Last week, astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted a photograph that he had taken from a window of the International Space Station, where he has been residing for nearly eight months. The photo exhibits city lights glowing from the surface of Southern India, but Kelly’s followers swiftly observed something else: a cigar-shaped smudge, punctuated by two bands of light, barely visible in the upper right hand corner of the frame.
The online response was instant.
“What is that in the upper right corner?” inquired a Twitter user.
“UFO,” answered another.
Those responses could have been jokes, but the photograph caught the imagination of the online UFO scene. A paranormal fanatic on YouTube uploaded a video about the photograph, and a notable blog called UFO Sightings Daily ran a article on it (“It looks like Scott was trying to hint at the existence of aliens,” states that post. “Message received Scott, and thanks.”)
CBS ran a suspicious tale about the photograph, but then Fox News ran a comparatively breathless piece. Fox commenters immediately weighed in with their own ideas.
“Why would a UFO even have lights,” asked one commenter. “Advanced as they are, surely they don’t need lights. My guess Chinese.”
Though Kelly has not left a comment on the UFO photograph, it is not uncommon for contemporary astronauts to frequently post to Twitter and Instagram. His partner space traveler, astronaut Chris Hadfield, recorded a cover of David Bowie’s 1969 single Space Oddity that went hugely viral in 2013. NASA itself has accepted social media in recent years, even hiring a social media manager to organize its strategy and accounts.
That suggests astronauts regularly participate with the public concerning space research and exploration, but it also gives pseudoscientists and alien fanatics new tools to research and promote off-center theories. Now they can pore over photographs from the New Horizons probe or the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers in search of indications of anything strange – a occurrence that gives rise to a news cycle in which every few months, the media converges on a tantalizing-yet-thin indication of extraterrestrial life.
Jason Koebler, for instance, lately profiled a dude who runs a YouTube channel alleging, among other things, that an ancient Martian civilization was ruined by a planet-wide nuclear war. (Sample quote: “I believe that after a nuclear war broke out on Mars… The surviving Martian race emigrated to the Earth, building the Pyramids and Sphinx.”) Terrestrially, a Navy test fire near Los Angeles earlier this month caused speculation about UFOs, and back in August, CNN noted that would-be Mulders had found a derelict alien spaceship in a photograph sent back from Curiosity. Last year, the Daily Mail noted that a statue of Barack Obama’s head had been found on the surface of the Red Planet.
Conspiracy theories about NASA are nothing unique -in 2002, a 72-year-old Buzz Aldrin punched a man in the face for suggesting that the Moon landings were staged -but on the internet, it is easier than ever for them to propagate.
Kelly does not seem to have acknowledged the furor over his photograph, but others have stepped in to point out that the supposed alien craft is most likely an external part of the station or a reflection from the inside. A brightness-adjusted variation of the original photograph seems to show that the object is in fact a bright spot on the exterior of the space station rather than a free-floating object.
“Eyewitness accounts are not enough,” physicist Michio Kaku explained to CBS of the Kelly photograph. “That’s why we want something tangible-an alien chip, alien DNA-then the controversy is over.”
A spokesperson for NASA did not reply to a request for feedback by press time.