Sunday, May 14, 2017

Space Conspiracies That Just Won't Die

by Elizabeth Howell

On the internet, you need to be a skeptical reader these days. Claims of aliens and UFOs, Mars being abnormally big, or the moon turning green are the kinds of things you should check out carefully. Here are some of the biggest space myths that just won't go away.

The Apollo moon landings were faked.

Twelve NASA astronauts walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has since released new photos of the landing sites. In the decades since Apollo 11 astronauts first set foot on the moon, many theories have been put forward claiming that the whole Apollo program was staged. Why are there no stars in the sky in the moonwalkers' photos? Why are the U.S. flags fluttering on the surface? Why do you see footprints in the pictures, but no marks from the lunar modules that landed there? 

The answers to those questions are simpler than you may think. There are 
no stars in the sky for the same reason you don't see stars during the day on Earth: The bright glow of daylight on the surface washes them out. U.S. flags planted into the lunar soil had metal rods sewn in them to appear as though they were moving. Without these wires, the flag would have hung straight down, making for a pretty lackluster photo prop. And the lunar modules, though heavier, didn't put prominent marks in the surface in some places because their mass was more evenly distributed than the astronauts' weight was in their boots.

NASA is a lie.

Some folks actually believe NASA's whole function is not to explore space, but to generate space-related hoaxes. (The Apollo moon landing is a famous example that we'll explore in the next slide.) People who believe this conspiracy, sometimes flagged with the hashtag "#NASAhoax" on social media, will say that amazing space pictures of Mars, Pluto and even Earth are fake, computer-generated imagery (CGI)..

In reality, NASA was formed in 1958 "to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes," according to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law shortly after the start of the space race against the Soviet Union. Since then, NASA has launched hundreds of satellites into orbit around Earth, the moon and several other worlds. In fact, NASA spacecraft have orbited, flown by or landed on every planet in the solar system. NASA also sends astronauts into orbit, where they conduct 
research at the International Space Station (ISS). 

Not convinced? Try watching a rocket launch for yourself, or see the space station and other satellites with your own eyes with the help of a satellite tracker.

The Earth is flat.

This myth is so popular that there is even a group named after it: the Flat Earth Society. Members of the organization argue that the horizon is always at eye level, which they say would not be possible if the Earth were round. They also say there is no full movie of the Earth rotating from space  which is not true, as NASA has published multiple videos taken from satellites, including a live video of Earth from the ISS, which orbits our planet 16 times per day. 

One way of demonstrating to yourself that the Earth is round is to consider how orbits of satellites work. Satellites constantly "fall" around the Earth as they are pulled around by our planet's gravity; they just need to be traveling fast enough at a high enough altitude to not slam into the atmosphere. Or, you can look at the 
amazing pictures taken by astronauts at the ISS. 

Still not sold? 
Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson lay out the facts in a rap battle with B.o.B. "The Earth looks flat because you aren't far enough away at your size," Tyson explains. "Your size isn't large enough relative to Earth to notice any curvature at all."

 Planet Nine will kill us.

In April 2016, the New York Post tweeted, "A newly discovered planet could destroy Earth as soon as this month." The newspaper was referring to Planet Nine, a theoretical planet at the edge of the solar system. An accompanying video also claimed that the new planet would be throwing all sorts of asteroids and comets at Earth, which would supposedly end up pummeling our planet. 

Although the planet's existence has not been confirmed, astronomers are actively looking for it to explain motions of some objects in the icy Kuiper Belt, a vast region of icy objects beyond Neptune. If the planet is actually found, the California Institute of Technology's Mike Brown (who is one of the original backers of the Planet Nine theory) says the planet 
will pose no threat to us.

Alien research is happening at Area 51.

The 1996 movie "Independence Day" is one of the sources of the Area 51 hoax, which claims that aliens and their technology recovered from crashed flying saucers are being studied secretly at a classified military base about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. Some people in the area around the base claim that they have seen strange flights out of this area. 

While Area 51's true focus is classified, the U.S. government has acknowledged its existence (although the CIA officially calls it "Homey Airport" or "Groom Lake"). A part of Edwards Air Force Base, the area was a known location for high-technology airplane flights in the 1960s and 1970s. It first served as a proving ground for 
Lockheed U-2 and A-12 OXCART spy planes as early as 1955. UFO sightings reported in the area were indeed unidentified objects, but only because the planes were top-secret — not because they were flown by aliens.

There is a killer planet known as "Nibiru."

Conspiracy theorists say another dangerous planet is Nibiru, which was first mentioned in the 1976 book "The Twelfth Planet," by Zecharia Sitchin. In the book, Sitchin translated ancient Sumerian cuneiform and claimed that the text is proof of a planet beyond Neptune called Nibiru that orbits the sun every 3,600 years. 

Years later, self-proclaimed psychic Nancy Lieder claimed to have communicated with extraterrestrials who said Nibiru would collide with Earth in 2003. When that didn't happen, the date was moved to 2012 (and linked, of course, with the 
2012 doomsday predictions). Of course, the collision never occurred, the world didn't end in 2012 and no astronomer has ever found a planet on a collision course with Earth.

There is a face on Mars.

In 1976, NASA's Viking 1 spacecraft took a picture of what appeared to be a face on Mars. Immediately, some people said there must have been aliens on the Red Planet that left that face behind as evidence of their existence. NASA, however, pointed out that the suspected face is really just a pile of rocks casting shadows that resemble face-like features. 

NASA followed up with 
better-resolution pictures taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Mars Global Surveyor in 1998 and 2001, respectively. These new images made it quite clear that the "face on Mars" is nothing more than a trick of light and shadows on a completely normal Martian mound.

The moon Iapetus is an alien Death Star.

Iapetus is a moon of Saturn that looks somewhat like the infamous Death Star in the "Star Wars" franchise, with a large crater that resembles the fictional weapon's superlaser focus lens. The Death Star is a planet-killing machine that destroys entire worlds with its outrageously powerful laser. It was prominently featured in the 2016 movie "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," as well as in 1977's "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope."

A Daily Mail article published in May 2016 
claimed Iapetus is an artificial object crafted by aliens. As "evidence," the article cited a photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2004. In the photo, there's a line around the moon's equator that resembles the equatorial trench around the Death Star. But this line isn’t nearly as interesting as the Death Star's trench, which houses the battle station's engines, thrusters and docking bays. That line is nothing more than a mountain ridge, and Iapetus is actually just made up of boring old rock and ice. Cassini has flown by the moon to take pictures several times without being blasted by deadly alien lasers.

Saturn's hexagon is alien technology.
Saturn's hexagon was first spotted when NASA's Voyager spacecraft flew by the giant, ringed planet in 1980. The bizarre, six-sided structure on the round planet's north pole caused quite the stir, because straight lines and polygons are not so common in nature. 

Immediately after the Voyager returned its first images of Saturn's strange feature, even stranger theories arose to explain it, including that it was somehow related to alien technology, or perhaps even was a gateway to hell. The hexagon is not artificial, but rather a weird-looking hurricane at Saturn's pole. NASA has done several flybys of this region with the Cassini spacecraft, studying the haze particles and other features of the storm, to try to learn more about its weird properties.

Mars is as big as the moon.

Originating in 2003, the infamous Mars hoax asserts that Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in the 60,000 years prior, and that the planet will appear as large as the full moon. What started out as a misconstrued email turned into a recurring rumor that gets reshared every August and, naturally, has spread to social media as it became more popular.

Although Mars is indeed relatively close to Earth in a cosmic sense, it will never be as large as the full moon. It will appear as a red dot in the sky, just as the ancient astronomers saw it. If you'd like to see Mars magnified, take out a telescope or look at one of NASA's 
spectacular Mars pictures.

The moon will turn green.

In spring 2016, there was a rumor that the moon would turn green because several planets had aligned and caused an eerie glow. This was supposed to happen on April 20 and again on May 29 for the first time since 1596, the rumor alleged. 

The moon never actually turned green, although it can appear red during a lunar eclipse, when the moon passes through Earth's shadow. In the same way sunsets often appear red, sunlight is scattered as it passes through Earth's atmosphere, casting a reddish shadow on the moon's surface. 

Skywatching columnist Joe Rao 
debunked this green-moon myth. He pointed out that a full moon actually took place on April 22, 2016, and speculated that the April 20 date of the "green moon" might have to do with "National Weed Day," popularly known as 4/20. Considering that the last green moon supposedly happened 420 years ago as well, this doesn't appear to be a coincidence.

In July 2015, a website called "NewsWatch33" wrote an article claiming that Earth would have 15 days of complete darkness that year. The website, which is actually a fake news site, was borrowing from an older version of the tale that has been circulating for years, according to debunking website Snopes. 

As we all know, Earth did not actually experience that much darkness that year. (The article claimed that the alleged darkness was partly due to a Jupiter-Venus conjunction, which actually took place more than 500 million miles apart.) Darkness occurs when the Earth rotates, causing the sun to "set" on the local horizon. Brief periods of darkness can also happen when the sun is totally obscured during 
total solar eclipses, which occur rarely in any particular spot on Earth. But even during an eclipse, Earth is never completely in the dark.

Zero-gravity day will make you weightless.

If you ever wanted to leap into the sky and soar like Superman, this hoax is for you. In late 2014 and early 2015, a widely shared story claimed that on Jan. 4, 2015, everyone on Earth would experience weightlessness due to a rare alignment of the planets. A doctored image of a purported tweet from NASA's Twitter account that went around on social media fooled a lot of people into believing the hoax. 

But, of course, nobody floated off the surface of Earth that day. Earth's gravity is too strong for people to become weightless. The only way to experience weightlessness without going to space is to ride aboard a plane that performs parabolas, with some including a few seconds of weightlessness. This is sometimes nicknamed the 
Vomit Comet.

Alien spacecraft caused a mysterious explosion.

Back in 2004, an expedition of Russian researchers working in Siberia claimed to have discovered "an extraterrestrial device" close to where the mysterious Tunguska explosion occurred. Scientists still aren't sure exactly what it was that blew up in the sky over Siberia that day in 1908, but the leading theory is that it was a large meteorite or an asteroid. 

The Tunguska incident flattened hundreds of square miles of forest, and signs of the destruction were visible even decades afterward. At the time, news reports claimed that evidence of aliens was found at the site, but this claim was never substantiated. "The Russian team stupidly stated long before they went to Siberia that the main intention of their expedition was to find the remnants of an alien spaceship," Benny Peiser, a researcher at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., 
told "And bingo! A week later, that's what they claim to have found."

UFO was caught "refueling" at the sun.

NASA has a fleet of sun-gazing spacecraft that keep an eye on space weather, especially during solar eruptions. In 2012, telescopic images appeared to show something in the shadows. On YouTube, some viewers said this could be a UFO that was refueling by using the solar plasma. 

However, NASA pointed out that the 
feature is actually something called a "prominence," which has cooler and denser plasma than the outer atmosphere of the sun, or the corona. Scientists are still trying to figure out how solar prominences develop, but they're pretty sure it has nothing to do with aliens.

There is a ___ on Mars!

With NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity rovers regularly taking pictures of the Martian surface, viewers have the chance to check out what they're doing in almost real time. NASA puts the raw images online for the public to see. But over the years, some weird shapes have cropped up. In 2008, for example, the Opportunity rover appeared to photograph a female figure. Other photos have shown things shaped like animals, spoons or other items. 

You can imagine that, with all of the rocks available on Mars, some of them would happen to look like familiar objects. In fact, the human brain tends to perceive meaningful images in random patterns - a phenomenon known as pareidolia. 

When evaluating the claims, consider that the Martian environment is extremely harsh to life as we know it; the surface is baked with radiation, the "air" is mostly carbon dioxide and there's not much atmospheric pressure.

I just saw a bright UFO!

It's a familiar trope for police stations and astronomy writers. From time to time, somebody will call (or write) in to say they just saw a UFO in the sky. They spotted a bright light around sunset, or saw a light moving around in an unfamiliar way. 

While every situation is different, one common explanation for "UFOs" is actually another extraterrestrial object: Venus. Venus can be extremely bright when it's at its closest, because it's relatively near Earth. The planet is also extremely reflective because the sun's light bounces off the clouds. So before calling to say you've spotted a UFO, check your sky charts!

NASA can travel faster than light.

If you've seen the "Star Trek" clips that show the Enterprise spaceship warping into another sector, you might have wondered how fast NASA is making progress on being able to move at the speed of light. The EmDrive has created years of speculation, with some breathlessly saying NASA must be on the verge of breaking the famed barrier. 

In reality, NASA is downplaying the reports. The engine in question is a prototype that is producing some interesting results, such as appearing to create thrust when there was no reason for this to happen – and thereby violating 
Newton's Third Law of Motion. That said, NASA has not yet verified the results from these tests, and the engine has not been widely discussed in peer-reviewed research.

We have launched balloons into space!

With the advent of high-resolution, miniature cameras, several people have decided to strap these cameras on to high-altitude balloons and take pictures from up high. They've caught glimpses of blackness and, at times, taken interesting tiny passengers along (such as these Lego pieces and a Canadian flag in 2012). So they must be in space, right? 

There's no way a balloon can get into space, and simple physics explains why. When a balloon rises into the sky, the air inside will expand in response to the dropping atmospheric pressure and eventually pop. Even Felix Baumgartner's stunning high-altitude balloon jump in 2012 was not actually from space, but from the stratosphere, which extends to roughly 31 miles (50 kilometers) above the Earth's surface. At that altitude the air is thin enough to see the blackness of space, but thick enough to support special high-altitude balloons. The boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space is about twice as high as the upper limits of the stratosphere.

There are canals on Mars.

Author Percival Lowell became one of space's first popularizers when he wrote many books for the general public back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In these books and other writings, he said there were canals on Mars built by an intelligent civilization, perhaps to move water into desert-stricken areas. He claimed to have seen the canals in his own telescope, and produced several sketches that are still available on the internet today. 

There are no artificial canals on Mars. Several spacecraft have flown by the planet or orbited it, and not one has caught signs of aliens from orbit. What they have seen, however, are smaller channels that were created by nature – likely from water, ice or other processes that cause erosion.

A star is flinging comets at Earth.

A long-standing theory known as Nemesis supposes that there is some sort of "death star" on the outer edge of the solar system, whose orbital motions perturb comets in an icy region of objects known as the Oort Cloud. According to the myth, the star's gravity throws these comets toward the inner solar system, and these comets collide with Earth and cause mass extinctions once every 27 million years. 

However, 2011 study 
concluded that this idea is unlikely, because the comet strikes in recorded history haven't happened with any regularity. The pattern that was recorded in the hoax is actually a statistical artifact, or the result of researchers trying to find patterns in nature where they do not exist, the study's authors found.

There's life on Venus.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union sent several uncrewed missions to study Venus. Ten of these Venera probes landed on the surface of Venus and were able to transmit data and images for a few minutes before succumbing to the planet's extreme atmosphere. In 2012, the Russian news service RIA Novosti reported that Leonid Ksanfomaliti, a scientist who worked on the Venera missions, suggested that the photographs showed living objects moving around on the planet's surface. (RIA Novosti ceased operations in 2013.)

These alleged life-forms on Venus are just an example of "letting your mind see patterns in low-resolution data that simply aren't real," Jonathon Hill, a research technician who processes images taken during NASA's Mars missions, 
explained to's sister site, LiveScience, in 2012. According to NASA, the objects that appeared to be moving were actually camera-lens covers that automatically popped off of the cameras after landing LiveScience reports. These half-circle objects were seen in images from Venera-13 and Venera-14, two identical spacecraft that landed about 590 miles (950 km) apart. Both had two identical cameras (one in the front and one in the back) so it makes sense that the covers would appear in different places. Another photograph that Ksanfomaliti said was a scorpion is actually a blur in the image.

An asteroid is about to crash into Earth.

This recurring rumor claims that a threatening "doomsday" asteroid is about to slam into our planet. An example from 2015 had an asteroid purported to hit Earth in late September, when it would supposedly wreak devastation from its impact point near Puerto Rico. NASA quickly dismissed the reports — which turned out, as usual, to be false. But that's not to say that asteroids will never hit our planet. 

NASA and a network of monitoring telescopes across the world are cataloging all known asteroids wider than 459 feet (140 meters) across in line with a 
2005 congressional mandate. (Smaller asteroids, if found, are also cataloged.) Of the space rocks discovered so far, NASA has not found a single asteroid that has a high probability of hitting Earth in the foreseeable future. .

Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico

On a ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, so the story goes, an alien spacecraft crashed in 1947. While the accounts of exactly what happen vary, the legend claims that a disc or some sort of spacecraft was found on a ranch, and that the government quickly covered up the evidence. 

While rumors of aliens circulated, some people speculated that the crash was just a plain old weather balloon that might not have been recognized by the local community. The U.S. military has 
since acknowledged the "spacecraft" was actually a weather balloon sent aloft as part of Project Mogul, which involved flying microphones on high-altitude balloons to listen for sound waves generated by possible Soviet Union nuclear tests.

Climate change is not real.

Earth is on an abnormal warming trend. Arctic ice is melting, the sea level is rising and temperatures are going to extremes in many locations around the world. Why is this happening? Anti-climate-change conspirators have many explanations: solar activity, radiation, the Earth's (and sun's) movements around the Milky Way, among other theories. 

While there are many components of climate change, the fact that 
humans have contributed to it is indisputable. Temperature graphs show that the climate has not warmed this much, this quickly in all of Earth's history (as seen in geological records), and that the increase correlates with increased industrialization.

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. 

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