WASHINGTON, D.C.—In an unusual press conference here today, NASA released a batch of bizarre sound recordings and video from the Messenger spacecraft moments before it impacted the surface of Mercury. Scientists are struggling to decipher what the data mean, but some contend they sound like human voices crying out in agony.
Messenger had been orbiting Mercury since 2011, but it used up nearly all of its propellant and was drifting closer to the surface of the planet. So last week, NASA officials decided to point the probe nose downward for a controlled crash. “We were hoping it would kick up some soot for spectroscopic analysis,” says Messenger Principal Investigator Angra Mainyu, a planetary scientist at Columbia University. Just what it did find instead is not entirely clear.
At the press conference, Mainyu played grainy recordings of what sounded like anguished voices in various languages. And she showed even grainier images of what appeared to be writhing figures. When asked by a reporter how NASA interpreted the data, Mainyu shrugged her shoulders and said, “How the hell should I know?”
Reactions to the news were swift and, in some cases, decisive. Welcoming what he called “ineluctable evidence of hell,” Father Felix Flammis, a spokesperson for the Vatican Observatory in Italy, said: "This wonderful discovery shows that science and religion can work together to discover the truth." But Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and atheist, rejected the finding. "This is clearly a bunch of drivel," he says. "Wind whistling past the spacecraft, electronic noise—there obviously has to be some other explanation." Even if the evidence holds up, he quips, "proof of the devil ain't the same as proof of God."
The findings are somewhat of a surprise, because Venus had long been the leading contender, in our solar system at any rate, for harboring Hades. With a mean surface temperature of 462°C, an oppressive atmosphere, and sulfuric acid rains, it certainly seems to fit biblical descriptions. “Plus, it’s much closer to Earth, so lost souls would be only a hop, skip, and a jump from hell,” says Thor Kölski, an astrophysicist at the University of the Valkyrs in Reykjavik. Kölski has pinpointed the likely epicenter of hell as Venus’s Ganiki Chasma, a rift zone where infrared flashes were first observed last year—phenomena that he asserts are new arrivals to the underworld.
Still others think there may be multiple hells within our solar system. "Everything we know about string theory tells us that the ‘Many Hells theory’ isn't only plausible, it highly likely," says Franklyn Stein, a theoretical physicist at University College London.
Luminaries in the scientific community are by and large embracing the notion of hell. Even Stephen Hawking is on board. The cosmologist stirred controversy in 2010, when he wrote in his book The Grand Design that “[i]t is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." Earlier today, Hawking tweeted: “The devil is a different story. All hail Messenger!”
The discovery should provide a major shot in the arm to NASA, whose fortunes in Washington have faded since it retired the space shuttles in 2011. “This is a proud day for the space agency,” says Don Tey, a spokesperson for the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, who insists that it’s merely a coincidence that the announcement was made on April Fools’ Day. “Congress told NASA to go to hell, and, by Jove, they made it.”