast a disk-shaped shadow into our 3 dimensional space. Thus no reasoning we can understand will explain the shape. This is also why some UFOs seem to change shape (a rotation in n-space causes the 3D shadow to change), blink into and out of our world, and move so fast. They aren't "fast" in our 3D world, but it looks that way when the "shadow" gets cast differently.

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No-one Knows

These impossible discs have impossible intelligence behind them. The sentience quotient, a measure of a species' intelligence, goes up to 50. For context, we are 13, and plants are -2. This means that, according to the SQ, it'd be easier to explain the shape of an aeroplane to a dandelion than for these aliens to explain to us their disc-shaped transportation

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Secrecy!

Excerpt from tourist guide for visitors to planet Nembular-3 (known by the inhabitants as "Earth" or "行星地球" or "पृथ्वी ग्रह" or "Tierra"):

Due to the requirements of the Planetary Protection statutes, all visitors to Cultural Reserve Planets of grade 3 or less are required to adopt a suitable disguise, either to remain unobserved or to make their observation so completely unbelievable that it does not merit serious investigation.
As the native indigenes of Nembular-3 have an unreasonably advanced system of observatories, military and aviation radar, and an almost-instantaneous rumor spreading service called "twitter", secrecy is not a viable option.
However they do have a cultural-fantasy of "little green men" in "flying saucers" that habitually Abduct and Probe members of their species, this provides an excellent disguise for the casual tourist.
Be seen, but fit the stereotype so well that any report of the sighting is laughed out of existence!

Thus, all visitors to Nembular-3 should adapt their vehicle as follows:

  • Fit an exterior shell resembling a flying disk, or a smooth "cigar-shape" ellipsoid
  • Bright metallic exterior is required.
  • The fitting of extra-bright lights are mandatory for nighttime excursions,
  • as is the mounting of a type-7 noisemaker, set to emit a constant whistling, humming or warbling sound.

Any visitors found to be in violation of these regulations will be fined Ƶ730, and banned from visiting planets below class 5 for the next 2 cycles.

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True that in space, the saucer shape would have no use, unless that shape happened to facilitate a warp drive of some sort.

But, it might help to look to the origins of UFO sightings.

UFO sightings really began at the end of WW2. It is possible that some early sightings were actually test flights of the Vought V-173 'flying pancake', thus giving rise to the 'flying saucer' shape. It certainly didn't look anything like a conventional aircraft.

The sightings peaked in the 1960's, and have tapered off to very little after the 1990's.

An interesting story could be written around the premise that galactic travelers appeared shortly after WW2, to observe whether or not humanity would destroy itself in a nuclear exchange. The Soviet Union fell in the 90's, thus greatly diminishing the chance of a global nuclear war, so they went somewhere else.

Humanity had become boring.

The actual truth is probably that after WW2, aircraft traffic increased dramatically, encountering unknown things in the air. Sightings died down after the unknown things were finally explained.

But, it would make a neat story.

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Invisibility in space radar

A typical flying saucer of maybe 10 to 1000 meters in diameter is very difficult to detect in interplanetary space when it is coming edge-first towards a planet. It is easy to align it so that no sunlight reflects towards the planet.

While humans currently do not use radars to monitor the space near earth, we certainly will once we learn that the aliens are flying about! But correctly oriented flying saucers will reflect all radar signals away from the transmitter, because the sides are angled and the only perpendicular surface is very narrow. This is similar to how our stealth planes work, but the shape is simpler because it does not need wings or rudders.

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UFO are actually hyper dimensional structures that exist in 6 dimensions. What we see as a disk is only the 3 dimensional projection of their true shape.

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Saucer-shaped aircraft have been planned, with rational engineering reasons for them. See this video on the Avrocar.

It's a vertical-take-off-and-landing design. It takes advantage of the Coandă effect and the ground effect.

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I have to agree with techsystem2000 about this one, frankly

Saucers come in handy.

Common UFO's have a disk shape because anyone with a camera can throw up a fluorized saucer or a frisbee with electric lighting and make a credible flying saucer observation. If alien ships would have more complicated shapes human witnesses cannot reproduce, there would be very few aliens flying around. To keep the numbers up, you need a convenient model to produce the images.

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