Some people believe the Black Knight Satellite is an alien spacecraft.
NASA says it's probably just some space junk—likely the remnants of a thermal blanket.
Yet the Black Knight conspiracy theory continues to persist. Is there any validity to it?
Whether rooted in a Wikipedia deep dive or documented history, most of the world's conspiracy theories are hard to prove, which is part of what makes them so alluring ... and so dangerous. But they give us just enough facts to entertain our fears—and while there are swaths of evidence against so many of these theories, a few wild-seeming conspiracies have indeed been proven, or at least justified. So which conspiracies are decidedly bogus, and which ones may actually have legs? In this series, Pop Mech breaks down the facts and myths for you.
The Black Knight is a space object that, believers insist, is both artificially made and approximately 13,000 years old. That's supposedly it in the NASA photo above. The agency says the object, glimpsed very occasionally and “detected” sometimes over the decades, is probably a piece of space junk lost from a mission. But believers cite history dating back to Nikola Tesla of observations of a polar satellite many millennia older than human technology. Could it come from ancient aliens?
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Vice reported on the Black Knight in 2015:
“In 1899, Nikola Tesla heard from aliens. ‘I have a deep conviction that highly intelligent beings exist on Mars,’ Tesla told a reporter from the Albany Telegram in 1923. ‘I caught signals which I interpreted as meaning 1--2--3--4. I believe the Martians used numbers for communication because numbers are universal.’”
At the time, there was an influential theory that Mars had canals made by some kind of intelligent species. “The importance of canals for worldwide commerce at that time without a doubt influenced the popular interest in ‘canals’ on Mars,” NASA explains. The zeitgeist coil surely have affected Tesla—a genius by any measure, but still a human being trying to understand the confusing things he might have encountered.
The Black Knight story emerges from Tesla’s anecdata about radio signals from Mars, because, Vice reported, believers decided that Tesla must have heard from the Black Knight.
The U.K.'s Armagh Observatory and Planetarium explains that the Black Knight conspiracy got a high-profile boost from Gordon Cooper, one of the Mercury Seven astronauts. Cooper's story of seeing a UFO wasn't confirmed by NASA documentation at the time, but he doubled down on his belief in alien conspiracy theories in his autobiography, Leap of Faith: An Astronaut's Journey Into the Unknown. This, together with the storied link with all-time science icon Nikola Tesla, has given a sheen of credibility to the Black Knight.
The narrative has been picked up over the decades by almost every major publication that covers conspiracies like it, including the popular paranormal exploration podcast Mysterious Universe.
What are the mysterious signals heard by Tesla and others? Scientists now know these to likely be the naturally occurring signals emitted by space objects that pulsate, like namesake pulsars.
What is the object that some call the Black Knight? People in the key 1960s period of this conspiracy were paranoid because of the Cold War space race, and they were keen to identify anything in the sky. (Some things never change: space archaeologist Alice Gorman recently told the Ologies podcast that diplomatic paranoia has prevented the development of space junk removal, because international powers could just shoot down each other’s real satellites and say it was an accident.)
So they spotted something in the sky and, after ruling out the small number of satellites at the time, decided it must be something else. NASA claimed the object, seen around the poles rather than the equator, as a broken-off piece of the Discoverer satellite.
But that’s not the end of the story. From Vice:
“As it turns out, the skepticism was warranted, but not because the object was an alien spacecraft. Rather, declassified documents revealed that it was, in fact, a part of the United States' CORONA project, a mission that produced the world's first successful space photo-reconnaissance flights in an effort to monitor Soviet missile facilities.”
In 1998, the conspiracy received a breath of fresh air after astronauts noted an “amorphous black object” in space. It's likely a thermal blanket.
What are people seeing in this series of seemingly unrelated ideas? Like any good conspiracy theory, this story is sticky and full of great hooks about secrets and lies. Tesla really did believe he heard something from Mars, in line with a popular belief at the time. People picking up odd signals, no matter their source, will wonder about their origins.
Time mentioned the space object later deemed Black Knight in 1960, Cooper claimed to believe in UFOs in his autobiography, and a 1970 paper added the “13,000-year-old aliens” twist. Believers say the 1998 sighting of “something” dark and curiously shaped by space station astronauts is the same object observed by all these people and writings over more than a century.
The Black Knight is almost certainly the series of discrete events that explain it away: Tesla hearing pulsars or some other natural signal, Time reporting on a secret government satellite in good faith, and the astronauts of the International Space Station seeing a lost blanket in orbit.
Space is a natural place for conspiracy ideas to grow, because what goes up does stay mysterious. The secretive government satellite, like most space junk, burned up on reentry. Most people don’t have powerful telescopes to observe any particular object in the night sky, instead relying on the contextual evidence from Time or NASA photographs.
But beyond those natural hooks for further investigation, there’s no evidence that Black Knight is anything other than the sum of parts that don’t even belong together. It’s like the old joke: all penguins are black and white, and old TVs are black and white, but all penguins aren’t old TVs.
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