Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online

This was my second blog post for Swift, published late last week:

You wouldn’t know it by listening to many conspiracy theorists, but NASA is by far the most open space agency in the world when it comes to publishing data from spacecraft. By law, the teams that built and run the instruments on these missions must publish their data within six months of it being taken, except in rare cases when an additional six-month extension can be granted.

Contrast that with the Chinese and Indian space agencies, which still haven’t openly published data from missions that completed several years ago. Japan is better, as is the European Space Agency (ESA), but neither of them supply data as readily and easily as NASA.

In addition to the rules for depositing the raw, unprocessed data, NASA’s PR department, along with the PR arms of most missions, publish some of the data online almost as soon as it’s taken. This is great for the public; it’s also terrible for skeptics.

Allow me to explain by way of example: The LCROSS mission. This was the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite that infamously sparked conspiracies that NASA was “bombing” the moon. The mission was to launch a projectile at the lunar south pole where there are permanently shadowed regions, and have the spacecraft fly through the plume formed by the projectile’s impact to try to detect water. If water were found, it would be a boon for crewed missions to the moon because astronauts could mine the water there instead of bringing their own.

The big event took place the night (in the US) of October 9, 2009. Within just a few days, photographs taken by the spacecraft were published by NASA online.

This was really good for the public. We got to see early results of what had been a very hyped event with observing parties taking place across the nation, including at the White House. It helped keep public interest longer than just one evening. It shared data with the people who paid for it: taxpayers.

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

So what’s the problem? These images show several things: The most basic of photographic processing without things like dust on the camera removed (which is always done for science images), color (the camera was black-and-white, so the color is completely an artifact of the press release image), brightness enhanced a lot such that most of the surface is white, and the PR release image is a JPG file format, meaning that there are JPG compression artifacts that manifest as blocky blobs.

For most of us, that doesn’t matter. We get the point that this is showing a bright glow caused by the impact of the spacecraft’s projectile. In NASA’s before shots, that bright glow is not present. A tiny flash of light that the world was watching for, with tens of thousands of people across the night side of the Earth staring upwards. (Unfortunately, it was cloudy where I was.)

Pseudscientists, on the other hand, don’t get that. There exists a large group of space anomalists that look for anything in a space photograph that they don’t immediately understand and use that to claim fill-in-the-blank. One of the most prolifically published modern people who practice this is Richard C. Hoagland. He took the NASA press release, increased the brightness even more, and claimed that the rectilinear, colored structures, were in reality infrastructure (tubes and pipes) by the “secret space program” and that the public space program had bombed them because the folks at NASA had finally found out about the secret bases on the Moon.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "BigFoot"

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of “BigFoot”

This will seem absurd to most people. But not to some. And, this is just one example; innumerable others exist. Every image published online in the easy-to-access public websites of the Mars rovers are poured over by anomaly hunters in the same way. Among other things, they search for rocks that are then said to look like apartment complexes, fossils, Bigfoot, all kinds of terrestrial and aqueous animal life, boots, a pump, and very recently, a water shut-off valve (to just name a few). Most of these are basic examples of pareidolia (creating a pattern in otherwise random data), or imprints actually caused by the rover equipment, but these are usually facilitated by the low-resolution and highly compressed JPG image format.

Do I think that NASA should stop being so open? No. I think that people are always going to find ways to find anomalies in images and claim it means something special. It’s the nature of the phenomenon, and pseudoscientists are always going to find something anomalous with something. And, the moment that NASA starts to restrict access to data, claims of censorship and hiding things will become even louder than they currently are.

I’m part of the planning team for the New Horizons mission that will reach Pluto in July of 2015. When the PI (Principle Investigator) of the mission, Alan Stern, announced that some of the data would be released on the web as low-resolution JPG images as soon as we get them, I have to admit I cringed just a little bit. And I felt bad for doing it. Dr. Stern has the absolute best of intentions, and he wants to keep people interested in the mission and share the data and let people see results from what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime mission, especially since the data downlink to Earth is going to be done over several weeks (due to the craft’s vast distance from Earth).

But, he will be making it very easy for anomaly hunters to find anomalies made by an intelligence — just not understanding that that intelligence was the software that produced the image.

Going forward, I don’t think there’s any good solution. But, this is something the skeptical community should be aware of, and it shows that there’s always a downside to things, even when you think there isn’t.

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