During a press conference last month, NASA released a slew of odd sound recordings and video from the Messenger probe just moments before it’s impact on Mercury. Scientists are working to decipher the meaning of the data, but some agree that the recordings sound like human voices crying out in agony.
The Messenger probe had been orbiting Mercury since 2011, but was drifting closer to the surface of the planet as it’s fuel was depleted. In an attempt to land it in a controlled crash hoping to kick up some soot for spectroscopic analysis, NASA officials decided to point the probe nose downward towards the surface. What it did record was completely unexpected.
At the press conference, scientists listened to grainy recordings of what sounded like anguished voices in various languages. They also viewed even grainier images of what appeared to be writhing figures. It is not yet clear how NASA interpreted the data.
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 surprising, as Venus had been the leading contender for harboring Hades for some time. With an average 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 believe 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’s 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 “it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” 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.”