Article written by: Tom Watts, PhD Student, Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
For this article we will be looking at five common theories and conspiracies, and giving our scientific insight into them. Below are the five topics we will cover.
- The Apollo moon landings were faked
- Flat Earth
- Climate change
- Planet X is going to kill us all
The Moon Landings Were Faked
On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first of just 12 people to step foot on a celestial body that wasn’t Earth. This first step fulfilled the goal set by President John F. Kennedy just 8 years previously, and for many signalled the end of the Space Race with the Soviet Union.
In this iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder to the Moon’s surface, we see no stars in the sky, despite it being a deep, inky black. Some people think this lack of stars is evidence that the landings were faked here on Earth. In fact this is because the surface is bright, and the camera takes the photo so quickly that the faint light from the stars doesn’t have time to register on the film of the camera.
It is also sometimes claimed that passing through the Van Allen radiation belts, areas of high radiation due to particles from the Sun being trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field, would have been fatal to the astronauts. However the astronauts were protected by the metal skin of their capsule and flew through the belts so fast their radiation exposure was very low. The exposure the astronauts got was similar to that of a patient undergoing a CT scan.
A famous claim against the Moon landings is that the flags planted in the surface by astronauts flutter as if it were blowing in a breeze, something that wouldn’t happen in the vacuum of space. Because of the vacuum on the surface of the Moon NASA deliberately included a metal rod that the astronauts would erect within the flag to hold it upright. Because there is no air to cause friction on the flag and stop it moving, once the astronauts knocked it the flag would continue to move long after they had moved away, giving the appearance of it floating in the breeze.
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that the Apollo program successfully landed 12 men on the Moon between July 1969 and December 1972, four of who are still alive today.
The Earth is flat
Despite it being known for over 2,500 years that the Earth is spherical, it is still believed by some that the Earth is flat.
We have evidence that the Earth is spherical in countless ways, from footage from high altitude aircraft and spacecraft, to our understanding of simple physics. Gravity always pulls an object towards the centre of mass of the body, and objects will try and get as close towards the centre, which means they will go to the lowest point they can find. The combination of these effects pulls an object of enough mass (to have a substantial gravitational field) into a sphere over enough time. This is called hydrostatic equilibrium.
Every other object we see in the sky of sufficient mass, such as large moons, planets and stars, is pulled into a sphere through these processes. It is only logical that Earth also follows this pattern for the same reasons, and everything we see in the world around us gives us no reason to think otherwise. We rely on our understanding of a spherical Earth for many things in our daily lives, with satellites in orbit giving us GPS, communication, and weather forecasting.
We know the Earth has gone through many periods of changing climate by studying ice cores. These allow us to examine how the atmosphere has changed with time, and how the temperatures have varied. From this and other methods, we know about past ice ages, and past spells of warmth.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, measurements have shown a significant change in the Earth’s climate. This can be attributed to the vast amounts of pollutants humans have been putting into the atmosphere, particularly greenhouses gasses such as carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise be radiated away into space. This is because carbon dioxide is a good absorber of infrared light, which is how the Earth loses heat into space. This has meant global temperatures have been steadily rising for the past couple of centuries, and this is continuing today.
While global temperatures have been rising, it’s important to understand that global warming does not mean everywhere is going to be getting hotter all of the time. The rise in temperatures, along with the accompanying melting of the polar ice caps, cause significant changes to how weather patterns form and move. This results in global changes that alter rainfall, temperatures, and wind over a period of many years. This change appears to happen slowly by human standards, taking many decades, but on historical timescales the current phase of climate change is happening at a rapid rate. The current changes are happening too fast for some environments to adapts too, with nature struggling to keep up.
We can try and slow, or even halt this change entirely, by reducing the amount of pollutants we put into the environment. There is a global effort to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by switching to cleaner sources of energy, like solar and wind power, but there is still work to do. The planet has warmed by nearly 1ºC since the start of the 1900’s, which is 10 times the historical climate change rates, and we are still releasing about 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.
Planet X/Nibiru is going to kill us all
Over the past few decades it has often been claimed that a planet is on a collision course with Earth that will destroy our planet. It is normally claimed that the date of the collision will occur on various dates that involve ancient calendars (which are man made and have no bearing on the planets). Some of these supposed dates have already been and passed by without any incident.
We would already have detected any planet sized body large enough to destroy Earth from centuries, or even millennia, of looking up at the sky. The planets all the way out to Saturn have been known since antiquity. We would have seen any planet on an imminent collision course with Earth. It would be known about either by seeing it with our eyes and telescopes, or through its gravitational influence in the Solar System. Neither of these have been seen.
However, it has been theorised that a massive planet may be lurking on the outskirts of the solar system, as anomalies in the orbits of far out comets in the Kuiper Belt suggest that there could be a massive body out there somewhere influencing them. However, to date, searches for this distant planet have not shown any results, as such a body would be so far away it would be very hard to detect, let alone pose any danger at all to Earth.
We’ve all heard stories of people waking up in the middle of the night and being abducted by aliens with tractor beams, taken away to be “probed”, before being returned to their beds with little or no evidence of their experience, other than a thrilling tale. Some have even told stories of being transported off to their abductees home star system, and others of aliens who walk among us, and are even in positions of global power.
In all likelihood, Earth has never been visited by life that originated elsewhere. While it is quite possible that alien life does exist somewhere in the universe, it is unlikely that intelligent aliens would have crossed the vast distances of interstellar space in the short, on astronomical timescales, amount of time that humans have inhabited Earth. It is unlikely that an alien civilisation even knows we exist yet, as we have only been sending out beacons of our existence into space that others could detect since the invention of radio. Since radio signals travel at the speed of light, our signals will have not yet reached many star systems, and even fewer that have the potential to host alien life.
That’s not to say aliens do not exist. Despite years of searching there is no evidence to either prove or disprove aliens existence as of yet, so we have no way to know if the universe is teeming with life, or if Earth is the only place that a series of incredibly unlikely chance events took place that have led to the planet filled with life that we see today.
In 1961 astrophysicist Frank Drake wrote down an equation that allows us to estimate how many alien civilisations there may be.
N = R∗ x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
This equation tells us N, the number of alien civilisations we could communicate with. To calculate this we multiply how many new stars form in our galaxy each year (R∗), by the fraction of those stars that have planets (fp), by the number of those that are Earth-like and habitable (ne). These are all things astronomers can estimate reasonably well, however the next four terms in the equation are unknown. They are the fraction of planets that go on to develop life (fl), the fraction that then go on to form intelligent life (fi), the fraction of those that go on to develop a civilisation that has technology they could communicate with us with (fc), and finally the amount of time that civilisation will send out signals into space (L).
These final four terms could be almost any value, meaning that our Galaxy could be full of life that we haven’t yet detected, or that life could be such a rare occurrence that we are the only example of a technological civilisation to ever develop in the history of the universe. What values go in to the equation are up to you, so you can decide for yourself how likely it is whether or not we are alone in the universe.