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An eccentric genius who's also very rich, named Bob, wants to embarrass the American government because of an insult. For this purpose he has designed, built and tested his own space vehicle, under the pretext of space exploration.

Now he has flown to the moon, taken the flag with him and has flown back. Ready to ridicule the American government, Bob wants to make sure that no one doubts that he has the real flag in his possession, and not an elaborate fake.

  • current state of the art for the government

  • The space flight to the moon and back is only available to Bob.

  • No one has ever taken the flag.

  • The carrying of the flag was not officially announced.

  • Only the flag (the cloth) was taken, not the pole or other parts.

What scientific methods can Bob or the government use to determine that Bob has the real flag in his possession and not an elaborate fake?

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    $\begingroup$ The fact that it isn't on the moon anymore? $\endgroup$
    – wilks
    Jun 30 '20 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ @wilks That could be in some oligarch's mancave. Or the original could have been replaced with a replica. $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Jun 30 '20 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan: you could send both flags to a special dimension where they will battle each other to learn the truth. There can be only one... MOON FLAG! $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Jun 30 '20 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ Answer is fairly straightforward, but not a good fit for this forum. Please take a moment to review the tour, the help center, and learn what Worldbuilding is all about before asking off topic questions. There is no worldbuilding context here. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Jun 30 '20 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ If everyone can fly into space, then the historical site will be secured, your theft will be recorded, and the FBI will be wanting a chat with you. If only you can fly into space, then you can make a lot more money so many simpler ways than petty theft of historical objects, and your decision to forego legimitate commerce marks you as a dangerous spacegoing nutter who will be henceforth kept on a much shorter leash, $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jun 30 '20 at 20:54
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Simply put, the flag on the surface (assuming Sea of Tranquility) will have a cumulative radiation exposure since July 1969. Everthing left behind by Apollo 11, instruments included, will have the same exposure and degradation level. Just as leaving a newspaper in the sun both fades and degrades the paper, the Flag, its mast and everything involved has been sujected to that same level since 1969. It would be virtially impossible to reproduce on Earth. Please see NASA's article at : NASA Radiation Documents

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't have to generate the radiation, I just have to get it to the flag somehow; so if I sandblast the flag with moon dust, it should have the right radiation? Does NASA/ESA/etc have any reference data on what such things look like after that time ? $\endgroup$ Jun 30 '20 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ @AntonHinkel Isn't your question about proving the flag is real? How come you are suddenly asking about how fake it? Either way, radiation comes mostly from the sky, not from the moon dust. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 30 '20 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @AntonHinkel The flag, itself, being radioactive is very different from the flag being radioactively pristine and covered in dust that is radioactive. Joe's argument is both of type and quantity. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 30 '20 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ Could also examine the flag for micrometeorite deterioration. Thousands of those would likely be difficult to fake. $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Jul 1 '20 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ The point is not that it will be radioactive, but that it has experienced half a century of cumulative damage from radiation exposure. Blasting a flag with moon dust isn't going to cause anything remotely similar in effect. In reality, they likely aren't in a condition where you could bring them back intact...they were just nylon flags, and the material has likely been turned hopelessly brittle and fragile by decades of unfiltered solar UV. Some of them appear to be somewhat intact (hq.nasa.gov/alsj/ApolloFlags-Condition.html), but they'd likely crumble to dust if disturbed. $\endgroup$ Jul 2 '20 at 20:00
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You don't have to prove a thing

The very act of take-off in a rocket strong enough to leave the Earth will be immediately recognized by governments around the world as a possible ICBM launch. Dozens of world governments will be all eyes on your unannounced launch trying to figure out if you are a nuke or not. Assuming you are not shot out of the sky, your trajectory will be tracked and monitored across the globe. Every major space agency will watch your whole flight all the way down to the lunar surface, they will see that you landed at the Apollo 11 landing site and they will see your whole return. The moment you touch back on Earth, one or more world governments will have troops ready and waiting to take you into custody.

They won't have to prove you stole the flag, because a dozen different nations can prove without a doubt that you went to the landing site and back... In all likelihood, no one will even question if you have the real flag or not and people will care a hell of a lot more that you risked starting a nuclear war over a prank.

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    $\begingroup$ They probably would not see you land at the Apollo 13 landing site. $\endgroup$ Jul 2 '20 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff How do you figure? Wasted maneuvers in space are very expensive. They will know about where you are going before you get there by extrapolating your flight path even if the landing site is on the far side of the moon at the time. This is why I said "they will see that you landed" not that "they will see you land" $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 2 '20 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Hint: "Houston, we've had a problem here." $\endgroup$ Jul 3 '20 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki The Lunar Recon Orbiter will not see you land at the Apollo 13 landing site because there isn't one. Only Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 landed. Apollo 13 is most famous for not landing, due to an oxygen tank explosion that crippled the main spacecraft. They made a movie about it. $\endgroup$ Jul 4 '20 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ LOL!!! that was an awesome typo... it's fixed thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jul 5 '20 at 21:30
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TL;DR: Film the whole trip in one shot, back and forth, and publish the video online.

Also, during the trip, film a screen with the latest Bitcoin blocks, the last tweets publicly written and/or latest BBC news for timestamping. You can use any other source of public timestamping of course, like the feed of stock prices, etc.

(Optional: Upon retrieving the flag, shoot it with a paintball (indoor, against a hard surface) and film that. Making the exact same strain should be impossible for anyone else because its exact shape is random, especially on the edges of the strain. This will ease future authentification, if the flag is lost and found again but the video is proof enough that you're the one who brough it back to Earth.)

As soon as you are back on earth, use the lastest Bitcoin block or any other public timestamped source of randomness and hash the video along with this. Send it to Nasa as soon as it's done so they know you didn't have time to forge the video.

Shooting the flag assumes you are ok with straining the flag

The NASA will see that a spaceship going back and forth, that the flag is missing, and you provide proof that it is in fact you who retrieved it.

You can even livestream the event or publish the video online right after landing to skip the paintball part.

Bonus: you can joke about the US or the NASA, or express your political views, and completely control the narrative for extra humiliation points.

Edit: What if you want to release proof at a later date? Do the exact same thing, except that instead of releasing the video right after it's shooting, you make a cryptographic hash of it, which guarantees it's integrity, and publish that instead. When you decide to release the proof, release the unedited video, and geeks worldwide will confirm it's the original.

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  • $\begingroup$ the paintball would most likely destroy the flag and/or considerably reduce its value (symbolically as well as collector's value). Furthermore, with today's technology (Deepfake, CGI, ...) you can create very impressive effects. $\endgroup$ Jul 3 '20 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ Right, but if the message is "F*ck the US", destroying the flag is not a problem. The reduction of value is debatable. It wasn't strained in storage in some random garage. It was strained on purpose, by Iron Musk himself, live on TV and social media worldwide. $\endgroup$
    – Akita
    Jul 3 '20 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, the paintball part only serves for future authentification, so it's optionnal, depending on if you need that, the message, and if you value the flag). Updated the answer to reflect that. $\endgroup$
    – Akita
    Jul 3 '20 at 10:05
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There may not be a recoverable flag at all.

After up to 50 years of exposure to solar radiation and extremes of temperature with no air attenuation, the dyes are highly likely to have been bleached, and the nylon fabric itself may have degraded.

In 2012, studies of photos of the moon landing sites showed that the flags were still standing, save one that fell over as a result of the rocket exhaust as the astronauts departed.

While the lunar surface suffers from extremes of radiation and temperature, there is no wind, so until the nylon of the fabric degrades to the point where it can no longer support its own weight, the absence of wind means that there is no mechanical stress caused by motion to stress and weaken the fabric.

This does not mean that the fabric is not degraded to the point where the movement of attempting to remove it from the lunar ground would cause the fabric to disintegrate.

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One could examine on a microscopic scale the flag material for many many thousands of micrometeorite impacts. These would likely be difficult to replicate, unless you are willing to build a machine of some sort to blow smoke-sized particles at Mach 9 in a vacuum at your replica flag.

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  • $\begingroup$ I recognize my answer doesn't have supporting research (per the hard-science tag). Will include later today. $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Jul 2 '20 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ ... unless you are willing to build a machine of some sort to blow smoke-sized particles at Mach 9 in a vacuum at your replica flag. Now that you mention it, that does sound cheaper than flying to the moon... $\endgroup$
    – Vectornaut
    Jul 6 '20 at 10:43
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I think the problem resides in the first sentence.

Assuming I can fly into space, more precisely to the moon and back again.

If you assume that, then you might as well assume that your flag is the moon flag. If you documented your flight to the moon to such an extent that no one doubts it actually happened (a thing even the american government hasn't managed to do) then, it follows that the flag you picked up when you got there is the real one.

The real question is how did you get to the moon? If you did, can anybody do it? And then, how come no one picked up the flag before you did?

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  • $\begingroup$ Deleting since OP addressed this point in edit $\endgroup$
    – wilks
    Jun 30 '20 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ Edits cannot invalidate existing answers. You should have not deleted this answer, rather invalidate the edit $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 1 '20 at 6:29

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