The mainstream news media offers countless reminders of how susceptible we humans are to pareidolia, the phenomenon of seeing things which are not really there. Headlines are written primarily to capture people’s attention and fascination. When somebody thinks they have spotted something extraordinary, news writers and editors know that careful investigation and proper attention to details can kill a good story. So they generally do not bother with the facts.
This is why headlines such as the following have been cropping up on the information superhighway for the past week:
- “Does a Google moon, NASA image show an alien and its shadow?”
- “The ‘man’ ON the moon? Shadow resembling an alien-like figure captured beside craters on the lunar surface”
- “Moon walking alien mystery as space picture shows strange figure on surface”
This is why I am thankful for the work of astronomer and science popularizer Dr. Phil Plait, who devotes a great deal of his time doing what much of the mainstream media seemingly has no interest in doing: correcting misinformation and clearing away misperceptions. Plait’s refreshing headline on Slate.com reads, “No, Google Moon Doesn’t Show an Alien Loitering on the Moon.”
All these headlines have been prompted by an interesting image that recently began making the Internet rounds. The image was retrieved from Google Moon, a virtual map of the lunar surface featuring satellite images of each of the Apollo missions. In one of these images, a YouTube video blogger using Google Moon happened to spot something which looks somewhat like an upright humanoid biped figure and its shadow.
The YouTube user who first uploaded this image as part of a video goes by the handle Wowforreeel. The video “Odd Figure on the Moon?” has garnered over half a million views as of this writing. In the video description section, Wowforreeel notes that the object in the image “looks like it could be a cast shadow from a massive standing object, or figure.”
Scouring through satellite and rover images for apparent anomalies is what much of Wowforreeel’s channel content is devoted to. To this end the vlogger has used Google Moon as a resource in several other videos. In January 2014, Wowforreeel used the Google Moon program in a video showing images of what he believes may be a secret alien base on the moon.
The first indication that we are not really looking at a humanoid figure on the moon is that the apparent “shadow” cast by the figure is not a shadow at all. In his Slate article, Plait notes that the crater to the far left of the image casts a shadow in a direction different from that of the apparent “shadow” cast by the mysterious object. This means the “odd figure on the moon” has no shadow. And if there is no shadow, it follows that what we are looking at is not actually on the moon’s surface.
When Plait first posted his article, he noted that Google Moon “uses data from the Navy’s old Clementine mission for lunar images from 1994.” That mission, which used a High-Resolution Camera (HIRES) to conduct a survey of the moon, happened 20 years ago. “I knew we have more recent images,” Plait writes, “so I went to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter atlas of the Moon.” An examination of the higher resolution LRO image establishes that there is no humanoid object at the location in question.
But What Is It?
As it turns out, Google Moon uses images from a wide variety of sources. In an addendum added to his original article, Plait says he discovered that some of the Google Moon images are from the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. The satellite image containing the alleged humanoid on the moon was captured during that mission. That was 43 years ago, when space photography was not as sophisticated and clean as it is today. This means that the odd figure in the image is not a digital artifact, but rather an analog artifact.
To be more precise, the object in question is a piece of dirt or debris on the camera lens.
“This was in fact my first thought,” writes Plait, “but when I saw that the images used in Google Moon were from Clementine, I dismissed that idea, since the cameras used by space probes are very clean.” The mapping camera used on the Apollo 15 survey, however, “is known to have had blemishes in its photos.”
The critical piece of information that solved the mystery was provided by a message board participant at Metabunk.org who goes by the handle Trailblazer. On the forum entitled “‘Alien’ with ‘shadow’ on the Moon,” Trailblazer writes,
This particular frame is from the mapping camera on Apollo 15, back in 1971. This camera was part of the Scientific Instrument Module mounted on the Service Module which remained in orbit around the moon while the Lunar Module landed on the moon.
The mapping camera took around 2000 images of the lunar surface, and every single one of them (as far as I can see) features this object in the same area of the frame. It is a piece of debris (hair/fluff) in the optics of the camera, likely held close to the film plane as it is fairly sharp and appears to cast a shadow.
Trailblazer later made the point in the same discussion forum that, strictly speaking, “the dirt probably wasn’t on the lens but in the innards of the camera. If it was on the lens itself then it wouldn’t cast a sharp image on the film.” Also, the fact that the small piece of hair, fluff or dirt appears in every frame makes it fairly obvious that the debris must be inside the camera where it can’t slip off easily.
And that’s the story of how a small piece of debris in an old space camera was mistaken by the mainstream media for a humanoid on the surface of the moon. The mystery was solved by careful and thorough investigating skills on the part of someone who took the time and effort to trace the culprit down to the exact camera used. This is the kind of careful investigation we all wish the mainstream media would invest in before publishing sensational Fortean stories.