While most stories this week about the James Webb Space Telescope focused on its absolutely beautiful photographs that brought tears to the eyes of astronomers, drew “oohs’ and “ahhs” from the public and helped NASA get some much needed good publicity, not everyone was happy about them … or at least about the fabulous technological device that captured and delivered them to us. It turns out conspiracy theories spread almost as fast as the photos, with accusations of them being CGI fakes, evidence of alien takeovers or distractions to hide the Webb telescope’s main purpose – a giant space laser cannon. Really! Let’s take a look at these and a few of the classic space conspiracy theories for comparison.
Those who saw the initial unveiling of the photos will recall one of the galaxy clusters being referred to as SMACS 0723. SMACS is the abbreviation for Southern MAssive Cluster Survey, a defined area of distant clusters of galaxies that has previously been photographed by the Hubble telescope. Now referred to as Webb’s First Deep Field, it is the focus of the image showing dozens of clearly defined galaxies. Or is it? Many posts on social media say this is a computer-generated image, with a few pointing out that SMACS spelled backwards is SCAMS! The Daily Beast found others who think one of the planetary nebula, a nursery for baby stars, looks like a giant face and head in space – a case of pareidolia reminiscent of a scene from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Then there are those who believe the James Web telescope is not just pointing out into space – it’s also pointing in … into our bedrooms, boardrooms and other places the ‘government’ wants to spy on. There are many conspiracy dots to connect to this one – a popular idea is that James Webb was a Freemason (he was) and the telescope will help that organization control the world. then there are those who think the shape of the unfolded mirrors resembles a Star Tetrahedron (vaguely) which is an ancient Hebrew occult tool that can be used to connect humans with “the ethereal” or heavens. Perhaps the best Webb telescope conspiracy theory is that it is actually a giant space laser cannon or a space-to-Earth direct energy weapon capable of destroying anything anywhere anytime on Earth. This could be linked to a couple of the previously mentioned conspiracy theories of possibly to the Havana syndrome, but no physical proof of any of these theories has been provided.
The James Webb Space telescope is not the first space telescope to be hit with conspiracy theories. A famous one surrounds the Hubble Telescope, which was the most powerful space telescope until Webb showed up. Launched in 1990, many people were hoping it would at some point be aimed at the Moon and prove to the moon landing deniers that Neil, Buzz and ten other humans visited the lunar surface and left flags, rovers and bags of junk behind. Since this has never happened, the deniers claim it’s proof NASA is covering up the ‘fact’ that all of the lunar landing missions were staged in Hollywood or some other secret location. Those who understand telescopes point out that in order to have the resolution to distinguish a lunar rover from its surroundings, the Hubble’s mirror would need to be 50 times wider than it is. Since Webb’s is not that size either, expect this conspiracy theory to continue.
Another conspiracy theory claims the Hubble’s photographs are knowingly edited and altered by NASA. That is also true but not for deceitful purposes. Hubble takes separate digital color images through red, blue, green and other colored filters which are then combined. However, NASA has other purposes for those filters besides impressing humans – Space.com explains that some wavelengths of red light correspond to radiation from hydrogen atoms, oxygen atoms and nitrogen ions and are difficult to see; others, like ultraviolet and infrared, can’t be seen at all. To make those images pleasant to the non-scientific eye, the colors are tweaked – those beautiful images of the Egg Nebula and other star nursing grounds are examples. Doubters can see all of NASA’s photos, but that would take all of the fun out of denying.
You may remember the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission which successfully landed its Philae probe on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014. That bouncy landing was not ideal and its not-so-soft landing put it in a non-optimal position for communications, but it did send back the first images from a comet's surface. Or did it? Conspiracy theorists claim mission is part of a European Space Agency and NASA cover-up to disguise the comet’s true identity – that of an alien spacecraft. That theory grew as the ESA revealed the comet was emitting a song-like mysterious sound that theorists theorized was alien communications.
Following the ‘space object is an alien spacecraft’ theme, NASA's Cassini probe took photographs of Saturn’s moon Iapetus in 2004. In 2016, conspiracy theorists spread the word that Iapetus looked just like the Death Star from the "Star Wars" movies – complete with a large crater resembling the Death Star’s superlaser focus lens and a line resembling its trench which held engines, thrusters and docking bays which theorists claimed was a seal made by connecting the two halves of this secret spaceship. Astronomers explained the ‘lens’ is just a giant crater, the trench or line is a mountain range, and the moon’s odd shape was caused when it spun too quickly while cooling shortly after it formed.
In many of these cases, NASA or the ESA has addressed the conspiracy theorists directly with explanations to debunk or defuse the conspiracy. However, one in 2012 elicited a denial from the White House. Two men who claimed to be "chrononauts" (time and space travelers) said they were part of a CIA intergalactic program linked to DARPA in the 1980s and teleported to Mars with a nice young man named Barack Obama. The White House had to issue an official statement stating that the president never when to Mars via a teleportation chamber called a "jump room" to visit human or alien colonies on the Red Planet.
There are plenty more space conspiracy theories and they will continue, regardless of how ‘transparent’ NASA, the Defense Department and the federal government claim to be. Just like so many want to believe, there are many who want to deny. In the meantime, enjoy the photos of the James Webb space telescope and its worthy older brother, the Hubble.