Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 1, 2015

A New Interview and New Movie from New Horizons Data

Quick post before I get back to work (next podcast episode hopefully out this weekend).

First up, I was interviewed live for about 100 minutes on this past Sunday on David Livingston’s “The Space Show.” We spent the first half talking about my research (impact craters) and the second half about the education & public outreach that I do. Since it was live, and a call-in show, there was one call and many e-mailed questions that I responded to. There’s also an associated blog, so you can comment on the interview there if you wish.

Second, NASA has put out a press release about Charon (Pluto’s largest companion). There is a flyover animation of some of its many varied features, and I was the one who made the animation.

We have images of some areas of Charon from two different vantage points, as New Horizons flew by the body, and so we have a very, very early digital terrain / elevation model (DTM). I was able to use this in a non-exaggerated view of what it would be like to fly low through its massive canyon.

It looks a bit like an early 3D video game because of the somewhat low resolution, but I think it’s still pretty neat, and we should get better quality over the next few months as we better understand the surface and camera models.

September 18, 2015

NASA Releases of My Work, and Recent Interviews/Cohosts of/by Me


I’m allowed a bit of self-promotion on my own blog, right?

With that in mind, I’ve been really, really busy lately with work, but I’ve also been pretty busy with the public outreach stuff I do (e.g., this blog, the podcast, etc.). Over the past two months, I have been a guest on no less than four podcasts/shows. And, I have had three NASA releases of my work. And, over the next few weeks, I’ll be on two more shows.

This post is putting them all in one place and to give a little of my own commentary.

NASA Releases of My Work

In the last three weeks, I have had just as many releases of – or that have included some part of – my work, all dealing with graphics products.

New Horizons Flythrough Animation — First up was a release on the New Horizons blog of a ~23-second animation I produced that is a very-close-to-realistic fly through that shows what you may have seen if you were riding with New Horizons during the month of July. I say “very close” because it’s not exact, for reasons I discuss in that post. What might be scientifically perfect might be cinematically horrible, such as because we went from so far away to so close to the planetary body, it would look like you’re crashing and everything goes out of focus for a few seconds (since we don’t have the highest res stuff yet on the ground to fill that in).

1/3 Sphere of Pluto Showing Off Latest Images — This was the “cover photo” of a press release on September 10. By “cover photo,” I mean it was the glamor shot that was at the top of the press release and, since most news sources just copy press releases, it was the top photo on pretty much every news outlet I saw that carried the story. With that said, my name wasn’t on it. That’s okay, I know I made it and now you do, too. But this was really something that was made for the team by the team. Alan Stern, the PI of the mission, told one of the deputies of the Geology & Geophysics Investigation Science Theme Team (GGI STT) that he wanted this kind of product, and someone should make it. Three of us who had made these kinds of products before were e-mailed, we sent in some versions, and I think it was mainly because I was most in front of my computer that I was able to iterate enough and get something that Alan liked and he and NASA went with.

“Aerial Tour” of Pluto Encounter Hemisphere — This came out today and was featured as another blog post on the New Horizons website. I think that Alan is basically using the “blog” to showcase the work of us early career scientists, since so far, of the four posts up, by three authors, all three of us are in the first decade of our post-graduate work. Anyway, I suggest reading the release because it really summarizes everything I wanted to say about it. Other than a bit more background on how it came about:

During the encounter month of July, I was asked to create the flythrough movie, and I did, but then I was asked at the last minute to create a flythrough movie that then zoomed in and focused on a flyover of a specific geologic feature. Over-stressed and over-tired, I was not able to do it despite working on it for 12 hours straight. In the end, Alan went with something created from a screen capture from Google Earth. Admittedly pretty disappointing from my point of view. Then, see above — the 1/3 sphere of Pluto showing off the latest images. I thought that’s what Alan was initially asking for, and I came up with a new way of doing it in the 3D software (instead of flying the camera around, have the camera fixed and just rotate the sphere to keep the constant elevation — so much easier). I sent that off and was told they just wanted an image. So after I got the image finalized, I revisited the idea of flying over the most recent mosaic that we had, and, well, the rest you can see at the link!

Already Published Guest Appearances

Steve Warner’s “Dark City”— Here’s the direct link to this two-hour ten-minute interview. Steve’s show is available as a podcast, direct download, and it is broadcast on Art Bell’s “Dark Matter” network. I met Steve through the “BellGab” forum and I think it was he who directly messaged me first, back in January or February of this year, when he asked me for any tips or background information I could give him about Mars because he was going to interview John Brandenburg about his “Mars was nuked” idea. Since then, we had messaged on and off, and I dropped many subtle hints that I would be interested in coming on his show (subtle as in, “Steve, I would love to be on your show and talk about [x], when’s a good time?”).

Of the roughly eight “non-mainstream” themed shows I listen to, Steve, I think, is in the top two or three for what I view as fairness to the guest and to actual science. After listening to Coast to Coast AM for over a decade now with George Noory and hearing George give his trite “exactly!” “that’s right!” “of course!” and other phrases, it’s a very welcome change to hear someone actually question the guest if something they say doesn’t seem to make sense.

So I finally nagged enough and Steve had me on after a one-hour “pre-show” where we talked about various things and I think he was trying to get a feeling for whether it would work or not.

While it’s been pointed out to me that I did ramble and digress somewhat, I think that it was still interesting. We addressed a wide variety of subjects, and Steve pushed me in ways that I hadn’t been pushed before. For example, on the idea of who’s ideas should you pay attention to? Being an idealistic skeptic, I wanted to answer that every idea deserves a fair hearing, at least to the extent of “has this been debunked before, and/or does it have any plausibility whatsoever to look further into?” But being a scientist and realistic person, I wanted to answer that there comes a point where I really don’t care what some like, say, Deepak Chopra claims, I will NEVER pay attention to it and seriously investigate the claim as whether it could be realistic. Everything he’s said is such nonsense that it’s a waste of time and energy to devote to it.

It’s an extreme example of Chopra (and not used in the episode), but it becomes a problem when you realize that there could always be a tiny chance that the “armchair scientist” who doesn’t follow mainstream processes, doesn’t publish, doesn’t talk with people except paranormal radio hosts, etc., might stumble across a real thing. But because they have followed the general path and methods that most of us dismiss as pseudoscience, they won’t even be taken seriously.

Anyway, this is a lot longer than I intended to devote to each show, so let’s move on.

The Ottawa Skeptics’ “The Reality Check”— I was on Episode 363 where we discussed New Horizons, facts and fiction. For this and the next two, I gave a disclaimer at the beginning due to my position on the New Horizons science team. This was my third appearance on the show, and it was completely unscripted (except the disclaimer) on my end. The hosts peppered me with a few questions, some just about the mission and data itself, and others were about some of the pseudoscience and conspiracies that any regular readers here are well familiar with by now. Several questions were sent in by listeners.

Mike Bohler’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy”— Episode 56 was mine for this show, the first time I’d been on, though Mike has mentioned my work frequently in the past on his show. We discussed New Horizons again, though Mike took a completely different approach. His questions brought the discussion through from the beginning: What did we know about the Pluto system before, how did we know it, what was New Horizons designed to find out and how, ad what is it finding out? And then in contrast to that, how does some of the pseudoscience not fit in and why? It was enjoyable – and long – and very little material overlapped “The Reality Check” episode.

Karl Mamer’s “The Conspiracy Skeptic”— Doing my annual contractual duty as Astronomer Royale, I was on Karl’s show for about an hour. Note that the link is just to his website, which last I checked was not updated with this year’s episodes, so you’ll probably need to go to his RSS feed to get the episode. On the show we also discussed New Horizons and conspiracies related to it, but again, I don’t think there was much overlap of material between it and the other two interviews about the mission. Karl’s interviews tend to focus (at least with me) less on specifics and more on the gestalt of the claims and common themes of the claims and common mistakes in reasoning that lead to those pseudoscientific claims. It was on Karl’s show (that came out after Mike’s but was recorded before his) that I came up with the epiphany that I don’t think most of the claims I’ve addressed related to New Horizons were even “necessary” to the overall idea. Rather, I think for most, the person had the pseudoscience already in their mind, and the New Horizons mission just gave hem a jumping off point from which to take that conspiracy and run with it, just tailored to Pluto.

Upcoming Shows

On Sunday, September 27, live from noon until 1:30PM PDT (3-4:30 EDT), I will be on “The Space Show.” I think we will be talking about my science work (my real job).

The first weekend of October, I will be interviewed by “The Haunted Skeptic” who has a very nascent podcast which also airs on Art Bell’s network. I was put in touch with the host (Amy) through – oddly enough – the producer for Richard Hoagland’s radio program. I’m not sure what we’ll be talking about yet.

August 27, 2015

Podcast Episode 139: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 2

New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

Part 2 of the Great Pluto / New Horizons Conspiracies podcast mini-series is now posted. This one is loosely tied together through the theme of anomaly hunting, and it has a special guest star of (faulty) image analysis.

To be fair, again, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care. Again.

And it’s late at night … again … so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed not only on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link, but I was also on Episode 363 of “The Reality Check” podcast to discuss New Horizons — and there really is only a smidgen of overlap between that TRC episode and my podcast episodes on the subject. So don’t not listen because you think that you’ll be hearing the same thing.

August 20, 2015

Podcast Episode 138: New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 1

New Horizons’ pass
Through the Pluto system: Lots
Of crazy ensued.

FINALLY! It’s out! Only 3 weeks overdue! The “August 1” episode is about the New Horizons mission to Pluto and some of the conspiracies and pseudoscience and bad media reporting related to it.

To be fair, all of these I have written about in my 11-part series. However, I know some people never read blogs and only listen to podcasts, and vice versa. So, I’m double-dipping. I don’t care. :)

And it’s late at night, so I’ll close this brief post out by saying that I was recently interviewed on Steve Warner’s “Dark City” podcast, which you can directly listen to at this link. If you liked it, make sure you tell Steve by contacting him through his website.

August 17, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #11 — Geometry Proves Aliens

This is the last planned post in this series of posts of pseudoscience related to the New Horizons Pluto flyby, until at least we get more images in a few weeks. This is also hopefully the last post that uses Richard Hoagland’s statements as an example of a style of claims made about New Horizons -related pseudoscience, at least for awhile. This particular one is NOT unique to claims that Mr. Hoagland has made about New Horizons and what the images show about the surface of Pluto and Charon; rather, he has made this particular claim about practically every solid body in the solar system: Geometry = artificial.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape. As do clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this blog post so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It tends to go in this form:

  1. Item A can be caused by Thing B.
  2. I observe Item A.
  3. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

This ignores the obvious: Many other things could be the cause of Item A, I just assumed that it was Thing B for whatever reason.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

August 16, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #10 — Crrow777 Thinks It’s ALL Fake


I really don’t want to give this one much time. “Crrow777” as he is known on YouTube, or just “Crrow” in interviews, is (from what I can tell) rising somewhat in the conspiracy world for reasons that I don’t understand. Among other things, he thinks the moon (Earth’s moon) is a hologram.

I have listened to some of his material, and I have heard several of the interviews he has given. I think he believes what he is saying. I don’t know beyond that what his mental state may be.

For this and other reasons, not the least of which is that the claims he makes are insane, I don’t want to feed the birds beyond what I need to to quickly debunk his foray into Pluto and New Horizons.

I have seen two additional Pluto videos on YouTube of his that go beyond the first one he posted. I’m only going to focus on that first one: “Crow Images vs NASA Images – Pluto is Only at Disneyland.” His videos typically get on the order of 10,000 views. This one has nearly 100,000 because it was picked up by various news outlets who did want to give him more attention.

The Claim

It really boils down to this: Because he can get from Earth (what he thinks) are better images of Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons than what NASA was showing of Pluto from New Horizons several days before encounter, New Horizons is fake.

The Explanation: Very Basic, Middle School Math

He’s wrong.

First off, in his first video, he is fully focused on saying that Jupiter in his camera and telescope is better than Pluto from the LORRI instrument on New Horizons. In his second video, he commits the logical fallacy of Moving the Goalpost and claims that what he really was talking about was Jupiter’s moons, not Jupiter.

Let’s do some really basic math. Jupiter was near the opposite side of the sun as Earth in mid-July, meaning it was around 900,000,000 km from us. Pluto was very roughly 5,000,000,000 km from us, or around 5.5x farther.

Jupiter’s radius is about 71,000 km (on average). Pluto’s radius is around 1190 km. So Jupiter is around 60x bigger in size.

Take 60x bigger and 5.5x farther from Earth, Pluto is going to look around 330x smaller than Jupiter.

Okay, but what about from New Horizons? The first images that he complains about and said were an “insult to your intelligence” were from late May, when New Horizons was about 50,000,000 km away from Pluto, or about 18x closer than we were to Jupiter. Except, he wasn’t showing you LORRI images. He was showing you MVIC images, which have a much worse pixel scale.

It’s the second animation he shows, about 3:45 into the video, which is from LORRI from April, when New Horizons was about 110,000,000 km, or 9x closer than we are to Jupiter.

So, simple math: Jupiter is 60x bigger, New Horizons was 9x closer, so Jupiter would STILL, if the optics were all the same, be about 6.5x bigger than what he’s doing in his back yard.

Except, the optics are not the same. I don’t know the field of view of his specific telescope. The build of the telescope changes the field of view, as does the camera size. LORRI has a field of view of 0.3° (about 60% the size of Earth’s full moon). It also has a 1024×1024 pixel detector, or 1 megapixels.

Crrow777 looks like he was using a dSLR camera, which typically has around 20 megapixels. That means that his resolving power – the ability to see a certain number of pixels across a feature – is going to be around 4-5x that of LORRI (take the square-root of the number of pixels, which is area, to get length).

So, not only is Jupiter going to still be 6.5x bigger if the telescopes are the same, but due to the number of pixels in his camera, it will be about 30x more pixels across than how New Horizons is seeing Pluto.

Other Stuff

He also complains that he has city lights and an atmosphere to deal with. But, he’s using techniques which help get around that, which those LORRI images he was showing were not using.

He also (around 4:30 in the video) just starts to rant about the images being an insult to peoples’ intelligence. I think his basic misunderstandings are an insult to peoples’ intelligence.

He also complains (5 min) that these are “high resolution” from NASA but as he defines “high resolution,” meaning you can “get down and resolve detail on these things,” then under his definition – which is different from the term as NASA was using it – they aren’t.

Except they are. We could resolve features on months out that we had never been able to resolve before. And days out, which are the ones he complains about at that time stamp, we were resolving surface features. It’s not “junk” (his term). All because he doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean the incredibly hard work and dedication by hundreds of people was all fake.

Final Thoughts

Okay, I’ve gotten myself angry at this point. I’ve said my bit, but I’ll say it again:

Just because you don’t know basic math, basic optics, and basic technology doesn’t mean that everything is a conspiracy. Instead of everyone lying, maybe it’s YOU who needs to actually do a little extra work and learn something instead of acting crazy.

Post Script

I took a look at his second video. Nothing really new in it except probably 80% of it is ranting and raving about The Masons and that nobody should trust The Government. One of the very few new things in it was ranting that there were better than 1 Mpx cameras available at the time New Horizons was built. This ignores two things: You have to go to the initial proposal – not when the craft was built and certainly not launched – and you have to look at what is tried and true technology that is capable of surviving the much harsher environment of space (temperature extremes and radiation). You can’t just go to the local camera store, buy a camera off the shelf, and fly it to Pluto. Ranting about should’ve-been-able-to-do-that shows you know absolutely nothing about how space missions work and how the technology on those missions is selected, built, and tested.

I also took a look at his third, rather short video, claiming that the colorized full-frame Pluto images was faked because if you invert the colors and increase the levels, you see a blockiness around the edge of the disk. Again: All because YOU don’t know anything about what’s going on doesn’t mean it’s a fraud.

This was a lossy JPG B&W image, with MUCH lower resolution color data overlaid on it, and then saved and exported again with lossy JPG compression. If he had BOTHERED TO READ THE CAPTION, he would know this.

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #9 — Young-Earth Creationist Take, Part 2

Terry Hurlbut Advocating Walter Brown’s Hydroplate Nonsense

In my Part 1 of this lengthy series of probably 11 posts, I talked about the machinations of Terry Hurlbut, one of the primary editors of Conservapedia and (I think) the founder of the incredibly ad-rich Conservative News and Views website that espouses über-right wing ideals and young-Earth creationism. He said that Pluto is red therefore it’s rusty therefore it formed from material ejected from Earth during Noah’s Flood.

In a follow-up post, Terry followed the same protocol as before, grabbing onto one tiny finding, saying it’s impossible to explain with modern science, therefore Pluto was launched from Earth during the Flood.

In this case, the finding was carbon monoxide (CO) ice, found in the “heart” area now informally known as Tombaugh Regio. Terry explains this by saying that during the Flood, Pluto and Charon formed by material ejected from Earth, which heated as they contracted, burning the plant matter that was also ejected. The gases released from the burning plants included CO, which fell as “rain” onto the surface of Pluto in what he claims is a basin that is now Tombaugh Regio.

Okay, I know I try to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, but I had to fight my brain to type that last paragraph. It’s so ridiculous, that unless one actually is familiar with Terry’s writings on his own sites and elsewhere, one would think it’s a really bad Poe or Onion article.

Terry tries to emphasize in his article that neither NASA, SwRI, nor JHU/APL (the three institutions involved in the mission) have tried to explain the CO ice. Therefore, we don’t know now and therefore Terry’s idea is the only one out there.

The thing is, we don’t have all the data taken yet. The data we do have is lossy-compressed. And scientists by their nature are very cautious about publishing hypotheses about something without doing a lot of tests of those hypotheses. AND within the mission itself, there’s the situation that it’s better to put out obvious findings now and save the possible interpretations later once we have more time to look at the better data and talk with more people and amongst ourselves.

Put in that context, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that NASA would put out the press release about unambiguous findings of concentrations in one area of Pluto of CO (as in we found it, it’s in ice form, and it’s concentrated in one particular area) and have that be the press release, rather than add unnecessarily to it several possible models to explain it but “more data are needed, stay tuned several months until we get that data to test it.” That’s kinda a downer to close out a press release.

Institute for Creation Research Advocating Pluto’s a Comet

In a perhaps more mainstream young-Earth creationist venue, the Institute for Creation Research also has a take on the New Horizons mission. Jake Hebert wrote their article, “New Horizons, Pluto, and the Age of the Solar System.” It is a fascinating read if one looks at it from the standpoint of starting with one topic and twisting it into something completely different to argue against in a no less wrong way than most other creationist writings.

Here’s the train of thought:

  1. New Horizons went to Pluto.
  2. Secular scientists are going to tell a materialistic story without a deity about it but aren’t saying that so’s to avoid offending the taxpayer.
  3. That means we don’t understand how the solar system formed.
  4. New Horizons will yield information about Kuiper Belt Objects.
  5. These are comets.
  6. Insert everything that creationists have written about comets over the years that they think shows comets prove the universe (or at least the solar system) is less than 6000 years old.

Not only is it a strawman argument on their part, but by equating Pluto with comets means not only that everything THEY have written about comets over the years applies, but also everything that scientists – such as myself – have also written that thoroughly debunks their arguments applies.

For a taste of these, I refer you to my blog (post 1, post 2, or post 3) and/or my podcast (episode 3). Rehashing all those ideas here is gratuitous and a waste of space. And, there’s a reason why those are some of my earliest blog post and earliest podcast episode: They’re simple to debunk.

Answers in Genesis Telling You Half-, Leading Truths

Finally, another of the Big Three creationist institutions is Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. Danny Faulkner wrote their article on New Horizons, “Pluto’s Surface Is Young!”


Here is the first argument that Danny is making: Pluto has relatively few craters, therefore it must be young:

[S]cientists have found far fewer craters than they expected. […] Being far from the sun, Pluto ought to be very cold and hence not have experienced recent volcanism. Any primordial heat would have long ago dissipated, if the solar system were 4.5 billion years old. [… T]here ought not to be any significant geological activity sufficient to remove craters on Pluto’s surface. Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. […] Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. Planetary scientists who are committed to belief in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto.

Part of this is exactly the same argument (at least in part) that I debunked here, in my post about Venus, several years ago: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument).”

First, Pluto does not have ZERO craters. It has many; it’s just Tombaugh Regio that has no unambiguous craters in the region that we’ve seen with the lossy JPG artifacting covering it. That means it likely has no craters >10 km in diameter, meaning it could still have plenty that are smaller.

Second, the whole way we get our crater chronology starts from the moon (which Danny acknowledges, and he actually gives a reasonable overview of the subject). We do see heavily cratered areas of Pluto. So if we see some areas that have a huge number of craters relative to other areas, it just means that the one with few craters (or maybe none) is much younger. How much younger, though? If Danny wants to say that the heavily cratered areas are 6000 years old, does that mean that the “heart” region of Pluto was created yesterday? Again — see the Venus blog post.

To bypass some more of the quote and get to the last statement, this is common among creationists: God of the Gaps. Set up a scenario and say someone can’t explain something and then say GodDidIt. Except, we have plenty of ideas of why there may be no craters over some parts. One of the main ones has to do with the second argument (in three paragraphs): The atmosphere. It’s tiny, but it cycles. Pluto is tilted almost like Uranus, except more. So for 124 years we have one pole facing the sun, and for 124 years the other. During this time, it’s likely that the ices on the surface near the sunward pole sublimate (turn from solid to gas) and some get deposited on the pole that’s in night. This gives you a “surface” that is literally no more than a hundred years old.

In fact, going into this, I was warned that several models predicted that there may be very few craters on Pluto simply because of this process, of not only ices being deposited as many, many layers of frost, but also because when they sublimate, they are removing that surface that had been cratered! So some predictions going in were that Pluto may have a few very large, shallow craters, but nothing else. Obviously that’s not the case, Pluto is more interesting, but to say that we “are at a complete loss to explain the lack [not!] of craters on Pluto” is bullocks.

Here is the second argument that Danny made: Pluto is outgassing nitrogen, and therefore it’s young because it is a body of finite size and because there should be some activity that releases the nitrogen.

Yes, Pluto was found to be outgassing molecular nitrogen gas. Though “outgassing” is the wrong word here — perhaps an honest mistake, but it’s wrong nonetheless. It’s that nitrogen gas is escaping from the surface, not being outgassed from below the surface (that we know of). So this is a classic creationist argument: Take the current rate for something, multiply it by 4.5 billion years, and claim it’s impossible. They do that with Earth’s moon. But in this case, Danny didn’t even do that simple math, even if it is wrong (the current rate may not be what it was in the past). 500 tons per hour means very roughly 2*1019 kg over 4.5 billion years. Pluto is 1.3*1022 kg. That means it would have lost a mere 0.15% of its mass due to nitrogen escaping over 4.5 billion years if the current rate has been the rate for 4.5 billion years.

Not a problem.

The third argument has to do with the very tall, 3.3 km high mountains observed on Pluto, where Danny argues that if Pluto is warm enough to have geologic activity to account for those first two things, it can’t be cold enough to support ice mountains.

The mountains are interesting. I don’t even remember if there are solid ideas yet in the team as to how they may have formed, but this is yet another example where scientists look for something to explain an observation, and creationists leap to GodDidIt. Regardless, though, both of the prior two arguments can be explained at least in part by atmospheric processes rather than geologic, therefore this is moot.

Finally, he argues that Charon has fewer craters than expected, and a large chasm, therefore it’s young, too.

Problem if we take this approach: How can Charon be older than Pluto? If we’re using the metric of craters (and incorrectly per the standard young-Earth creationist), and Charon has more than Pluto, then Pluto is even younger than 6000 years old, right? What is he trying to say here, that Pluto formed a few minutes before Clyde Tombaugh discovered it?

I’m also not quite sure where he’s getting that Charon has fewer craters than expected. I don’t remember this being discussed, but it’s possible I missed it. A lot of the issue for Charon (and Pluto, for that matter) is our ability to identify craters in these images. Most imaging is with the sun almost directly overhead. Meaning we can’t pick out craters very easily. Especially when all we have is lossy, JPG-compressed images. Think of photographing the full moon of Earth and then compressing it to 100 kb to send to your grandmother who’s running Windows 95 with a 56k modem. Not easy.

Charon probably has more craters than Pluto (no atmosphere). But our ability to find them right now is significantly hindered. That in mind, I’ve already identified a few hundred. Same on Pluto.

July 26, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #8: Where Are the High-Res Pictures?

This will be another short post, but it’ll hopefully tide you over while I’m home for 3.5 days before headed back to Maryland for a New Horizons Science Team Meeting. First off, you should read my Part 6 post about how the data are being downloaded from the New Horizons probe to Earth.

With that said, Richard Hoagland has moved up in the world and has his own radio program on Art Bell’s network. Richard gets 10 hours per week (2 hrs per week night). I finally figured out my recording software and so was listening today to his Friday night / Saturday morning broadcast where he had on his significant other (Robin Falkov) and amateur image processor and image anomaly = intelligent artifact finder Keith Laney. But that’s somewhat beside the point, for this is the pseudoscience for this post:

  1. Richard Hoagland thinks that if he were managing the mission and the the probe might die tomorrow, he would send back the best pixel scale images first.
  2. Therefore, we must have done that.
  3. But, they are not being released.
  4. Therefore, “NASA” is hiding these 70-80 meter per pixel images because “NASA” is trying to figure out what all the buildings mean.

Spot anything wrong with that line of reasoning? How about steps 1 and 2, the basic premise.

Richard Hoagland is wrong.

From a fundamental standpoint, besides everything I wrote in that part 6 blog post. If you’re in charge of the mission, and you fear there is a small possibility that your probe might die, you would want to bring down the most representative data, and the data that will tell you the most about different things across the body rather than a tiny less-than-one-percent-of-the-surface-area image that would itself take many hours to downlink without lossy compression.

And – ¡gasp! – that’s what we did! We brought down images that give us the broadest possible view, and we brought down data from the other instruments that do the same. Remember: New Horizons doesn’t just have a black-and-white camera. It has seven other science instruments!

Besides that, more organizationally and methodically, there are literally hundreds of individual science questions/goals that we had for New Horizons’ data to answer. Every single observation made was linked to one or more of those goals. And, those goals were prioritized not only into four main tiers*, but within each tier they were prioritized, as well. Each was audited multiple times by many different mission scientists and very carefully worded and planned. And — guess what! — 70-80 m/px images of a tiny area of Pluto are not in the Tier 1 goals. So, when you want to prioritize your data downlink during that crucial few-days period after the closest approach, you’re going to bring down the data to answer the most Tier 1 goals/questions.

So … yeah. Richard is wrong in his conspiracy because his assumptions are wrong which he assumes are correct. Put another way: Richard thinks something, which (to him) makes it fact, and then he makes conclusions of conspiracy based on that “fact.” But his basic thinks is wrong, therefore everything else that came after that thinks is wrong.

*This is why after the “anomaly” during the July 4 weekend, the announcement was made that “No Tier 1 goals will be affected.” That’s because the data that would have been taken during those few days were not crucial to any of those goals/questions. One observation, for example, was a “family portrait” that would be the last time New Horizons could fit the entire system in a LORRI field of view. That was more for public outreach, so it was a 3.9.x goal, but it also would have helped determine orbits of outer satellites which means it doubled as a tier 2 goal.

July 23, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #7: Very Few Craters ‘Cause of Pluto’s Orbit

I swear this time, a very quick post. As with the last one, I’ve seen this claim not only on science forums but also pseudoscience forums and radio. The form goes like this: Pluto has surprisingly few craters because its orbit is inclined 17° relative to the plane of the solar system, where most impactors would be.

I’ve said it before (especially with respect to global warming deniers), and I’ll say it again here: Scientists, in general, are not stupid.

We take that into account. We also take the very low impact speeds into account. And the expected porosity of impactors. And potentially different impactor populations. In fact, Sarah Greenstreet’s thesis work was just published a few months ago, “Impact and cratering rates on Pluto,” that explicitly models a s— -load of different possible impactor populations and therefore possible crater populations, explicitly integrating the orbit of Pluto through time that – ¡gasp! – takes into account its orbital inclination. As an aside, I don’t know what “blogs” Richard Hoagland happens to be reading, but I can guarantee that scientists involved on the mission science team are not assuming that the impact rate and type at Pluto are the same for the inner solar system.

And besides that, it’s not entirely “surprising” that it has so few craters. This was predicted at least over a year ago to be a consequence of sublimating and refreezing of the atmosphere. What is surprising is the relatively few craters on Charon, though the one decent pixel scale image with favorable sun for mapping craters that we have so far does show many dozen.

Scientists unfortunately often forget that they know lots of stuff that other people don’t know, and things are taken for granted. I think, unfortunately, that when people have remarked about the “surprisingly few” craters observed on Pluto, that is taking into account Pluto’s orbital characteristics. It’s implicit, because it’s a “duh” point for those who tend to talk about it, and they forget to mention that this is implicit.

July 22, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #6: Data Download


I know I’ve promised other parts to this series, but this one will be quick* and I want to get it out there because it feeds into a lot of varied and various conspiracies related to NASA’s New Horizons mission to the Pluto-Charon system, and I’ve even seen many misconceptions on normal science blogs / websites (not to be named): Where’s the data!?

Deep breath people: It’s coming. Slowly.

*I thought it would be quick, but it turned out to be nearly 2000 words. Oops…

The Slowness of Spacecraft Data Transfer

Every space mission – save for one very recent, experimental one – relays data via radio signal. In other words, light. The amount of power that the spacecraft can muster goes into figuring out the data rate it can sustain. Think of it a bit like this: If you have the Bat Signal, but you were using a flashlight, you’d be lucky if someone could just see the flashlight aimed up at the sky. There’s no way they could see details of a bat cut-out. But if you use a really really bright spotlight, you can see it farther, and you can even stick a detailed bat cutout over its front and you can make out that cutout.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but that’s kinda the idea here: If you have a very strong signal, then you can include a lot of detail really quickly. If you have a weak signal, then the data rate is slower. Oh– better analogy: bad wifi reception. You know you have low signal strength when it gets really slow.

Moving on, the New Horizons REX antenna does not have a huge amount of power. New Horizons launched with less plutonium for power than originally intended, and it needs power for running the spacecraft. It has so little power for the antenna that only the 70 meter dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) are big enough to receive the signal at Earth, which is a paltry 3 * 10-19 Watts. (Compare that with a 100 W light bulb.) To me, first off, it’s amazing that we can even receive that faint of a signal.

But once you get over that amazement, the DSN also has to be able to detect changes in that tiny signal. That’s how we get data. Like blinking your flashlight in Morse code, or putting the Bat Signal stencil up. If we have very little signal strength, we can’t change our signal very quickly, or the DSN may not be able to read it. Change more slowly, then they will.

For planning purposes, we were able to send data at 1296 bits per second. I’m old enough (sigh…) to remember dial-up modems in the 1990s. My family’s first modem was the dreaded 14.4 kbps modem which was painfully slow at pulling up AOL’s e-mail. Or Hamster Dance. But even that was over 10 times faster than New Horizons’ data rate. And, let’s convert it to real things, bytes. There are 8 bits to a byte. 1296 bits per second is only 162 bytes per second. I have a thumbdrive attached to my computer that holds 64 GB, or 64 gigabytes. It would take about 4572 hours, at the average New Horizons download rate, to fill that fairly modest thumb drive. That’s 190 days.

Keep in mind that the spacecraft is still taking data. Keep in mind that there are only 3 70m DSN dishes at the correct latitudes to see the spacecraft, ever, from Earth. Keep in mind that there are other missions out there that need the DSN to communicate with Earth. Keep in mind that 1296 is an average planning bit rate, and while the Canberra and Goldstone dishes get more like 2000 bps, Madrid tends to get less due to the elevation of the spacecraft above the horizon.

So, from the get-go, just from considering the data rate (power requirements on the spacecraft, distance to the spacecraft, and timetable of receiving stations on Earth), one should be able to see that it will take a painfully long time to get the data from the spacecraft.

While we could keep up with the data rate and did a large download a month before encounter (which is why data weren’t taken in late May), there’s no way we could get all the data during encounter very soon after it, which is why the craft flew with two 8 GB storage drives, and it filled up 60 Gb during encounter (see what I did there, switching between bit and byte?).

There’s Other Data Besides Images!

And that’s any kind of data. There aren’t just images and “pretty pictures” that many of us want. There is one B&W camera on the craft, but there’s also a color camera, two spectrometers, a dust counter, two plasma instruments, the antenna itself took data, and there’s basic spacecraft housekeeping and telemetry that says things like, “Yes, I really did fire my thrusters at this time when you wanted me to!”

Basic Download Plan

I can discuss this because the basics have been made public. It’s just not “sexy” like pretty pictures so it’s not that easily findable.

Leading up to encounter, data were prioritized as though we were going to lose the spacecraft at any time, so the most important, “Tier 1” science data were downloaded first. And, critical optical navigation images.

After encounter, the same thing happened, where compression algorithms were used on the data on-board the spacecraft and that lossy-compressed data were sent back to Earth to fulfill as many Tier 1 science goals as possible. That’s how – and why – in the last week we’ve already revolutionized what we know about Pluto. Those first high-res (0.4 km/px) images of the surface were planned out based on Hubble Space Telescope maps of the surface and the spacecraft timing and trajectory to get images that cover different brightness and color patches. (Which takes care of another, minor conspiracy that I’ve seen that claims we “knew” where to point the cameras because the Secret Space Program had leaked us information about what would be interesting.)

But now that we’re more than a week from closest approach, thoughts are turning to what to do next. Originally, a “browse” data set of all the lossy data (only the imagers and spectrometers store lossy-compressed in addition to lossless) were going to be returned first, along with the lossless data from other instruments. That would at least let us at least understand the surface at a lossy JPG quality and for the plasma folks to do their science.

But now people are discussing scrapping that and bringing down the lossless data instead, albeit many times slower because of the larger file sizes.

Planning, Fairness

But, believe it or not, planning of what’s downloaded when is made no more than a few weeks out (except for the closest approach weeks). Right now, we’re working on the late August / September load of commands and deciding what data to bring down in what order.

Each of the four science theme teams (geology geophysics & imaging (GGI), atmospheres, composition (COMP), and particles & plasma (P&P)) puts together a list of their top priorities based on what we’ve seen so far. The Pluto Encounter Planning (PEP) team then sits down and looks at how much they can bring down in what time and puts things in order. The sequencers then take that and try to make it happen in the test computers. Then we iterate. Then it gets reviewed. Extensively. Only then does it get uploaded to the spacecraft to execute.

But besides that priority list, it’s the Principle Investigator who decides how much data each science team gets. For example, while I’m on PEP (it’s what I was initially hired to do), I’ve been adopted by GGI. Wearing my GGI hat, I want images from the LORRI instrument. All the time, and only LORRI. I don’t care what the plasma instrument PEPSSI recorded. But by the same token, the P&P folks don’t care anything about images, they want to know what their instruments recorded as the craft passed through the Pluto system to see how the solar wind interacted with escaping particles from Pluto – or even if it did. (Which it did, as was released in a press conference last Friday.)

So Alan Stern has to make the decision of how to be “fair” to so many competing interests within the large – and broad – science team. So while COMP may want to have 5 DSN playback tracks in a row to bring back just one of their very large spectra data cubes, Alan has to make sure that GGI gets their images and P&P gets their data, too.

The Plan

The decision was made several months ago that after this initial batch of data – what we saw last week, what we see this week – that all of the “low speed” data will come down in August. That’s housekeeping & telemetry, that’s things like how many dark pixels are in any given LORRI image, it’s the two plasma instruments and data recorded by the antenna and dust counter, and that’s about it. After that, we get back to the imagers and spectrometers, per the balance discussed above.

And since it’s not sequenced, and it’s not public, I can’t tell you any more than that.

So we are, unfortunately, not going to see any new images for practically a month, beyond the two navigation images that should come down tomorrow and Friday.


Due to the nature of this blog, obviously this is going to fuel conspiracies: NASA’s hiding the data, NASA’s manipulating the data, NASA’s [whatevering] the data, etc.

It’s just not true.

I have known for years that these conspiracies about NASA somehow intercepting the data and manipulating it before even us naïve scientists can get our hands on it would be very difficult, but being on this mission has made me realize that it’s even more difficult to somehow support that conspiracy than I had thought.

Literally, as the data are received by the DSN – before it’s even completely downloaded – it’s on our processing servers and in the processing high-cadence pipeline. On Monday morning when we were supposed to get four new images, we were literally sitting in the GGI room hitting the refresh button and marveling over each new line of pixels that we were getting back in practically real-time. To use a religious analogy, it was every Christmas morning rolled into a one-hour marathon of hitting the refresh button.

And we were all there watching — over 20 of us. And other science team members kept coming in to look.

The idea of secretly having one or two people intercepting the data, “airbrushing” things in or out of it, and only then giving it from On High to the scientists just shows how out of touch from reality conspiracists are. (By the way, I use the term “airbrushing” here because that’s how many conspiracists still talk. Obviously, no one is physically airbrushing things anymore — and I doubt anyone younger than 30 even knows what a real airbrush is.)

To sustain the conspiracy, I can only see one of two choices: (1) Either all of us scientists are in on it, in which case it becomes ridiculously large and unsustainable and scientists suck at keeping secrets about exciting new things, or (2) somehow there’s super secret advanced tech that intercepts the spacecraft signal and at the speed of light “airbrushes” things out and retransmits it to the DSN to get into our processing pipeline. Because we know when stuff is supposed to appear on Earth. Because we write the sequence that does it.

Final Thoughts

Not that I expect this to convince any conspiracy theorist of their folly. The lack of image data for the next month, and the lossy JPG data we have now all contribute to the little anomalies that don’t immediately make sense, and the average conspiracist can easily spin into something that it’s not.

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