THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) is the crown jewel of ASU's science department that takes and analyzes images from an infrared camera on NASA's Odyssey satellite and releases them to the public. THEMIS also conducts expansive educational programs for students, scientists and interested observers. But its reputation is now being trashed in almost every Mars or space-related Web site on the Internet with headlines like, "Is NASA Capable of Lying?" and "Odyssey Slaps the Face on Mars."
The heated controversy that has incited the faithful conspiracy congregation -- led by a charismatic "preacher" named Richard Hoagland -- concerns one image that was released in July of this year, and the software manager at THEMIS, Noel Gorelick.
The image in question is the first high-resolution infrared image of a region called Cydonia -- which houses the so-called "Face on Mars." This has been the most hotly contested region of Mars since a 1976 Viking image showed what clearly appeared to be a human face on the planet's surface. But subsequent images from NASA have cast a web of suspicion on the region, the "face," and the other structures surrounding it, inciting almost epic conspiracy theories all over the world.
The reason the infrared, or "IR," images are so important is that they show temperatures, allowing for a more definitive analysis of the origin of structures on Cydonia.
Hoagland claims to have proof that ASU's Gorelick swapped the July 24 Cydonia image for a manipulated one in order to keep people off the scent -- or get them on it. And Hoagland's arguments are not falling on deaf ears -- starting a five-month feeding frenzy on the Web and on a popular conspiracy radio talk show hosted by Art Bell. The image in question has been viewed 120,000 times from a link on MSNBC mentioning Hoagland's beef with THEMIS.
Given his involvement with unorthodox scientific research, Hoagland is surprisingly difficult to throw into the crackpot category. His lengthy dissertations are reminiscent of the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files, but his résumé doesn't read like a typical conspiracy theorist. He was the recipient of the Angstrom Medal for Excellence in Science in Stockholm, Sweden, a colleague of Carl Sagan, and a former science adviser to CBS News and Walter Cronkite.
His pet project, The Enterprise Mission -- where he goes by "The Captain" -- monitors all of the data from NASA and does research in excruciating minutia. Its early '90s school education program, The Enterprise Classroom, received a Points of Light Award from Barbara Bush and was featured on NASA's Spacelink -- even getting a visit from the space shuttle Atlantis crew. But Hoagland and The Enterprise Mission's research now focuses almost exclusively on SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
According to Hoagland, an image of the Cydonia region was released on July 24 via Web download to Keith Laney, a NASA Ames Research Center consultant who works with The Enterprise Mission. Laney claims that he did not alter the image, but when he compared it to the image on the THEMIS Web site, he realized the two were different.
"Science, if you do it right, does not lie," says Hoagland. "But here, the evidence tells a different story than [the people at THEMIS] do."
Enter vast conspiracy theory.
Hoagland and his horde say that there is little surprise when NASA releases misleading or purely false images. Several images have been released of the Cydonia plane since the original Viking expedition -- some making the "face" appear completely flat as though nothing is there, and others that present alternate views that look less human. Hoagland thinks these images have been released to kill public interest in the issue.
And Hoagland doesn't think it's just Mars. He also has theories of cover-up conspiracies on Europa (a moon of Jupiter), the dark side of Earth's moon, Mars moon Phobos, and a host of other topics.
As far as Hoagland is concerned, NASA is not trustworthy on anything because of a study produced by the Washington, D.C., think tank The Brookings Institute in 1963, before the Viking expedition. This report, known as The Brookings Report, asserts that the government should hide evidence of life on other planets -- if it finds any -- to avoid religious and overall societal breakdown. Assuming that this report was made a part of internal NASA policy, Hoagland now dedicates himself to searching for any and all possible manipulations of NASA images and information. "The people of this country pay good money for this research, and they should get what they pay for," says Hoagland. "The pattern of deception would only exist if there was something there."