PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Did Pathfinder and Sojourner really land on Mars? Well, maybe. If you believe what NASA says.
Ever since the "alleged" landing, talk has been fast and furious on Usenet, the Internet's vast array of no-holds-barred discussion groups that offer electronic soap boxes for anyone with an opinion on anything.
Pan left with that Pathfinder camera and you'll see either an alien spacecraft hovering on the Mars horizon or a discarded Evian water bottle tucked under the large rock dubbed Barnacle Bill - depending on which end of the hyperskeptical spectrum you believe.
"The images are obviously fake," said one posting on the newsgroup "sci.space.policy" on July 5, noting that NASA's pictures look like red-tinted photos of some New Mexico desert. "I guess the Roswell incident isn't the only hoax we're being treated to in 1997."
Only a handful of newsgroup contributors actually believe the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has staged a real-life re-enactment of "Capricorn One," the 1978 movie about the government building a secret movie set to stage a manned mission to Mars.
But the government is up to something, many of them warn.
"The probe in fact has landed on Mars and will continue to send back photos and data ... until life is found there," said a July 5 posting to the "alt.conspiracy" newsgroup. "Then the transmissions will cease and the U.S. government will say it was a malfunction in the equipment, when in fact NASA is still receiving messages and signals."
Alien watchers and conspiracy theorists once were kindred spirits - joining forces about the alleged government cover-up of a 1947 spaceship crash in Roswell, N.M. But the question of whether Pathfinder is sitting on Mars or in New Mexico has UFO aficionados hurling insults at each other.
London-based Internet consultant Andrew Haveland-Robinson, an eight-year veteran of the "sci.space.policy" newsgroup, has little patience with people who doubt the Pathfinder landing. He told one hoax believer in a July 5 posting to "set up a colony (on Mars) and make our world a nicer place."
Some even question the reality of the extremists. Mike Rivero, a regular contributor to the newsgroup circuit, believes the government planted them to divide legitimate skeptics.
"The manufacturing of `kooks' and the linking of them to those who ask reasonable questions ... is an old tactic," Rivero said in an e-mail exchange Friday.
Rivero sponsors a Web page showing a panoramic picture of the Mars landscape. But on his version, you can pan to the left and see a UFO flying off to the left of Barnacle Bill.
On other Web page, Mike Brown, a San Antonio television producer, displays out-of-focus pictures of bottle caps and plastic containers that appear to be littering NASA's Mars pictures. In just five days, the page attracted 6,000 visits.
"I never dreamed it would get the response it has," he said. "I have a huge archive Web page of all the e-mails I've received. ... Some of them are a little scary, if you know what I mean."
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