In June 1944, two geologists unearthed a black, 125-pound meteorite in the Swiss Alps. This remarkable discovery went mostly unnoticed in wartime Europe, but more than three decades later, scientist Rudolph H. Obrist traced the extraterrestrial rock to Ferox, Mars’ third moon. Even more astonishing, he believed the orb might harbor the possibility of life and launched a years-long mission to find it.
Nicolas Polli will tell you this story is “pure bullshit.” He should know— he made the whole thing up himself. But even though Mars only has two moons, the casual visitor to Ferox, The Forgotten Files: A Journey to the Hidden Moon of Mars 1976–2010 could easily be fooled into believing there is a third. The fabricated, online archive contains hundreds of convincing, black-and-white photographs depicting scientific research, space missions, and even the nonexistent, alien surface of Ferox itself.
“It’s very easy to fake something about space,” Polli says.
Why anyone would want to do such a thing is another matter. Polli developed the idea a couple years ago, as images increasingly began fueling the spread of hoaxes and fake news across the web. Desiring to better understand how people critically evaluate imagery online, he picked a topic most people know little about—the celestial bodies orbiting Mars—and started inventing his own facts.
The “International Exploration for the Mars Surrounding,” Polli decided, was a European space agency led by Rudolph H. Obrist, whose scientists aimed to find life on Ferox (meaning “fierce” in Latin). They sent a series of satellites and rovers (Exploration I, Exploration II) to explore this small moon roughly 900 miles wide orbiting 183,000 miles above Mars. Polli steeped this tale in scientific-sounding jargon and wrapped it all up in a convincing visual identity, including a NASA-inspired logo complete with stars and an orbiting spacecraft. “Since it looks like what I’m saying, people trust it, because they have clichés about how certain things should look in a certain era and period in history,” he says.
Polli supported his story with more than 300 archival images he shot over six months last year. He recruited friends and family to serve as actors, dressing them in white suits and directing fake experiments in and around his studio in Lausanne, Switzerland. He made props using all the craft tricks his mother taught him as a child: a birthday balloon sprayed with foam formed a meteorite, glitter became the stars, and a speckled quail egg photographed up close passed for Ferox itself. He even collaged Google Earth images of the Swiss Alps and real photos of Mars to simulate the kind of images a satellite or rover might capture of its rugged, extraterrestrial landscape.
It’s a lot of work for a guy who insists he isn’t merely trying to create a hoax. And though Polli throws in clues the images aren’t real—an anachronistic pair of shoes here, a surprising lack of safety gear there—he still gets contacted by folks hoping to get in touch with IEMS. “Today we’re bombarded by images and information, and we trust almost everything because we don’t have time to get too deep into the information,” he says. Not that you need a fake space agency to know that people believe what they see, or that images lie.
IEMS never existed, but if it had, its story would have ended like this: On August 6, 2008, Exploration II accidentally landed in a deep crater on Ferox, more than 20 miles off course. It couldn’t get out—a $2.5 billion mistake that effectively halted the search for life on Mars’ third moon. Polli’s fake archive brilliantly illustrates this tragic tale, stirring the imagination as much as any sci-fi TV show or film … BS or not.