The LUCIFER Telescope Conspiracy
Any given conspiracy theory that finds broad appeal tends to stroke the beliefs, morals, or preferred world views of its believers. If you're a racist, you're more likely to embrace conspiracy theories that pin the blame for something on whatever race you don't like. If you're anticorporate, you're more likely to embrace conspiracy theories that claim corporations are behind some global evil. And so on, and so on. This goes for every demographic and for every tribe. And so we might at first balk when we hear of the LUCIFER Telescope conspiracy theory — who could possibly hate telescopes?? Today we're going to dive into this most intriguing conspiracy theory — which even includes ancient aliens — to see if whatever it's about is as cool as its name. Because "the LUCIFER Telescope conspiracy" is a pretty cool-sounding name, as far as conspiracy theories go.
For the "Project Lucifer" conspiracy theory claiming NASA plans to blow up the planet Jupiter, see episode #143.
To understand this conspiracy theory, we have to start by answering that initial question. What tribe could possibly have a problem with a telescope, to the point that they'd embrace an implausible conspiracy theory that blames some global evil on a telescope? The short answer is that it's the same tribe that dislikes the character Lucifer, unsurprisingly. In Christian mythology, Lucifer is a name for the devil. And so we find that the LUCIFER Telescope conspiracy appeals to some far-right evangelical Christians (mostly of various Baptist sects), in that its antagonists are devilish, and a particular telescope believed to be used in a devilish manner.
In this same broad frame of evangelical belief, the Catholic church is anti-Christian. Whatever it is that they're up to is in the ultimate pursuit of helping the devil rise to power. And, according to this conspiracy theory, the Vatican owns a telescope (auspiciously named LUCIFER) which they employ in their long historical quest of searching for alien life. These aliens, they believe, are analogous to the devil and will help the Vatican take ultimate control over all the people of Earth.
So let us find out exactly what the LUCIFER Telescope actually is. According to the conspiracy theory, it's a telescope that belongs to the Vatican, and it's located in Arizona. Well, there is no such thing, but let's break down the various parts and try to understand where the conspiracy theorists are coming from.
A good ways southeast of Phoenix, Arizona, where there are good dark skies, is the Mount Graham International Observatory, one of five locations of the Steward Observatory operated by the University of Arizona. Mount Graham consists of three internationally-owned telescope facilities. They are:
The Vatican Observatory, you might be asking? Why would the Vatican have an observatory? It turns out that it's one of the world's oldest astronomical institutions. In 1580, they completed the Gregorian Tower inside the Vatican itself, with a particular interest in making sure holy days like Easter that have astronomical bases are being observed on the correct day. It's really as simple as that. But, with astronomical facilities handy, other work gradually came to be done there by Jesuit scholars and others. Throughout the 20th century as light pollution increased, they changed locations a few times and finally ended up establishing the VATT at the international facility in Arizona.
So you may have noticed that in that short list of three telescopes, there wasn't one named LUCIFER. And that the Vatican's telescope is named the VATT. So what is this elusive LUCIFER Telescope? Well, let's leave the Vatican's telescope, and go back over across the street to the LBT. The Large Binocular Telescope — which is not affiliated with the Vatican Observatory — is a pair of 8.4m telescopes side by side. There are currently eight different instruments that the photons coming from the telescopes can be sent to. Two of these are called LUCI1 and LUCI2, which do infrared spectroscopy. LUCI is an acronym for LBT Utility Camera in the Infrared, and they were designed and built by the LUCI Consortium, a group of four different German companies. Again, no Vatican involvement.
However, the LUCI instruments are still the source of the name LUCIFER. They were originally named this, as an acronym for Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Spectroscopic Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research. Thank god for acronyms. Because some people expressed offense at the name Lucifer being used, it was shortened to the current name in 2012, before LUCI2 was actually even installed.
Can the LUCI instruments be used to find alien life, as the conspiracy theory says? To answer that, let's see what's involved in doing that. This gets into the field of exobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life. If you were an alien and you were to do a spectroscopic analysis of Earth and its atmosphere from far away, the overwhelming signature that you'd see in the spectrum that would tip you off to the presence of life is that of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll creates a very obvious jump in the spectrum right around the 700nm wavelength. At the red end of the visible spectrum, chlorophyll appears almost totally black, but then at slightly longer wavelengths in the infrared, it becomes virtually transparent. We call this sudden cliff in the spectrum the "red edge", and it's sort of the holy grail of exobiology. If we had an optical and infrared telescope sensitive enough to resolve the molecules on an exoplanet, the red edge would be — in effect — that Eureka moment that we'd found life.
And therein lies the rub. We have some great telescopes, both land based and space based, but so far none of them are quite good enough to do this detailed of an analysis. We can see much rougher data, like the elements present in stars, but we are probably two generations of telescopes away from being able to see the red edge on an alien world. Personally, having spoken about this with a handful of principal investigators on space telescope proposals, I would give the James Webb Space Telescope about a 20% chance of detecting a red edge over its operational lifetime. But I'll give a 90% chance to the generation that follows it.
This leaves the instruments on Mount Graham with a 0% chance. The LUCI instruments themselves could probably see it, but the LBT telescope they get their data from — as mighty as it is — just can't get that kind of resolution from a distant exoplanet. The Vatican telescope next door, with its vastly smaller instrument, makes no pretense of even attempting. It's used for other things that it's appropriate for.
This analysis includes detection methods other than just the red edge. Exobiologists are not under the delusion that chlorophyll is the only type of life possible out there. Scientists in that field continue to consider every imaginable basic structure of life and have defined its spectroscopic parameters. Depending on the type of its star and the makeup of the exoplanet's atmosphere, some of these alternatives may be more or less probable than chlorophyll. When we get to that point, we'll search for all of them. But that day is not today.
So the Vatican's conspiracy to use the LUCIFER Telescope to find aliens seems pretty solid except for just a few details:
So if even five minutes on Google can prove that nothing about this claim is true, why does the conspiracy theory even exist?
As in so many other cases, this one got its start with ideologically motivated authors. This time, they were Baptist preacher Tom Horn and evangelical author Cris Putnam, who put their belief forward in their bewilderingly-titled 2013 book Exo-Vaticana: Petrus Romanus, Project L.U.C.I.F.E.R. and the Vatican's Astonishing Plan for the Arrival of an Alien Savior. Lest you suspect that I may have disingenuously exaggerated the gist of this conspiracy theory, it is actually that wild: they claim the Vatican intends to recruit a new Savior from outer space, and install him as the leader of the New World Order. Their book incorporates a plan to create human-alien hybrids, the face on Mars, and a "prediction" (ahem) that the world the new alien savior will come from will be fully revealed by astronomers in 2013.
While the garden-variety conspiracy theorist has likely not read this book and is probably unaware of its dizzying depths, belief in the general idea does appear to be flourishing online. For example, YouTube videos put out by the Large Binocular Telescope about their facility are thickly graffitied with comments claiming the Vatican owns it, and videos about the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope are thickly graffitied with comments claiming it's named LUCIFER. Ideas that suggest dishonesty among powerful entities will always be popular, with no need to look into the facts behind it. Any member of any tribe that tends to regard the rich and powerful Catholic Church with suspicion and disdain is likely to be preconditioned to eagerly embrace the LUCIFER Telescope conspiracy theory.
There are about ten or twelve astronomers at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. It's a small operation, because in order to be a scientist there, you also have to be a Catholic priest, and the world of academia does not yield a huge crossover. For their employer, they still verify the astronomical calendar dates for Easter and other important dates, but that's a tiny part of their work. As working professional astronomers, they collaborate with colleagues, they do actual astronomical work, they publish their findings. They are singularly fortunate among professional astronomers in that they don't need to worry about annual grant funding, so they're able to pursue longer term projects. They study magnetic white dwarfs, asteroids, and main-sequence stars of all types. But as their instrument is not of a class useful for hunting down alien life, this humble group has not yet found any ETs — and until they do, the LUCIFER Telescope conspiracy theory will have to remain just that: a conspiracy theory.
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