- Conspiracy theorists, you have a problem. In an effort
to silence claims that the Apollo Moon landings were faked, European scientists
are to use the world's newest and largest telescope to see whether remains
of the spacecraft are still on the lunar surface.
- For years, doubters have claimed that Nasa, the US space
agency, spent billions of dollars faking the landings to convince the world
that it had beaten the Soviet Union to the Moon. A host of supposed evidence
has been put forward, ranging from the absence of stars on any photographs
taken by the astronauts to the fact that the Stars and Stripes they planted
seemed to flutter in a vacuum.
- Earlier this month, Nasa tried to put an end to the controversy
by commissioning a definitive account of the evidence for the landings.
Days later, it dropped the idea after criticism that it was wasting money
by taking on the lunatic fringe: naturally, this only boosted claims that
the space agency was trying to hide something.
- The row even boiled over into personal conflict in September
when police in Beverly Hills were called in to investigate claims that
Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin - the second man on the Moon - punched a
conspiracy theorist who accused him of lying about the landings.
- Now astronomers hope to kill off the conspiracy theory
once and for all by using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) - by far the most
powerful telescope in the world - to spot the Apollo lunar landers.
- Operated by European astronomers in the Chilean Andes,
the VLT consists of four mirrors 27ft across linked by optical fibres.
It can see a single human hair at a distance of 10 miles.
- Trained on the Moon, such astonishing resolution should
enable it to see the base of one or more of the six lunar modules which
Nasa insists landed on the Moon between 1969 and 1972. Any images of the
modules would be the first not to have been taken from space by Nasa.
- Dr Richard West, an astronomer at the VLT, confirmed
that his team was aiming to achieve "a high-resolution image of one
of the Apollo landing sites".
- The first attempt to spot the spacecraft will be made
using only one of the VLT's four telescope mirrors, which are fitted with
special "adaptive optics" to cancel the distorting effect of
the Earth's atmosphere. A trial run of the equipment this summer produced
the sharpest image of the Moon taken from the Earth, showing details 400ft
across from a distance of 238,000 miles.
- The VLT team hopes to improve on this, with the aim of
detecting clear evidence for the presence of the landers. The base of the
lunar modules measured about 10ft across, but would cast a much longer
shadow under ideal conditions.
- Dr West said that the challenge pushed the optical abilities
of one VLT mirror to its limits: if this attempt failed, the team planned
to use the power of all four mirrors. "They would most probably be
sufficiently sharp to show something at the sites," he said.
- Dr West insisted, however, that the decision to examine
the landing sites was not driven by the conspiracy theory. "We do
not question the reality of the landings," he said. "It is more
for instrument-testing purposes."
- Supporters of the conspiracy theory welcomed the news
that astronomers are to photograph the landing sites. Marcus Allen, UK
publisher of Nexus magazine and a long-time advocate of the theory, said:
"I would be the first to accept what they find as powerful evidence
that something was placed on the Moon by man."
- He added, however, that photographs of the lander would
not prove that America put men on the Moon. "Getting to the Moon really
isn't much of a problem - the Russians did that in 1959," said Mr
Allen. "The big problem is getting people there."
- According to Mr Allen, Nasa was forced to send robots
to the Moon and faked the manned missions because radiation levels in space
were lethal to humans. "We know that no lead shielding was carried
on Apollo, so how were 27 astronauts able to survive a journey of several
days to and from the Moon?"
- Dr Duncan Steel, a space scientist at Salford University,
said that the supposed radiation hazard is a myth spread by conspiracy
- Dr Robert Massey, an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich
Observatory, said that the conspiracy theorists are unlikely to be deterred
by photographic evidence. "Even if the VLT does see something, I suspect
it won't silence them. In science we can never totally prove anything -
but we can prove things beyond reasonable doubt."