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A Lunar Smokestack?

September 7, 2003
full image of Apollo 8 roll 14 image 2393

Conspiracy theories abound about NASA and the Moon. The most famous, of course, is the idea that NASA never sent men to the Moon. However, there are many, many others.

The latest comes from a group calling themselves "L.E.M.U.R." (the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained phenomena Research). They quote a publication called "Electric Space Craft". In that publication, the authors say that while watching a NOVA presentation called "To The Moon", they noticed:

As Apollo 8 orbited 70 miles above the lunar surface, with Earth in the background, it filmed the ground below. At one point, a small, black object, tall and cylindrical, appears jutting from the moon. Just as the camera is about to pass by, the strange object clearly releases a jet-like cloud. It looks like a smokestack ejecting a puff of smoke. The cloud drifts to the right and then dissipates. Though the black object appears small on the screen, it must be thousands of feet tall if the footage was taken from such a high altitude.

I went to their webpage, where they have still images and an animated GIF of the shot (from here on, I'll call them the L.E.M.U.R./ESC images). I must admit, at first I was baffled. I wasn't sure what I was seeing. It does look like a big object puffing out a cloud of black smoke! But I've been fooled by such things before, and was of course highly skeptical. I didn't think about it too much for a day or two because I had others things to deal with (busy, busy). But then a post appeared on the Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board (BABB) about the footage. I didn't happen to check the board for a day, and by the time I did, the problem had already been solved!

One of the BABB regulars, who goes by the name R.A.F., actually has a copy the NOVA program on tape. He watched the show, and quickly determined that the "footage" is actually not a video or a movie film, but a still image. Evidently, the NOVA director had the still photograph put up on an easel or frame and then zoomed in on the image. That creates an illusion of motion, when of course you cannot get real motion from a single photograph.

It then becomes clear that the "puff of smoke" must be something that happened during the NOVA filming, and is not on the original image. After all, you can't get a changing puff of smoke from a still photograph!

In fact, with a little searching (and one false start) we were able to find the exact photograph used by the NOVA people. It is labeled "AS08-14-2393", and I show it in full at the top of this page. For comparison, below are two pictures side-by-side: an image from the L.E.M.U.R. site (which was in turn sent to them by the "Electric Space Craft" publication), and the scanned Apollo image taken from the Lunar and Planetary Institute archive (clicking on the images takes you to the respective webpages).

image of Earthrise from L.E.M.U.R. site scanned LPI Apollo 8 image resized to L.E.M.U.R. image
Still from NOVA video image from L.E.M.U.R. site Resized image from scanned LPI image

The LPI image has been rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, cropped, and resized a bit to match the scale of the L.E.M.U.R./ESC image. Also, the LPI image was scanned in at medium to low resolution, as you can see, which has distorted the image a little (if I find a better image, I'll update this page). However, the major features of the two images are easily compared. For example, note the distance of the gibbous Earth to the lunar horizon, and the location of larger craters. Clearly, these are the very same image.

LPI and L.E.M.U.R. images merged Just to drive the point home, I overlapped the two images using a frame of the LPI image that was not cropped as closely (it shows more of the original image) and made the L.E.M.U.R./ESC image a little transparent. Again, the features line up very well. I have no doubts at all these two represent the same image.
Frame showing two images superposed  

Since the original image is clearly a still photograph, there cannot be movement in it. Since the L.E.M.U.R./ESC case for a puff of smoke is based on movement, their conclusion must be incorrect. There is more: if there is no air on the Moon, how can something eject a puff of smoke that moves and dissipates like it's blowing in the wind? Note that this is very different than the reason the Apollo flag appeared to "blow in the wind". That was simply inertia in the flag cloth; this smoke has no such excuse.

So what is that puff then? Instead of a giant object a mile high blowing out smoke, it is almost certainly a smudge of some kind on the NOVA footage. Perhaps it was on the camera used to make the zoomed sequence, or something else that happened during production. But one thing we know for sure is that it is not a real sense of it being a object on the Moon, and therefore certainly not a giant smokestack!

I want to thank the denizens of the Bad Astronomy Bulletin Board (and R.A.F. in particular) once again for tracking this down and talking about it. That board is populated by a good group of people dedicated to weeding out pseudoscience and astronomical misconceptions.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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