Fraudulent use of an IfA/UH picture

The "Secret Image"

On January 15, 1997, a new "secret UFO picture" was posted on Art Bell's and Whitley Strieber's web sites, after being announced for several days. They supposedly received it through Ms. Prudence Calabrese and Dr. Courtney Brown from a "mysterious astrophysicist" who "preferred to remain anonymous." Below are the original images released at the two sites above (compressed 2x to save bandwidth).

The original caption of the images (on Strieber's site) said:

The marked-up version identifies the object nestled deep in the comet's corona, immediately behind it. The clear version shows the same thing without the digital markings. To all appearances this is a genuine astronomical photograph, and the very close proximity of the object to the comet makes it hard (but not impossible) to claim that the object is a star.

We have identified that image as being a fake based on an image obtained by an astronomer of the Institute for Astronomy, Dr. David Tholen. The original image was posted on our Hale-Bopp page more than one year ago.

Below is a comparison of the central region of the two images. The fraudulent image has been rotated to match the orientation of the original image.

FRAUD Original Image

Dr. D. Tholen's Statement

Below is a statement by David Tholen, explaining why there is absolutely no doubt that the fake image is a doctored copy of his image.

Images of comet Hale-Bopp showing an allegedly mysterious companion object have appeared on web sites with the URLs and

These images are fraudulent. The mysterious companion object is not real, having been added to the image most likely using digital image processing techniques. The original image appears at a web site with the URL I took this image on 1995 September 1 using the University of Hawaii 2.24-m telescope shortly before 6 hours UTC (or about 8 p.m. on August 31 Hawaiian Standard Time).

There is no doubt that THIS 1995 September 1 image was used for the fraudulent images:

All of which indicates that these are in fact the same image. Hawaii is the only place with large telescopes that could have taken the image at the time indicated by the comet's placement among the stars, and with the degree of sharpness provided by the atmosphere above the observatory site. The 2.24-m telescope was the only one on the mountain equipped with a camera that provided the correct pixel size, and the only one that used the particular combination of red, green, and blue filters to produce the original color composite. There is no doubt about the origin of this image.

The myserious companion object does not appear on the original, which means it was added to the copy by some unknown individual in an attempt to deceive the public.

The original images are not secret, as claimed on the first two web sites mentioned above, having been available on the Institute for Astronomy's web site since September of 1995, and it has also appeared on Sky Publishing's web site with permission. The allegedly mysterious astrophysicist who took the image was never at the point of making a public announcement to claim discovery of the object; there is no object for which discovery can be claimed. The identity of the faked image with the one I took was called to my attention only today, and this statement was prepared as a rebuttal.

Dr. David J. Tholen
Institute for Astronomy
University of Hawaii
1997 January 15

Brown and Calabrese's "original"

The statement posted by Dr. Brown contains evidence that the image he published is not an original:
[...] We were eager to obtain physical confirming evidence of our remote viewing sessions that could be seen as a form of scientific feedback. The astronomer sent us three rolls of film that we then developed. Two of the rolls were blank when developed. But the other roll had five very good astronomical photographs, unevenly placed along the film strip. [...]
(Dr Brown's
complete statement is also available on this site)

Note that the image is EXCELLENT: very sharp (implying a good telescope in a good site; from the time of the image obtained by the position of the comet, this can ONLY be Mauna Kea) and very deep (very faint stars are visible), imply a large telescope (at least a couple of meters diameter). All this points to a large professional telescope on Mauna Kea (for a more detailed discussion, please refer to Dr. D.Tholen's statement).

The fact is that NO modern large professional telescope use traditional photographic material anymore: CCDs are MUCH more sensitive and convenient. Moreover, in the past, the photographic material we used was not fill rolls but large glass plates! (a few telescopes of the "Schmidt" kind still use large photographic plates for very wide field imaging; there is no such telescope at Mauna Kea). Of course, film is widely used by amateur astronomers using small telescopes, but the resulting image would not be as sharp and deep as the original.

The processing of astronomical photographic plates/films is tricky and requires lots of practice and special chemicals: no astronomer would trust anyone untrained to process material with crucial data on it. Moreover, the processing has to be performed soon after the image is taken (usually during the same night). More than one year is unheard of. Last point: it is impossible to know in advance (before looking at it!) if an image will be good or bad: something CAN go wrong at any time from the image taking till the end of the chemical processing.

Therefore, Dr. Brown's story of receiving 3 undeveloped film rolls is completely unrealistic. If these 3 rolls exist, they contain pictures that have not been obtained directly from a telescope. While it cannot be proven unambiguously, the fact that the fine structure of both the fake and the original image are matching so well suggest that the whole process was digital, without any film roll and scanner involved.

The original images

Below are the real original images. The color image is a composite of 3 frames obtained imaging the comet successively through a Red, Green and Blue filters (the standard R, V, B filters used for astronomical photometry) with a "Loral" CCD. The resulting digital images were transfered from the telescope computer to magnetic tapes, and then loaded on a computer at the Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu. They received minimal processing (bias subtraction and flat-fielding; please refer to the Basic Image Processing pages for a description of these steps and the reasons why they are required). The resulting digital images are saved in FITS format (Flexible Image Transfer Standard), which is exclusively used for storing and transferring professional astronomical images. The images are LARGE: about 2 MegaBytes, for 498x1024 pixels. Feel free to down-load them and to perform any analysis that would convince you that these are the originals! (like, background noise analysis, point-spread-function analysis, etc...).

In case you don't have the tools to display with FITS images (which are NOT displayed by directly WWW browsers), SAO-Image (sources in Unix Compressed Tar File, or sources in Zip-compressed Tar file) is what you need.

Remember that these are real raw images coming directly from the telescope; they have NOT been cleaned for the detector and telescope artifacts. Therefore, please read the Basic Image Processing and Typical CCD Artifacts pages, in order to identify the cosmic rays, bad columns, flat-field defects, etc, present in these images.

Original FITS frames

Warning: 2Mb each, will not be displayed by a WWW browser.

On these images, N is to the right,
W is to the top. This orientation
is determined by the physical position
of the CCD under the telescope.

Red Green Blue

GIFs and JPGs obtained directly from the original FITS files.

click on the thumbnails to down-load the images.

Full frames
Red Green Blue
Central region, displayed using different thresholds
Red Green Blue
Zoom on the comet
Red Green Blue
Color Composite,

available on this site since Sep. 1995.
The orientation has been normalized to North up, and East left.

40K 19K

All these images are © 1996, Institute for Astronomy. Permission is granted to reproduce them if credit is given to D. Tholen and R. Wainscoat, IfA.

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Olivier Hainaut

Update: Wed Jan 22 18:31:57 1997 --- -- Hits: