Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 22, 2015

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


Introduction

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.

Conspiracy!

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.

July 21, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby – The Pseudoscience Flows #5 — My Own Error


I’m going to shift a bit here, though the next two posts on this topic are already planned (though Sharon over at Doubtful News just pre-empted me tonight on the Crrow777 stuff that’s hit Newsweek). Instead of discussing pseudoscience that I’ve seen elsewhere, I’m going to discuss my own. Not pseudoscience, per se, but where science can go wrong when you have little sleep and are under extreme pressure to do things quickly.

But before I get specifically to this, I want to emphasize: News reports that there are “no craters on Pluto” are wrong. There are clearly impact craters. It’s that there are no unambiguously yet observed impact craters on Sputnik Planum. That out of the way:

I made a boo-boo. But, science is ultimately self-correcting because if it’s wrong, then when people try to duplicate it, they will get different results …

I generally study impact craters (among other things). One of my primary science areas of research for the Pluto-Charon system is to understand their crater populations to tease out what the impacts are like out there 40AU from home and what the geologic history of the bodies are. To do that, you have to map craters. I’m going to be focusing on that in the coming months (and currently) and I’m also going to be focusing on how our mapping changes as we start to get lossless data and higher pixel-scale data (not higher “resolution,” for “resolution” means number of pixels, while “pixel scale” refers to the length per pixel). This latter focus has been something I’ve been publishing on in the last year.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, images right now are being sent down lossy compressed. Meaning they are full of JPEG artifacts that wash out a lot of small features … like impact craters. So when mapping, I’m assigning a subjective confidence level that indicates how certain I am that a feature is a crater or not. Since we have repeat imagery, already, I’m going over each area multiple times, blindly, with the different images.

One area that’s hit the news is Sputnik Planum, on the “left” side of the bright albedo feature Tombaugh Regio. It’s bright, and it’s young, and we know it’s relatively young because it has no unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far. I’m very careful with that phrasing: unambiguous impact craters in the images that we have so far.

Except, I thought I found one. A rather large one. But I didn’t.

When I initially mapped it in the image that came down a week ago (the full-frame image that was unveiled the morning of the encounter), I gave it a confidence level of 4 out of 5. We had the lossy-compressed JPEG version of the image, and after we had attempted to remove some of the JPEG artifacts through Fourier Transform truncation and then deconvolved it with the point-spread function of the camera (the camera inherently blurs things a teeny bit), it looked like a crater, and I was pretty certain it was a crater. Since it was many pixels wide and the image had a pixel scale of 3.8 km/px, that is a significantly sized crater, at least 30 km in diameter.

Except, it wasn’t. We have since gotten a mosaic at 2.2 km/px of the planet, and we have gotten higher pixel scale images at 400 m/px that have not yet been released. In none of these is that very large, very obvious crater present.

What happened?

We made a tiny artifact bigger by image processing. It was a simple cosmic ray hit.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Cosmic ray hit the detector, meaning there was a very bright pixel with a lot of electrons in it.
  2. This detector has the annoying property that if you have a bright spot, a dark streak forms behind it. You can see this in all of the over-exposed hazards search images. So the bright pixel now had a dark streak behind it.
  3. This was lossy JPG compressed on the spacecraft by a severe amount. Heavy JPG compression can make things “ring” because it represents the data as a series of cosine waves.
  4. One of our basic image processors took that image and first deconvolved it, sharpening the ringing JPEG noise.
  5. He then looked at the image in frequency space and made a series of clips that when brought back into spatial space (what we’re used to) will dampen a lot of the obvious JPG blockiness and make for an image that is more aesthetic and helps to make out a lot more features because you don’t have the 8×8 grid of JPG blocks dominating.

This is perfectly reasonable to do, and so long as you understand the kinds of artifacts that it can introduce and don’t over-interpret it, you’re fine.

Unfortunately, it makes this particular kind of cosmic ray hit on this particular detector look like a very clear, very obvious impact crater. Despite my best efforts at not over-interpreting early images that clearly showed artifacts from the image processing, I over-interpreted this feature.

Fortunately, it never made it into a press release or a paper (though I will be talking about it in a paper I’ll be writing as a cautionary tale), but when doing stuff like this, I’m always reminded of how (and this is going to sound arrogant) I’m different from a pseudoscientist, and how working on skepticism for the past (nearly) decade has helped me to become a better scientist. Someone like Richard Hoagland, Mike Bara, Keith Laney, or the guy I talked about in the last blog post probably would not hesitate to make a big deal out of these kinds of features.

To be blunt, I’m a crater expert. I am considered to be an expert in mapping impact craters due to my experience at mapping over 1 million impact craters across 7 solar system bodies (so far). Yet, I made this significant mistake. What separates me from the pseudoscientist, though, is that when I was presenting this to people, I said that this looks very much like a certain crater, but we need to wait to see the uncompressed version of the image, and we need to wait for the higher-resolution maps before saying it’s certain. And if it isn’t, “it will be very interesting to figure out why it isn’t a crater.” I specifically said that in a team meeting on Sunday.

Many things right now are provisional simply because of the very lossy image compression. Features like craters are particularly difficult to tease out, unless they are very large and very obvious (as are many). Contrast that with the people trumpeting “geometric structures” on Pluto and Charon in these images. Of course there are “geometric structures” that were “artificially created” … all in the lossy JPG compression algorithm! I keep thinking I’m repeating myself with this — and I am — but people still keep making this claim.

But, I’m perfectly willing to be corrected. In fact, I have now written 1000 words about how and why I was wrong, and the exact reasons and process that led me to that erroneous conclusion: Based on better data, I can re-examine things and see what went on and if it’s real. Contrast that with what I listened to earlier today which was a discussion between Richard Hoagland, Keith Laney, and the host of Skywatchers Radio. This quote involves all three men, talking about the Norgay Montes image released last week, and where one stops and the other starts doesn’t really matter, for all three were complicit in this train of thought:

“Look around in that image. You will be amazed. The more you look, the more you’ll see. It’s pretty incredible. Blow the image up as much as possible and look at every little part of that image. There’s so much artificial stuff in there! Again, as denoted by the geometry.”

QED

July 20, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 4


An eagle-eyed Facebooker on the Facebook page for my podcast (thanks Warwick!) pointed this ‘un out to me on the Before It’s News website. Something like the equivalent of the Daily Mail but with more of a UFO bent.

Apparently there are huge cities on Pluto.

This was one of the pseudosciences that I knew going in was going to be prevalent, though I expected it to be more explicit first from Richard Hoagland and Mike Bara who are more vocal about their pareidolia and reading into image artifacts.

The entire crux of this guy’s arguments is that he sees a blockiness in the released images. He claims that he knows and can prove they are not JPEG artifacts for two reasons:

(1) He’s using a TIFF image and not JPEG, and
(2) the blockiness runs at a diagonal and not parallel to the image edges.

For the second reason, I have two words and two punctuation symbols for you: “Rotate & crop.” To add a a few more words: Most released full-disk images have been rotated such that the north pole is “up” in the image. The spacecraft didn’t take them that way. We rotated them to be consistent. Therefore, the original blocky compression artifacts run parallel to the image edges, but now they run diagonal because it’s been rotated! Pretty simple. Yet it has eluded this conspiracist.

Similar elusion is of a simple fact that all because your current file format is one type, that does not mean the original file format was that type. To be more explicit, all because the NASA press release you got this image from happens to be a TIFF on the NASA website, that does not mean that the original image downlinked from the spacecraft was not lossy-compressed JPEG. Which it was. No image downlinked from the craft since July 12 has been lossless, they have all been lossy. Via a 10:1 ratio, meaning they are very lossy. All because I can take a JPEG and use any image software to re-save it as a TIFF does not mean that TIFF will not contain those original JPEG artifacts.

The JPEG blocks are 8 pixels on a side, and many of the released images have been up-sized (I don’t know why, I argued against that, but I have no influence over NASA’s nor APL’s graphics people).

He also assigns the wrong image credit, as “NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.” It’s “NASA/APL/SwRI.” That’s not hard to get right. It’s called reading the caption for the image that you take from NASA.

I’d say that this is one of the sillier conspiracies I’ve heard so far, but it’s really hard to choose. Especially with what’ll be parts 5 and 6.

Perhaps the best line from the video: “No one’s actually accused me of, uh, pixelation, yet, but I’m sure someone will. Uh, some— some spook, probably, some guy from MI6 will come on here … heh! Who knows? Or someone from NASA will try and debunk it. But we’ll see! We’ll see what they have to say.”

Ah…. if only I worked for NASA, or MI6. Maybe I’d drive a nicer car. But it doesn’t take someone from British Intelligence to tell the guy that IT’S JUST BEEN ROTATED!!!

P.S.: Also within the video are other various claims. Like a large hexagonal crater (no, that’s his mind trying to break a circle into line segments), and that NASA purposely brightened the image so that it washes out detail near the pole. No, that’s called the sub-solar point, which is where the sun is directly shining, so you can’t see any topography, only brightness differences of the actual material on the surface. It washes everything out.

July 18, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 3


Introduction

I honestly haven’t seen this one that I remember — yet (I’m working on very little sleep and 14+ hour days right now) — but I suspect it’s only a matter of time from more conservative religious conspiracists: The naming scheme for Pluto and Charon. Some background is needed …

Names

In planetary science, one might wonder why we care about naming things. It seems to be a remarkably human-centric thing, for why should we have to feel like we need to stick a name on everything?

The answer is ease of communication. If you say “Tycho crater” to just about any planetary scientist, they know the exact lunar crater you’re talking about. Same with “Copernicus crater,” or “Mare Imbrium.” The alternative is something like, “The big crater with bright rays near the bottom of the moon if the north is up.” Or something like that.

Other than historic objects, things these days on planetary surfaces generally only get named if there’s a reason for it: As in, it’s an interesting feature that we’re going to be talking about a lot. Not every feature on every body is named.

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Policy for Pluto System

Because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead to the underworld, the International Astronomical Union — the only official naming body in the world for naming stuff in the solar system and beyond — decided that the theme of “underworld” is going to stick, at least for major features. Sometimes this varies, but more on that later.

There is a sizable component of conservative Christians who think that any naming, or any reference, to such is an affront to their god, that it is occultism, Satan worship, etc.

Another side-rule is that no name should be duplicated.

Process

There are lots of “levels” of names. There’s the official IAU name. There are provisional, recommended names to the IAU. There are “for fun” names used within the science team. And there are “would be nice” names used by individual people.

As an example of the last item, there are many craters right now on Pluto and Charon named “Robbins” with a lot of numbers after it. For a friend, there are two “Banks” craters (one because I’m not sure if it’s real because of JPG compression artifacts). But that’s just for fun.

The more formal process, those other three levels I mentioned at the beginning of this section, varies somewhat. In the case with New Horizons and the Pluto-Charon system, a public website was launched months ago where people could both recommend and vote on names.

This was vetted by a very small group within the New Horizons science team, raking names by popularity, looking for gender and ethic biases, removing incredibly offensive names, and removing those used elsewhere (e.g., there’s a “Lonely Mountain” on Titan, so even though we’ve been referring to one on Pluto lately in the team, it cannot be recommended as an official name to the IAU, but this falls into the third category of “for fun” by the team).

So, the biggest stuff is going to get the most popular names from the list. And by “get,” I’m talking about that that second level, the recommended-to-the-IAU level. Which I think pre-approved “Tombaugh Reggio” before-hand. But beyond that, all names must be submitted to the IAU, and hence they are called “provisional names” until the IAU approves or rejects them.

The “Offending” Name(s)

Right off the bat, I figure that there will be some groups that are offended already by the “underworld” theme. But I read some very über-right-wing Christian / conservative websites. One of the beliefs among them is that anything “new age,” anything they perceive as pagan or “occult,” is Satanic, and therefore directly opposed to their version of a deity.

Enter Cthulhu (pronounced something like “coo-THOO-loo”). It was a deity created by H.P. Lovecraft. To quote from Wikipedia: “Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshiped by cultists. Cthulhu’s anatomy is described as part octopus, part man, and part dragon.”

Lovecraft himself is often viewed by these über-conservative Christians as an occultist/cultist himself, and the fact that a major low-reflectivity feature on Pluto that has been provisionally named after a “demonic” deity that Lovecraft dreamed up is likely going to not sit well with them.

However, my understanding is that it was selected because it was one of the most popular names in the voting.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for now. Back to work. I expect to do at least two more of these, another about young-Earth creationists’ take on this and another about Crrow777’s take on this (he’s been getting a lot more press lately, so even though I really don’t want to give him more because question his mental fidelity).

July 14, 2015

#NewHorizons – The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 2


“Of course, I have no proof of this …”

Thus just said Keith Laney on Richard C. Hoagland’s internet radio program on Art Bell’s Dark Matter radio network. He was shocked an hour ago at the incredible details being revealed in the publicly released images this morning. Then, about 10 minutes ago, we had a NASA guy come into our geology room and tell us that we were so popular that we crashed NASA’s website. I knew that it was a matter of moments before the conspiracy folks would spin something.

And so, they did: NASA was releasing such good stuff and such “revealing” images of Pluto (despite them being lossy JPGs of lossy JPGs — the lossless version of this image will be downloaded probably the first week of August), that their website was shut down by Those In Control.

Sigh.

Also, two misconceptions: Richard spent quite a bit of time complaining and being mystified that there was no live radio signal from the craft. New Horizons has one moving part, the door to the Alice instrument. That’s it. Other craft usually have a science platform that can be rotated. New Horizons doesn’t. So we can either take data of Pluto and its system, or talk to Earth. Guess which we’re going to do when we’re closest?

It was another moment of arrogance, actually, on Richard’s part. He was astounded that no news media were asking this question during the NASA press conference. He remarked that the reason that HE thought of the question as opposed to the news media was that he has a lot more experience in this sort of thing. No … it’s because they know how to read Wikipedia.

The other misconception is not just Richard’s but is being played across many different media: The signal tonight is a “phone home” of the spacecraft health. Data won’t be until many, many hours later.

July 13, 2015

#NewHorizons – The Pseudoscience Flows


Introduction

Sigh. We knew this would happen. But I’m always intrigued as to what form it will really take. I’ve been monitoring some sites, some people, and here’s some that I’ve found so far. Two mainly.

Pluto was ejected from Earth during the Great Flood

Ol’ Terry Hurlbut, one of the premier editors/contributors to Conservapedia, is a young-Earth creationist. He has an Examiner.com site and his own ConservativeNewsAndViews.com site which duplicates said Examiner content and has contributions from other, like-minded über-right-wingers and young-Earth creationists. His contribution is fairly straight-forward: Pluto formed recently – but not as recently as Earth – during Noah’s Flood. Why?

Well: Pluto is red. Rusty red. Therefore it has rust. Therefore it must have iron that was in an oxygen-rich environment. Therefore it came from Earth. QED

Richard Hoagland

Richard is a moving target these days. There’s a lot of drama – the basics of which have to do with the feud between Art Bell and the program he founded but its current incarnation, Coast to Coast AM. Steve Warner, host of the “Dark City” internet radio program (also on Art Bell’s network), got a two-hour interview with Richard late last week and it went up just two days ago.

Richard himself will have (or depending on when you read this, has had) a 6 5 hour special from 3-9 2-7AM PDT on Tuesday morning, July 14, the morning of the flyby. He offered a preview on the “Dark City” interview, and I jotted down a few notes:

1. The Pluto system is young or artificial: Because no rings or tiny moons have yet been found, as was predicted (and therefore “MUST” be found IF the system is natural), then the bodies are either made of material that does not produce rings or tiny moons (ergo artificial) OR it’s incredibly young (ergo artificial).

2. Richard thinks it was created by a Type II civilization (can harness the energy of a solar system) that died 65 million years ago and so isn’t enough time to accumulate rings / tiny moons. It has archives/libraries where our “true” history is stored, and it didn’t suffer from the exploding planet that created the asteroid belt at that time which is also why neither Pluto nor Charon should have many craters.

3. He expects the “regular, geometric patterns” that are evidence of this civilization to be prominent. He also thinks the cantaloupe terrain on Triton is buildings buried by methane ice that NASA released but just never mentioned, and he expects to see more of it on Pluto.

4. “We’ve already found some staggering, repeating, right-angle geometry that has no business being there, and yet no one has commented about it because they don’t know what to say!”

5. The “weird computer outage” was a warning to NASA to not show what’s really there … from “somebody.” Either Alan Stern (the mission PI) will go along with it, or he’ll show what’s really there. Because of the IAU controversy, Richard is betting on Alan’s integrity to show “us” what’s really there. (Note: Richard says this about every PI or non-US country for every space mission. If Richard can pull the noise out of the images the way he wants to find “regular geometry,” Alan has integrity and Richard wins. If Richard can’t pull it out, Alan was threatened and Richard wins.)

6. The IAU vote was done to increase public engagement (through controversy / soap opera) of Pluto so that Alan can do the big reveal that it has alien archives on it in a few days.

To Be Continued?

I’m incredibly busy these days, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time to post more of these. But, I wanted to let you know what I’ve found so far that’s the most “coherent.”

July 9, 2015

Podcast Episode 136 – How Science Journalists Go from Scientists to the Public (#NewHorizons)


Media embeds
On New Horizons describe
Good commun’cation.

I was able to sit down with one of the public outreach and one of the science journalists who are embedded with NASA’s New Horizons mission. I had a very brief conversation with them about how they work to convey what we give them into something that the public can easily consume and get excited about.

It’s a very brief (bonus) episode, but I think it’s very topical, and it’s something that I’ve been curious about.

On a personal note, one of the people on the interview – Ron Cowen – is a man whose work I grew up reading on the pages of Science News. It was neat to finally meet him. And so’s not to be lopsided, the other person, David Aguilar, has been incredibly generous with his time when I’ve had questions or wanted to get involved with the public outreach efforts, making time to talk with me when he easily could (and sometimes, probably should) have told me that he was too busy.

July 1, 2015

Podcast Episode 135: How New Horizons Takes Photographs, Interview with Dr. John Spencer #NewHorizons


How New Horizons’
Imaging team works with the
Spacecraft photographs.

You asked for it, you got it: A podcast episode about the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto. If I was going to do an episode, I wanted it to be something that you’re not going to get from NASA, not going to get from a random website about the mission or the cameras … something different and unique.

I think we did that with this episode, which is an interview with Dr. John Spencer who has been one of the primary mission planners, is co-deputy of the geology science team, and leads the search for hazards. We recorded this on June 01, but none of it is out of date other than speculation about new moons or rings – or any hazards – found. As you know from press releases, none have been found as this goes to press, though as this goes out, John Spencer and his team are actively working on the latest batch of data to be downlinked from the craft to search for more.

Anyway, the episode focuses on image processing – real image processing – and how we work with spacecraft data, and we touch a little bit on image-based conspiracies and how we’re at least going to try to not give conspiracy theorists their standard, easy ammunition (like painting over image anomalies to give a pure black area so they can claim “NASA is blacking out part of their images!!!”).

I’m hoping to bring you at least another one or two episodes about New Horizons, but we’ll see. There should be at least one more episode to come out in July despite me being home only 8 days of the month.

Disclaimer: While I am involved in the New Horizons mission, my podcast work (and anything branded under “Exposing PseudoAstronomy”) is completely separate from my work efforts. The views and opinions expressed on this episode are completely my own and don’t reflect NASA, other mission personnel, nor Southwest Research Institute.

June 23, 2015

Podcast Episode 134: Big Bang Denial


The Big Bang theory:
Tot’ly explains the cosmos?
Or, is it a dud?

This episode follows a big from the Black Hole Denial episode, but this time with another aspect of cosmology: The Big Bang. I was able to use a few old blog posts, too, that I wrote practically 7 years ago.

As mentioned, I’m now on a weird – though backdating – release schedule due to the piling on of work as the New Horizons craft nears Pluto. But I’m still trying to do 2 episodes/month, at least.

June 12, 2015

Are We on the Verge of Discovering an Earth-Like Exoplanet?


I announced awhile ago that I was on episode 347 of the Canadian, “The Reality Check” poscast where I talked about exoplanets and some hype — deserved or otherwise — about almost but never quite yet discovering Earth-sized exoplanets.

While they post a lot of links and other things on their website, they don’t post transcripts of what we actually talk about. Since I spent a solid many minutes writing and editing my segment’s text, I thought I’d post it here:

There’s lots of ways to talk about exoplanets, but I’m going to take the traditional approach and start with a very broad but brief overview of how we have found the few-thousand known extra-solar planets, or “exoplanets” for short. There are five main ways.

The most obvious is the most difficult: Direct Imaging. This is where you take your telescope and would look at a star and see the planet around it. This is almost impossible with current technology, and we have less than 20 exoplanets found this way. It’s so hard because the star is so bright relative to the planet and because most star systems are so far away. And obviously, if the planet is larger and farther away from the star, it’ll be easier to see.

The second main method has also only produced about 20 planets so far: Gravitational Microlensing. Einstein showed that large masses bend light, and we can see this in space when an object that’s far away passes behind a massive object that’s a lot closer. The light from the background object gets distorted and magnified, much like a lens … a lens caused by gravity. If the foreground object happens to be a star, and that star has a planet, then that planet can make a detectable contribution to the lensing, not only in amount, but in the exact shape of the lensing effect.

The earliest actual successful method was a special form of what’s called the Timing Method, specifically in this case, pulsar timing. Pulsars are incredibly dense stars called neutron stars, and we get a blast of radio waves every time one of its poles sweeps in the direction of Earth. These are so regular that any tiny perturbation can be detected and attributed to something weird, like a tiny planet tugging on it and so changing that regular spinning signal.

This is the same concept as the highly successful method that found the most exoplanets until a few years ago: Radial Velocity. The idea is that we normally think of a planet, like Earth, orbiting the sun. But it doesn’t really. It *and* the sun orbit a mutual gravitational point called the “barycenter” that is between the two. For Earth and the sun, that point is VERY close to the sun’s center, but it’s not quite in the center. That means that over the course of a year, as Earth goes around that point, the sun will, too (on the opposite side of that point). So, it will wobble very very slightly as it orbits the barycenter.

We can’t possibly observe this tiny tiny motion of other stars. BUT, we can use the light that star emits to do it by using the Doppler shift. That’s the phenomenon where if something is moving towards you, the waves it emits become compressed, and if it’s moving away from you, the waves get stretched out. The common example is a train whistle going from high to low pitch, but in astronomy, this is where the light is shifted to blue and then to red.

So, if the planet around another star is at its closest point to us, the star emits light and we see it all normal. As the planet starts to move away from us, the star starts to move very slightly toward Earth, and so its light will be very slightly blue-shifted. Then, the planet gets to its farthest point, and starts to move towards Earth, which means the star starts to move away, and we see its light red-shifted. This is an incredibly tiny effect, and the smaller the planet, the smaller the shift in the light. Or the pulsar timing change.

There was a lot of progress throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s in very high-resolution spectroscopy in order to get better and better at observing smaller and smaller planets. The easiest ones to observe are the largest because they make the biggest shift in the star’s light, and ones that are closest to their star are easier because you don’t have to observe as long. To observe a planet that has a 10-day orbit, you just have to observe that star for about a month from Earth to get decent statistics.

That’s why all the exoplanets discovered early on were what are called “Hot Jupiters,” since they were very large and very close to their stars.

The final method is the Transit Method. If a fly passes in front of a bright light, you can see a slight decrease in the light. If a bird passes in front of a light, you’ll see a larger decrease in the light. Same thing here: A planet passes in front of the star and temporarily blocks part of the light from the star that we would see at Earth. The big issue with this method is that you have to have the fortuitous geometry alignment where the planet’s orbit is just right so that it passes in front of its star as seen from Earth. The first one wasn’t detected until 1999, but a decade later, the dedicated spacecraft COROT and then Kepler were launched to look for these, monitoring the same fields of the sky, tens of thousands of stars, moment after moment, looking for those brief transits. In 2014, Kepler released over 800 planets discovered with this method, more than doubling the total number known, and that was on top of its other releases and, to-date, it’s found over 1000.

The transit method, despite the issue of geometry, is probably the best initial method. If you have the planet going in front of its star, then you know its alignment and you can follow-up with the radial velocity method and get the mass. Otherwise, the radial velocity method can only give you a minimum mass because you don’t know how the system is oriented, you only know that radial component of velocity, hence its name.

With the transit method, you can see how much light is blocked by the planet. Knowing the star’s type, you can get a pretty good estimate for the star’s size, and knowing how much light is blocked means you can get the cross-sectional area of the planet and hence its diameter. For example, Jupiter would block 1% of the sun’s light, and since area is the square of length, that means Jupiter is about 10% the sun’s diameter. Since the sun is a type G V star, we have a good model for its radius, though of course we know its radius very well because we’re in orbit of it. But that means not only can we get mass, but we can get size and density.

The transit method also lets us see if there’s a large atmosphere. If the light from the star instantly blinks down to the level when the planet passes in front of it, then any atmosphere really thin or nonexistent. If there’s a gradual decrease, then it’s extended. If its extended, we can follow-up with something like the Hubble Space Telescope and actually figure out what that atmosphere is made of by looking at what colors of light from the star are absorbed as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere.

And as with the radial velocity and timing methods, we know how long it takes to go around its parent star, and along with the star’s mass from what kind of star it is, we can get the distance of the planet from the star.

Okay, so much for a brief overview. But for me, I’ve left out a lot.

Moving on, it should be somewhat apparent that the bigger the planet, and the closer to its star, the easier it is to observe with pretty much ANY of these techniques, except direct imaging or microlensing where you want a big planet that’s far from its star. Big means big effect. Fast orbit means you don’t have to observe it for very long to show that it’s a regular, repeating signal best explained by a planet.

So, the question is then, can we detect an Earth-sized planet, and can we detect an Earth-like orbit? These are really two different questions and they depend on the technique you’re using. If we want to focus on a the two main methods – radial velocity and transit – then the unsatisfying answer to the second is that we do finally have good enough technology, it is just a matter of finding it. With the 2014 Kepler data release, there were over 100 exoplanets that are less than 1.25 Earth’s size. With the 2015 release, there are a total of 5 planets smaller than Earth or Venus, but they orbit their 11.2-billion-year-old star in just 3.6 to 9.7 days.

Even if we have observations for more than a year or two, for something as small as Earth, the level of signal relative to noise in the experiment is still pretty small, and you want a big signal relative to the noise. It’s best to build up multiple years’ worth of data to average out the noise to be able to really say that we have an Earth-like planet. For something like Jupiter, which orbits our sun in about 12 years, we’d need to observe at least two transits, meaning we’re just now approaching the time when we would have a long enough baseline of data with some ground-based surveys, but that’s also assuming we catch that planet for the few hours or days when it goes in front of its star versus the years and years that it doesn’t, and that we do this repeatedly and don’t chalk it up to sunspots.

This is why we really need long-term, dedicated surveys to just stare at the same place in space, constantly, measuring the light output of these stars to see if we can detect any sort of dimming, that’s repeated, from a likely planet.

But, even if we find an Earth-like planet in terms of mass and diameter and location in its solar system, that’s not enough to say it’s Earth-like in terms of atmosphere and surface gravity and overall long-term habitability. It’s just a first step. A first step we have yet to truly reach, but one that is reasonably within our grasp at this point.

But it’s from the existing planets we know of that we get some of the hype that hits the headlines every few months, like “astronomers estimate billions of Earth-like planets exist in our galaxy alone.” I’m not going to say that’s fantasy, but it’s loosely informed speculation based on extrapolating from a few thousand examples we now have from a very, VERY young field of astronomy.

Or, we’ll get articles where the first sentence says, “Astronomers have discovered two new alien worlds a bit larger than Earth circling a nearby star.” It’s in the next paragraph that we learn that “a bit larger than Earth” means 6.4 and 7.9 times our mass, and they orbit their star in just a few days.

So as always, this is a case where, when we see headlines, we need to be skeptical, NOT susceptible to the hype, and read deeper. But that said, it is entirely possible that any day now we will find an exoplanet that is at least like Earth in mass, size, and distance from its host star.

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