Slap in the Face

The controversy over the alleged doctoring of an image of Mars by an Arizona State University research center is exploding like a supernova. The backpedaling and finger-pointing among a once-unified group of researchers claiming the government conspired to cover evidence of life on the Red Planet is as interesting as the original conspiracy itself ("To Spite the Face," Quetta Carpenter, December 5).

Researchers, led by Richard Hoagland of The Enterprise Mission, have accused NASA's THEMIS project (based at ASU) of altering the first infrared image of Mars. The claim was backed up by an image downloaded by Keith Laney, an imaging specialist, on July 24. Claims were made that the official image filtered out key artifacts, and a complaint was filed with NASA under the new Data Quality Act (DQA) to replace the image.

But Nancy Kaplan of NASA, in a written response to the filing, says the image "was not altered, removed, replaced, or otherwise touched" as critics contend. Kaplan welcomed the group to file an appeal.

Francis C.P. Knize, one of the plaintiffs, isn't surprised. "The pessimistic side of me well expected that NASA would try to skirt the issue." Knize plans to take Kaplan up on the appeal offer.

But the deck is now even more stacked against him. Laney is now publicly denouncing the proposed appeal.

"I think their [NASA's] data is topnotch," says Laney. He claims he never intended this much furor.

Laney admits to trying to pin the discrepancy on THEMIS's software manager Noel Gorelick, but now he says he's not so sure. "I don't fall for the conspiracy stuff. I just know what my data says."

Laney says he is upset with rumors that he is associated with Knize and Hoagland. He calls the DQA filing a "frivolity" and wants out.

Others are distancing themselves from Hoagland as well, calling his followers "Hoagland's Heroes," and referring to him as "Hoaxland."

And the feeling is mutual. Hoagland lays blame at Laney's feet: "If you are going to accuse someone of not telling the truth, of fabricating the real' data here, then you must accuse Keith Laney of the NASA/AMES Marsoweb Program," Hoagland writes on his Web site.

As for the image, Knize is admitting that it is probably not what Hoagland was originally touting it to be. "It looks like a hoax at this point out of Arizona State University," Knize says. "But we can't be sure unless we have an appeal."

Knize says the controversy over Laney's image isn't over. "You can bet we are just getting warmed up."

But Laney himself is done with cloaks and daggers: "We're just looking at pretty pictures. We don't know until we get there."

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Quetta Carpenter