Nov. 30, 2012 at 4:06 PM ET
For a while, it almost looked as if NASA was really spilling the beans — or rather, the beads — about the Curiosity rover's hush-hush discoveries on Mars. And that was precisely the problem.
A spoof website, NASAUpdateCenter.us, made a splash on Thursday by proclaiming that Curiosity discovered "small spheres" that turned out to be made of plastic. The purported press release drew heavily on the logos and page design used by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and was accompanied by a picture showing strings of the tiny spheres — which looked suspiciously like Mardi Gras necklaces.
Curiosity's science team is scheduled to provide an eagerly awaited update on the rover mission at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Monday. Some of the initial news reports suggested the scientists were getting ready to announce a discovery that would be "one for the history books." (On Thursday, NASA said such "rumors and speculation" were incorrect.)
"I basically thought that with all the hype NASA made last week about an earthshaking release, we could build off that hype and set off the story before them," Domatron Graves, a.k.a. Xavier Jenks, explained in an email. Graves, who told me he's a 25-year-old Mardi Gras production artist and "publicity stuntman" from New Orleans, was the prime mover behind the "plastic beads" prank.
The website was meant as a joke, and as a sly marketing campaign for Graves' Mardi Gras team, the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. Hence the plastic beads. One of the pages on the site even featured a "Face on Mars" picture that morphed into the furry visage of Chewbacca from the Star Wars saga.
The way Graves tells the story, NASA wasn't amused. He said he received a phone call from someone claiming to be from JPL, informing him that his use of the space agency's logos was a federal offense. Graves and his Web team had the bogus "press release" taken down by 1 p.m. ET today.
"I'm trying not to go to jail," he told me over the phone.
I haven't yet been able to track down exactly who spoke with him. Bert Ulrich, who serves as a multimedia liaison at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told me he wasn't aware that anyone from the agency contacted Graves. "It's news to us," he wrote in an email.
There is a law on the books that forbids the unauthorized use of NASA's official logos and program identifiers (14 CFR 1221), backed up by the threat of a six-month jail term (18 USC 701). But it's unlikely that NASA would actually pursue prosecution — and even if the agency did prosecute, you could argue that Graves and his pals would be protected by policies governing fair use and parody. In any case, that argument is now moot.
One of the issues might have been that the look and feel of the fake press release was so serious, even though the claim was clearly ridiculous. Real names were used in the wrong contexts, and the claims were couched in terms typically used to describe Mars' truly weird blueberries. It'd take a sharp observer (like Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait) to see right away that the whole thing was baloney.
The full text of the bogus press release has been taken down, but you can get a sense of the tone from this screenshot:
NASA is one of the more trusted agencies in the federal government, although surveys suggest that trust has fallen in recent years. The hubbub over Martian discoveries is particularly sensitive, in light of the misunderstandings surrounding what Curiosity has or has not found so far. So it's understandable that the space agency might not appreciate a spoof that gave the wrong impression — as opposed to a spoof like the "We're NASA and We Know It" viral video, which celebrates the Curiosity mission's true accomplishments.
If Graves had been able to hold out a little bit longer, he would have added some references to the Mardi Gras krewe's home page — to signal that the website was a spoof and generate a little online traffic for Chewbacchus. That's what he did in the case of the New Orleans Bigfoot Society, another prank website that he and his friends cooked up last year. But after the hurried removal of the faux NASA Web pages, the spoof website has been reduced to a text-only page with a Web link paying tribute to "the Sacred Drunken Wookiee!"
Let's just hope Lucasfilm doesn't go after Graves for copyright infringement. NASA's displeasure is nothing, compared to the wrath of the "Star Wars" empire.
Update for 10:30 p.m. ET: Veronica McGregor, who manages the news and social media office at JPL, sent me an email that filled in most of the remaining gaps in the story. "What I know about the site is, the manager/owner was contacted," she wrote. "The content on the site was not a concern, in fact we've truly enjoyed all of the spoofs out there. As you mentioned, it was the use of the page design, name and logos — and the possibility of confusion — that was the concern. ... We didn't think people would be confused over the beads, just the page design."
Update for 8:25 p.m. ET Dec. 3: The NASAUpdateCenter.us website is back with lots of graphics, but none of the NASA elements that got Graves in trouble.
More whimsy about the Curiosity rover on Mars:
Graves acknowledges that the "Domatron" in his name is a nom d'art, but he insists that the last name is real. "I'm a Graves," he told me. I found his contact information by tracing the domain-registration listing for NASAUpdateCenter.us, and reached him by phone just as he was arranging for the faux press release to be taken down.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.