China successfully launched three taikonauts into Earth orbit and, on September 27th, the first Chinese national (41 year old fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang) walked in space. The space walk lasted a total of 15 minutes, enough time to retrieve some solid lubricant from the outer hull of the Shenzhou-7 module and to give the brand new “Feitian” space suit a trial run. The launch, orbital insertion, space walk, re-entry and landing were all executed perfectly, securing China as only the third nation to successfully carry out an extra-vehicular activity (EVA).
It can therefore be expected, as with space flight achievements by the US and Russia before, there will be some conspiracy theories out there…
OK, Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy beat me to the punch on this one, but I thought I’d contribute my 2c worth. First, let’s have a look at the video montage I used as a reference (primarily because this YouTube video had a “high quality” version):
At first I was more than a little intrigued by this video. After discussing this with Captain Jack over at Paranormal Radio in last week’s regular show on October 3rd (listen to the recording), I began to replay the video over and over to watch for the anomalies. Unfortunately the version I used (above), has some rather annoying commentary with it.
There have been a few websites now pointing the finger at this “faked” Chinese space walk, primarily anti-government websites (such as the Epoch Times, who provides no references to the “Chinese bloggers” they cite), plus pro-Taiwanese commenters. Of course there is a searing discontent toward China, after all this regime is responsible for human rights breaches, suppression of freedom and control of information. The western world has it’s problems, but at least we’re not controlled by the state (at least we think we’re not… are we?). Insofar as China’s efforts in space, they needed to be sure that they were 100% authentic and transparent with the world. Unfortunately, they were already fighting a losing battle even before the rocket launched.
A few hours before the launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft, the state-controlled news website Xinhuanet published an article documenting the successful orbital insertion of the three-man crew. A transcript of the future conversation between mission control and the Shenzhou 7 module appeared online due to a “technical error.” (A pretty big error if you ask me.) Even before the engines had ignited the conspiracy theories were on fire! And rightly so. Who’s to say this transcript wouldn’t have been issued regardless of mission success or failure? So, China was already on its back-foot, the launch was viewed with utmost suspicion.
After a whole evening devoted to scrutinizing floating Chinese astronauts, I’m convinced that the China space walk is authentic, although I’m not prepared to dismiss the conspiracy claims out of hand. Pretty much all of the claims can be explained easily (of which I’ll give a rundown later), but the one thing I have been intrigued by are the alleged “bubbles.”
The theory goes a little like this: In an effort to direct attention away from the baby milk scandal, China rushed the launch of the Long-March II-F rocket to bring their successful EVA forward by a few days. Alas, the Chinese authorities had no intention to send a costly mission into space. So, just like the faked visuals in the Beijing Olympics, they put together a Capricorn One-style faked space mission to wow the world.
So how did they do this? They shot the whole EVA in a massive water tank; the rotating Earth was pasted in by digital-visual experts. What do you get in water? Bubbles. And by the looks of things, there are plenty of bubbles in the video!
Actually, although I was curious at first (and I’ll explain why in a moment), those objects you see are not bubbles, it’s pieces of debris being released from inside the spaceship and from the activities of the taikonauts. If you have a look at the image above, I decided to trace the paths taken by our “bubbles” in an attempt to see where they originated. Although I was using the highly scientific method of pausing a YouTube video and hitting the “Prt Sc” button, I think I was able to capture seven “bubbles” pretty nicely. Then, using Photoshop (like that’s never been used in space-related propaganda before) I traced the track made by the “bubbles” (red line) and then traced its direction back to a possible origin (blue line) – all are straight lines. I would have liked to have captured more of these “bubbles” but even the “high quality” version of the video wasn’t great, so I had to make do with seven.
As pointed out by the anti-conspiracy theorists out there, bubbles tend to float upward. Well, this is true, but I was concerned that these “bubbles” could still be “bubbles” even though they look as if they are travelling in “random” directions. After all, if weightless conditions had been replicated in a huge water tank, why would it matter which way up the “mocked” spaceship was orientated? I was concerned that we may be looking at a full-scale mock-up of the Shenzhou-7 dangling down, or tilted, so the camera is at the top, looking toward the bottom of the tank. Therefore, any “bubbles” produced float upward, toward and then away from the camera. At first, this might give the impression the “bubbles” are travelling in random directions… but there would be a flaw to this plan…
If we are able to track the paths of each of the “bubbles”, given enough bubbles, we should see a statistical trend toward a radiant pattern, much like a meteor radiant (pictured left). After all, given enough travel time, all bubbles in a deep tank will float upward, in a straight-ish line, each tracing back to a more-or-less common radial point.
So what do we see? “Bubbles” numbered 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 seem to appear from a common point.
Hah! Proof that these are bubbles!
Woah, hold on just a minute. There are another two “bubble tracks” that don’t follow this pattern. The renegade “bubbles” (numbered 3 and 5) seem to not fit this trend, plus they are travelling in straight lines, no curvature or turbulent behaviour to suggest they were being disturbed. For my theory to be correct, all the bubbles would need to be travelling from the same radial point. Unless they are being blown around by some underwater fan system; my radiant theory was getting weak.
So I looked back to the official explanation as to what these “bubbles” were: debris from inside the Shenzhou module were being released into space – the pressure gradient from inside (the capsule’s pressure will have been “equalized” with the vacuum of space, it wouldn’t be a perfect vacuum) to outside caused the fast velocities of the debris.
With this in mind, I looked to where “bubbles” 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 came from. Tracing back along the blue lines, they do indeed originate from the open hatch. Still, they might have still been bubbles, but that didn’t explain “bubbles” 3 and 5. 3 and 5 originated from the activity of Zhai Zhigang during the EVA and appeared to fire away in completely different directions to the other five “bubbles”. Also, on reviewing each of the moving objects, they appear to very un-bubble-like shapes. Some look like tumbling pieces of ice or other flake-like pieces of debris.
Alas, there is one thing I cannot very explain convincingly. At 3:03 minutes into the video, you will notice a strange bubble-like object appear near Zhai’s visor. This is one of the key elements to the space walk conspiracy. It looks like a bubble has been released, it travels around the bulbous helmet and then released upwards (following line number 3 in my diagram), much like what you’d expect from a diver’s mask. I actually think this is a piece of debris travelling toward the camera, giving the impression it is an expanding bubble travelling upwards. There is probably a contributing reflection in the visor that makes it look as if the debris is travelling around the visor, when it is actually travelling on a linear path away from Zhai. I’ll leave that oddity for you to decide.
We must also remember, if this was shot in a massive tank of water, there would be a lot more bubbles in the water. Unless they were digitally removed (in which case, why leave the obvious seven bubbles for us all to see?), this definitely was not an underwater scene. Other underwater phenomena like turbulence, cavitation and nucleation are also not present.
Reflections of an array of studio lights
This is another “key” piece of evidence that the space walk was faked – the reflection in Zhai’s wrist mirror. The mirror is used by the taikonaut to see beyond his field of view; at the end of the day, it is hard to turn your head in a space helmet, so Zhai had to employ the use of a handy little mirror on his wrist.
But, if this scene was filmed underwater, in a studio, surely any reflective objects in the scene will pick out things like… I don’t know… studio lights? According to the theory, at 5:23 minutes into the video, a rapid wrist movement appears to flash three rows of a studio light array.
I’ll make this one quick and painless…
Wind back the video to 1:18 minutes, when Zhai crawls out of the hatch. Look in his visor. There is a wide-angle view of the hull of the spaceship. What do you see? There is an obvious three-row array of some kind of lighting system or some other spaceship equipment. It is not studio lighting you can see in Zhai’s wrist reflection, it is a reflection of some equipment (possibly a small light array for the camera) attached to the hull. I cannot find the blueprints of the Shenzhou-7 module, but if I had to put money on it, I’d say the “studio lights” are in fact a small lighting system for the hull-mounted camera.
Alas, the Chinese DID get into orbit…
The main conspiracy theories are the “bubbles” proving this space walk was filmed in a water tank, and the reflection proving it was shot in a studio. For the reasons given above, neither are a possibility. There are also some other theories such as:
- There are no stars. Correct, many orbital images and video do not contain stars. This is because the Earth is usually the brightest thing (by several orders of magnitude) in shot. If there is a bright object (i.e. a white spacesuit, or bright terrestrial clouds), the camera’s aperture will close down. This has the effect of removing any faint objects from the shot. Stars will blend in with the black of space so the details of the spacewalk and Earth’s globe can be seen. If the camera aperture were to be opened, the brightness of the Earth will appear “burned out”, appearing as a bright white blob. There are measures that can be taken to decrease the contrast with the background of space, thereby picking out the pinpoints of starlight, but streaming video from space isn’t typically of the highest quality, especially if the system is automated.
- The flag looks funny. Actually it doesn’t. This is a classic piece of evidence for the Moon hoaxers, saying that the Apollo flags implanted in the lunar surface “wave” as if blown around. The same theory appears to be aired when Zhai enthusiastically waves his red Chinese flag around. Admittedly, the flag was probably made out of a stiffer material than fabric (to ensure the whole flag can be seen on camera, rather than folding into a useless knot), but there is no indication that this flag is waving underwater. It is waving an a vacuum, there’s no evidence to the contrary.
So, we are presented with two options. Either, China went into space and performed a flawless 15-minute EVA, or the mother of all space hoaxes has just been carried out. So which one do you think it is? I’m betting that China did indeed get into space. The “bubbles” are in fact space debris, the reflection of “studio lights” is in fact a reflection of some equipment on the Shenzhou-7 hull, and everything else is simply hard to believe.
Whether you like it or not, China is indeed the third country in history to carry out a successful space walk…