The space agency on Thursday announced a new study that will recruit leading scientists to examine unidentified aerial phenomena -- a subject that has long fascinated the public and recently gained high-level attention from Congress.

The project will begin early this fall and last around nine months, focusing on identifying available data, how to gather more data in future, and how NASA can analyze the findings to try to move the needle on scientific understanding.

"Over the decades, NASA has answered the call to tackle some of the most perplexing mysteries we know of, and this is no different," Daniel Evans, the NASA scientist responsible for coordinating the study, told reporters on a call.

While NASA probes and rovers scour the solar system for the fossils of ancient microbes, and its astronomers look for so-called "techno signatures"

on distant planets for signs of intelligent civilizations, this is the first time the agency will investigate unexplained phenomena in Earth's skies.

With its access to a broad range of scientific tools, NASA is well placed not just to demystify UFOs and deepen scientific understanding, but also to find ways to mitigate the phenomena, a key part of its mission to ensure the safety of aircraft, said the agency's chief scientist, Thomas Zurbuchen.

The announcement comes as the field of UFO study, once a poorly-regarded research backwater, is gaining more mainstream traction.

Last month, the US Congress held a public hearing into UFOs, while a US intelligence report last year catalogued 144 sightings that it said could not be explained. It did not rule out alien origin.