Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 29, 2012

Mercurian Ice Confirms Noah’s Flood! (or something like that)


It’s that time of the quarter where I profusely apologize for not posting a lot, and where I look back at the blog and worry that it’s just turning into an announcement place for my podcast, which I’m really hoping to avoid. Those things aside …

The issue of Science this week has a rather large number of articles that I find interesting, among them one on Saturn’s rings, the age of the Grand Canyon, and one that’s gotten a lot of press: confirmation of ice at Mercury’s poles.

For more on the actual discovery of Mercurian ice (or more, confirmation, since we were already pretty sure it was there), Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer”) has a good blog post up about it. I’m going to assume that you have the background of that for the rest of this post.

Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for someone to use this for their own pet pseudoscience.

How’d the Ice Get There?

We know for a fact that chunks of ice and chunks of rock fly about the solar system and crash into things. Look at nearly any solid body in the solar system and you see impact craters that are a testament to that fact. Look at the asteroids and comets we see today and there is a clear mechanism that still exists and impact cratering is an ongoing process.

In the inner solar system, it is estimated that very, very roughly 10ish% of all impacts are from comets. In the outer solar system, the fraction is likely much larger, but that’s a different topic.

Comets are made of ice and rock, and when they hit an object, some of the ice can be captured. If the environment is stable for ice (as in, it’s below the freezing point of water and there’s enough pressure to keep it from sublimating – turning directly from a solid to a gas), then the ice will remain. Paradoxically, while Mercury is the closest known planet to the sun, there are areas of its poles that are in permanent shadow and hence, ice can be stable if it’s buried under something.

So, the very simplified model is that a comet strikes, ice from the comet melts/vaporizes, some is trapped by the planet’s gravity and re-solidifies in a permanently shadowed region, it’s covered by other debris from the impact, and you have stable ice that isn’t going anywhere.

A smaller part of the story but that’s relevant to this particular pseudoscience is that some of the material that’s covering the polar ice is organic material. As in, “compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements with chain or ring structures” according to one online definition (my last chemistry class was 10th grade …). We are NOT talking about dead plants and animals.

Where does organic material come from? It can obviously come from living things, but several studies in the past few years have shown that organic materials can seemingly easily form in space and be carried on asteroids or comets. It’s possible that that is one contribution to the seeding of life on Earth …

Noah’s Flood

… or at least, that’s if you’re a naturalistic secular heathen.

According to Mercury Ice Find Renews Old Riddle, organic material means that it’s former living things. Which means that organic material was delivered via panspermia (life was seeded / transferred here from space). Which means that if you’re a secular heathen, you must equate panspermia with abiogenesis, but then of course, “abiogenesis could not possibly explain the organic layer on the Mercury ice [because t]he primordial soup would be far too cold.” Or something like that — I didn’t quite follow the train of thought.

The only possible explanation that makes sense, according to Terry Hurlbut, who is also a frequent contributor to Conservapedia, is the “Hydroplate Theory” (and I only use the term “theory” here because that’s what he’s called it).

To those fortunate enough to not be well versed in this, let me try to briefly explain it. The hydroplate … I’m sorry, I can’t say it, so I’ll just use “idea” … the hydroplate idea was originated by Walt Brown in an attempt to explain Noah’s Flood’s implications across the solar system. In other words, we see lots of stuff across the solar system, Noah’s flood is one of the most catastrophic things in the Judeo-Christian Bible, ergo maybe it can explain lots of seemingly catastrophic things across the solar system.

Brown’s idea is that, originally, around 6000 years ago, today’s terrestrial ocean was very deep underground, about 10 miles (15 km) or so. Then God had a hissy fit decided to kill almost everyone and everything about 4400 years ago, and after Noah got all those animals in his ark, God cracked Earth’s crust and the water burst out. It apparently, somehow, was under so much pressure, that not only did it cover Earth, but it threw enormous amounts of water, rock, and mud – 1% of Earth’s weight! – into space. Besides doing other things, that water, rock, and mud that was thrown into space are comets and asteroids that we see today. The comets being in all sorts of crazy orbits is evidence for this.

So, the organics obviously came from Earth.

And: “Brown confirmed today that the Mercury ice confirms his theory. That means the Mercury ice confirms creation, not abiogenesis or panspermia, as the origin of life.” QED



No, Seriously?

Yes. These people really believe this. I feel like I need that disclaimer that South Park used in their Scientology episode: “THIS IS WHAT SCIENTOLOGISTS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.” Except in this case, “This is what some conservative, Biblical literalists actually believe.”

There are so many basic things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to really start. I suppose I could just mention one and leave it at that, with full knowledge that Brown and his supporters have an open challenge to refute his idea and crow that no one ever has taken them up on it. No, I’m not interested in taking him up on it, either, if one of them happens to be reading this.

But moving on, one basic counter-argument against this is one of the arguments against a frequent Planet X: the asteroids today are, for the most part, dynamically stable in orbits that don’t intersect Earth. In other words, if you take Brown’s scenario, even if you have a now stable field of asteroids produced from this Flood event, either the aphelion or perihelion (farthest or closest) distance from the sun of the orbit would have to be Earth’s orbit, baring orbital interactions with other bodies.

Yes, there are a few thousand asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit, and some even do have orbital elements that I described. But millions of asteroids reside in the asteroid belt and do not come anywhere near Earth. And the asteroid belt shows families (groups) of asteroids that have dynamical lifetimes on the order of millions of years. They’re also all relatively in the same plane, but I guess Brown could say somehow that Earth shot them all out as a “belt” of material before shooting the would-be comets out in all directions.

To put it a third way: The vast majority of asteroids in the solar system, that Brown claims would have been produced in this event, have orbits that are not what they would need to be given his scenario, and in fact contradict it.

Final Thoughts

I’m somewhat sick (thanks Mom, Dad) and high on IBUprofen and Sudafed (the real stuff), so this post may have had a rather large “snark factor.”

And I’ll admit that sometimes Biblical literalists make some seemingly good arguments that are more difficult to tease apart, or subtle arguments that you have to think about for awhile, or very technical ones that require a specialist to get into.

But this is not one of them. This is grasping at straws. This is just, well, really “out there.” It’s about at the level of the lunar ziggurat, or a “psychic” claiming that they see the letter “P” but it could also be turned around to be a “b” or on its side to be a wheelbarrow and – oh look! someone used a shovel and a “P” can look like a shovel so I’m right!

Ice on Mercury was not an unexpected find confirmation because it was already discovered via radar from Earth about two decades ago. The detection from MESSENGER in orbit of Mercury is not insignificant, and it adds new constraints and new data to help refine models, but the “hydroplate ‘theory’” is not one of them.

April 8, 2012

Podcast Episode 30: Was the Asteroid Belt a Planet? Part 2 (Exploding Planets!)

The follow-up to last episode, this one deals with Tom Van Flandern’s idea that Mars was a moon of an exploded planet that formed the asteroid belt 65 million years ago. So, last episode was basic science, this one gets back to some of those wacky and wonky ideas. Oh yeah … and lots of Coast to Coast clips!

I also spend around 10 minutes discussing feedback from the last episode.

March 31, 2012

Podcast #29: Was the Asteroid Belt a Planet? Part 1

In this episode that is one second shy of 30 minutes, I talk about some of the historical reasons why some people may think the asteroid belt was at one time a planet, but then I go into four ways to show that it could not have been a planet. Next episode (“Part 2″) will get more on the wacko-conspiracy/crazy/pseudoscience exploding planet ideas.

September 24, 2011

Follow-Up on the Dino-Killing Asteroid


Last night, after making my post “What’s Going on with the Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid?” I contacted the lead author from the original 2007 paper, Bill Bottke (in the interest of full disclosure, I actually collaborate with him and see him about once a week, including yesterday morning).

I asked Bill if he would be willing to glance over the short post and let me know if I got any of the science outrageously wrong. His reply was a bit more than I had expected of a simple “yes” or “no,” where he instead wrote a more elaborate explanation of what was going on. I asked if I could post his response to my blog as an addendum and instead, he sent a more detailed reply for me to post. Since it was somewhat lengthier than the original post, I figured I’d just make a separate one. What follows is Dr. Bottke’s reply, slightly edited for grammar/spelling as he requested.

Note: You should read my original post before reading Dr. Bottke’s response.

Bottke’s Reaction

First of all, this is science, and not every idea is going to work. One has to do the best one can with the available data, and some models do not survive first contact with new observations.

With that said, let me try to realistically assess where we are and where we are not.

From the dynamical end of things, having a smaller parent body and smaller family members means things can get out of the main belt faster than before. If anything, this moves the impact closer to the peak of the impact spike distribution, which is good for our 2007 model. Moreover, many potential impactors can now get out by being injected directly into the “escape hatch” right on top of the family. We did not model direct injection in detail in 2007 because the K/T hit appeared to be made in the tail of the Baptistina shower — those results would not impact our work. Now that things have changed, we can examine this more closely.

Overall, I find it highly suspicious that K/T occurred in the middle of the Baptistina asteroid shower. Asteroid showers are very rare in solar system history, though coincidences do happen in nature. This makes me think the new results could potentially strengthen our story, not weaken it.

A smaller asteroid means there are fewer large projectiles in the Baptsitina population. This hurts our original model. Interestingly, though, new estimates of Ir (iridium) and Os (osmium) associated with K/T that came out after our paper suggest the impactor may have had a diameter 4-6 km, not 10 km, so this may all be a wash. Impact energy is strongly a function of velocity, and impact velocities on Earth can be very high for asteroids, so there is not necessarily a contradiction here. For those that want to know more, see recent papers by Frank Kyte and Paquay et al. (2008) (“Determining Chondritic Impactor Size from the Marine Osmium Isotope Record” in Science).

The main hit to the 2007 story from the recent WISE work is composition. If Baptistina and its family members turn out to be a different asteroid composition than we suggested in our 2007 paper, we cannot link the family to the limited compositional information we have on the K/T impactor. From Cr (chromium) studies of K/T terrains on Earth, it looks like the impactor was a particular kind of carbonaceous chondrite. A high albedo (reflectivity) for Baptistina could suggest it is not actually this composition. Preliminary spectra for Baptistina family members may also work against it being a carbonaceous chondrite, though most of the family has not been examined from a spectral standpoint. Observers have mainly looked at asteroids near Baptistina, not “in it” as defined by our paper, and interlopers in this part of the main belt are a major pain to deal with. What observers need to do is look at the prominent “clouds” of objects observed for the family, where interlopers are less of an issue. This should be dealt with in the near future.

Note that if Baptistina family members turn out to have a radically different composition than carbonaceous chondrite, it would imply we were strongly misled by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey colors for Baptistina. Nearly 300 objects have been examined, and they have been classified as C/X-types of asteroids, which link to most objects as carbonaceous chondrite-like objects (see Parker et al., 2008).

There is also the surprising and unusual possibility that some asteroids that look like carbonaceous chondrites may have higher albedos that we expect. For example, interesting work on (21) Lutetia, which was recently visited by the Rosetta spacecraft, has a high albedo and a composition that many say looks like a carbonaceous chondrite. For those that know and love asteroid taxonomy, K-types asteroids look like they may be able to produce many kinds of carbonaceous chondrites, yet they are spectrally similar in many ways to those asteroids that may produce ordinary chondrites.

Note that even if composition is knocked away, one could question whether Cr is diagnostic, or whether different parts of the asteroid could have different Cr signatures. However, this strikes me as a desperation ploy, and I will do no more than mention it until new information on Cr comes to the fore.

Final Thoughts

With that response from Bill – more technical than I normally have in my blog but I think important for those who are interested – I’ll close out by reminding readers of what he stated at the beginning and what I have stated many times on this blog: This is how science works. We make observations, gather data, create models, make predictions, and in light of the evidence revise our models or make new ones. Contrast that with the way many creationists, conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists, astrologers, etc. work.

February 3, 2009

Planet X and 2012: Why Planet X Is NOT Coming in 2012


Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main categories of claims deals with the amorphous “Planet X.” I use the adjective “amorphous” instead of “mysterious” or “elusive” because nearly everyone has a different hypothesis about what “Planet X” really is (and I’m going to drop the quotes for the rest of this post because it’s faster to write without them). Is it a large asteroid? Or a rocky planet? Or a gas giant planet? Or is it another star? Or is it something completely different?

I’m going to save going over those claims for another post. I’m also going to save the claims dealing with what will supposedly happen with Planet X for other posts, or ones that I’ve already covered (such as the Pole Shift). Rather, this post is really aimed at nipping Planet X in the butt before I even go over the specific claims – I’m going to show why we know that there is no Planet X coming for us in 2012 – or the near future, in general.

All posts in this series:

The Main Premise Behind Planet X

The basic idea behind Planet X is that a large object is currently approaching Earth and it will get very close to us towards the end of 2012. Doomsdayers disagree as to what exactly the object is, from where it’s approaching (as in within or above/below the plane of the solar system), and what exactly it will do to us. But, the real heart of the claims is that Planet X is out there, and either we just haven’t found it yet (even though it’s only 4 years away) or we have found it, but Big Government won’t let you know about it.

Knowing What’s In the Solar System

I discussed in my first post in this Planet X & 2012 series the real historical history behind the solar system’s Planet Xs. The basic idea is that the planets didn’t behave quite as they were supposed to given the gravitational forces by the other known planets in the solar system. Hypotheses were made about where the hidden mass would be coming from, the region was searched, and planets were discovered.

Today, we have very accurate models that take into account objects in the solar system ~1000 km in diameter and larger (this includes dwarf planets and some moons). These are used to calculate orbits which are included in every piece of astronomy planetarium-like software (such as Celestia, Starry Night, and The Sky on the freeware / commercial side).

Orbits are computed to even higher accuracy for space programs such as ESA, JAXA, and of course NASA, which have to know how everything is going to affect a spacecraft’s trajectory, how much fuel will be needed, and how and when it will get to its target.

The point that I’m attempting to make here is that if there were a large object out there, we would have to know about it.

What Do We Observe?

The claim has often been made that it’s out there but we just haven’t observed it yet — after all, the sky is a big place!

But, this claim is just wrong. We don’t have to observe the object with telescopes to know it’s there. After all, we don’t observe dark matter, but we know it’s there (and I will cover dark matter denialism in another post). We know dark matter is present because we observe its gravitational effects. And so if there were an unobserved, unseen Planet X that was fast-approaching Earth – even if it were 4 years away – we would know about it. Spacecraft would be slightly off-target. Planets would be where they’re supposed to be.

There are thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers out there who are searching the sky every night to look at known objects or looking for unknown objects. If a planet were experiencing the gravitational effects of an incoming planet or star, the masses of people who rely upon calculated orbits without that object would notice that something was wrong.

The argument that amateurs wouldn’t know any better is also fallacious because quite often, amateur astronomers are better-versed with the sky than most professional astronomers. A professional astronomer – even if they are an observationalist, may know a few constellations, but likely they will only know where their object or objects of interest lie (I’m speaking from experience here). Amateurs, on the other hand, are very well-versed with where objects are in the sky, what you can see if you look in a certain patch, where asteroids will be, and where comets will be. So amateurs are more likely to notice the perturbations than professionals.

The other claim is that Planet X is known about but Big Government is hiding it from You. In other words, the “conspiracy theory.” But again, this is really not possible. For the same reasons given above that many thousands of amateur astronomers would see the gravitational effects of this object, they would also very likely find the object. Amateur telescopes can observe asteroids that are as small as a few tens of kilometers across (the size of a city). There’s no way that they would miss a planet – or especially a star – that is only 4 years away from hitting us. And there’s no way to keep many thousands of amateur astronomers from all over the world quiet.

Final Thoughts

The claim that Planet X is out there and is going to hit us soon is easy to propagate because astronomers are constantly finding new objects in the solar system. New asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are being discovered weekly. But people who are lead to believe the Planet X claims don’t take into account what it would really take to “hide” such an object from the tens to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world who observe the night sky. The gravitational effects from the object would be observed, and it should be bright enough – being only 4 years away from reaching us – that it should be plainly visible in the night sky.

And yet, it’s not observed. Its effects are not observed. So Planet X proponents resort to conspiracies to explain it, or they resort to simply ignoring the lack of evidence for it, effectively taking the “oh yeah!?” approach and not answering the questions or criticisms leveled.

As a final piece, in the interest of full academic honesty, I should note that it is not really possible to prove a negative. It is very remotely possible that there is a Planet X out there and we haven’t observed its effects for one reason or another. However, the likelihood of this being the case – as I have pointed out – is as close to 0% as is scientifically possible.

October 26, 2008

Asteroid Belts – Proximity of Rocks and Why Navigation Is Not Dangerous (Sorry, Han Solo)

Even though a majority of my posts-to-date have been post against religious astronomy arguments to “prove” the Judeo-Christian creation myths, the intent of my blog really is not to “bash” religion, but to explore and explain examples of bad astronomy (or, pseudo-astronomy … sorry Phil).

To that end, I’m going to take a break from AiG and ICR propaganda and talk about a sci-fi ploy that’s often used and yet is very unrealistic:  Asteroid Belts.

I’m certain that 90%+ of people aged 25-50 remember Han Solo zig-zagging around asteroids while the Emperor’s ships tried to follow in pursuit during one of the original three Star Wars movies.  Or, for the Star Trek fans, there are at least two examples of that series using this ploy — one was an episode of The Next Generation and another from Enterprise, the latter showing a highly chaotic belt system with large chunks of rock careening around and changing direction while their shuttle pod tried to maneuver around.

What do these have in common?  They’re not realistic, at least not based on what we know of our own asteroid belt.

A Brief History of the Asteroid Belt

The asteroid belt was first “discovered” in 1801.  I put “discovered” in quotes because it was actually the largest asteroid that was discovered then – 1 Ceres – by Giuseppe Piazzi.  Ceres’ orbit showed it to be between Mars and Jupiter, and it was hailed as a new planet.  But, rather quickly, more objects were discovered in nearly the same region of space as Ceres.  William Herschel, based on this, suggested they be termed “asteroids” as opposed to planets, and that’s what they are called today (though in 2006 the International Astronomical Union re-classified Ceres as a “dwarf planet”).

More and more asteroids were discovered over the years, most of them between Mars and Jupiter, from about 1.8 A.U. to just under 3.3 A.U. where 1 A.U. is the average distance between Earth and the Sun, 149,600,000 km or 93,000,000 miles.  To-date, over 429,000 asteroids have been identified, the majority of them lying in the main belt (data source: ftp://ftp.lowell.edu/pub/elgb/astorb.html ).

How Many Asteroids of What Size?

Now that you know a tiny bit about the history of what we know about the asteroid belt, the next information relevant for this discussion is how many asteroids there are of what sizes.  The first asteroids to be discovered were big, mainly because they’re bright.  “Big” in this case is a few hundred kilometers across, something like the size of the state of Ohio.

Most of the asteroids, however, are much much smaller than that.  In general, the distribution of sizes follows what’s known as a “power law” distribution, where the number of small asteroids grows much more quickly than the reduction in size.  The slope of this power law is generally estimated to be -3.  What that means is that every time you halve the size of an asteroid, you have 8 times as many.  So say there are 100 10-km asteroids.  With a -3 power-law slope, that would mean there are 800 5-km asteroids.  And 6400 2.5-km asteroids.  But only ~13 20-km asteroids.

In terms of what is known, there are about 20,000 asteroids between 2-3 km, which is about the smallest that we likely have a complete sampling of.  What that statement means is that, while we have identified asteroids that are smaller, our detection technology is not good enough to have found all of the asteroids that are smaller.

If we extrapolate, assuming a -3 power low, down to, say, 100-meter asteroids, there are probably ~82 million asteroids that are ~100-200-meters across.  If we extrapolate further, down to 1-meter asteroids, then we really have a gargantuan number of objects – about 1014 (100 quadrillion) objects of that size.  That’s quite a lot.

What Does this Mean for Navigation?

If we add up all of those objects, we have about 1.2×1014 asteroids larger than 1 meter.  Now, let’s look at the asteroid belt.  It stretches from 1.8 to 3.3 A.U., which is a distance of 1.5 A.U., or about 225,000,000 km.  That’s a fairly large distance (that’s actually about the distance between the Sun and Mars).

The area of a disk that size, however, is gargantuan:  A = π · r2 = π · ((3.3 A.U.)2 – (1.8 A.U.)2) = π · (1.7·1017 km2) = 5.4·1017 km2.  That is a huge area.  Simple division shows that each asteroid, regardless of its own size, could have 4,500 km2 all to itself – a little bit more than the entire U.S. state of Rhode Island.

And that’s if they were all just in one plane.  In reality, they occupy a volume of space, some orbiting “above” or “below” others (where those terms are relative to the plane that the Earth’s orbit makes).

Even if we cut the size of asteroids in half again, and were interested in all asteroids larger than half a meter (1.5 ft) in size, then we have 8 times as many asteroids, but each one still has over 500 km2 all to itself, and even more space if we consider the vertical component.

What does this mean for navigation?  It’s easy!  In fact, you really have to try to hit an asteroid, at least in our own belt.  And so, the next time you see a tiny ship careening through an asteroid field in a TV show or movie, remember that in real life, asteroid belts really aren’t that dangerous for navigation.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,136 other followers