Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2014

The Good and Bad of NASA Publishing Spacecraft Images Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LCROSS Landing Site

LCROSS Landing Site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 5, 2009

Pareidolia and Pixellation … Or, Why Blowing Up Photographs Beyond 100% Resolution Is Bad


Pareidolia: (noun) /pærɪˈdoʊliə/ — The tendency to interpret a vague stimulus as something known to the viewer; such as interpreting marks on Mars as canals or seeing shapes in clouds. From the Greek para- (“beside,” “with,” or “alongside”—meaning, in this context, something faulty or wrong (as in paraphasia, disordered speech)) and eidolon (“image”; the diminutive of eidos (“image,” “form,” “shape”)).

Pareidolia is something that I addressed in my “Pareidolia – The Face on Mars” post in January 2009. In this post, however, I’ll be addressing a different twist on pareidolia that has a different genesis given the modern age of computers, where everyone with an internet connection can be an armchair geologist.

In this particular case study, I will not be talking about Richard Hoagland and his glass cities on the moon and Mars, but rather a more obscure person, Andrew Basiago, of his self-made “Mars Anomaly Research Society.” In 2008, he put out a “research paper” entitled, “THE DISCOVERY OF LIFE ON MARS,” with the first sentence of the abstract being five simple words, “There is life on Mars.”

His evidence? Read further to find out …

What Does Basiago Say He Found, in General?

Basiago is a lawyer and self-described “amateur scientist.” In late 2008, he made headlines by complaining that National Geographic was refusing to publish his work. The following quote is from his press release:

“I was astonished by what I found,” he said. “There, on the Red Planet, were beings in blue bodysuits and the abstract artwork of a Martian civilization. I was looking at the first evidence of life beyond Earth!”

In his letter to the National Geographic Society, the lawyer writes that careful evaluation of PIA10214 reveals “a cosmic treasure trove of pictographic evidence of life on Mars, including humanoid beings, animal species, carved statues, and built structures.”

According to Basiago, the humanoid beings photographed in PIA10214 have bulbous heads and elongated bodies, like the extraterrestrials described in alien contact accounts. Some have two arms and legs like human beings, while others have multiple appendages and segmented or larval bodies, as if they are human-insect hybrids.

Here are two news stories about it (link 1, link 2).

The original image in question can be found here.

A Famous Photo

This photograph, or panorama of photographs, from Mars was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) “Spirit” during the last few months of 2007. It is within the Gusev Crater on Mars on the plateau that NASA has named, “Home Plate.” What makes this photograph interesting is that it itself caught the news cycle due to a fairly “obvious” piece of pareidolia, the “Big Foot” on Mars.

If you download the full version of the panorama from NASA, the “Big Foot” is located about 30″ down, 12″ over (2150 px down, 850 px over to the right). Below is a FULL-RESOLUTION version of just that section. Note that the figure itself is about 37 px tall and 18 px wide. At full resolution. And, it really does look like a person sitting with a hand resting on one knee.

NASA Image PIA10214 with a Close-Up of "Big Foot"

However, with MER Spirit having photographed well over a million rocks on the planet, some are bound to look like something that we’re familiar with. Just like the cloud I saw today looked a lot like Mr. Spock.

While the image of “Big Foot” on Mars garnered some press on its own and made the rounds on Coast to Coast AM, it quickly came out that the rock in question was just a few inches tall and it fairly quickly dropped from the public consciousness.

Expanding Beyond 100% Size

The etymology of the word “pixel” dates back to the 1960s, when it became an abbreviation for “picture element.” In other words, the smallest part of a picture. The smallest “piece” of information that was recorded. A pixel cannot be subdivided into more than one pixel to yield more data because it simply does not exist in the image.

And yet, graphics programs have no problem expanding an image beyond that 100% scale, to make 1 pixel into 2, 3, 4, or more. Software does this through a variety of algorithms, and it may really look like it has smoothly added information to the image, but it has not. It has also introduced artifacts through the expansion process that were not previously there. If, for example, you expand a photograph to 250% its original size, and then you shrink it back to the original 100%, you will not have the same photograph you started with, and you will have lost a little bit of information.

This basic concept is not something that Basiago seems to understand. He took NASA photograph PIA10214 and blew up various parts of it, stretching objects that may have originally been only 5 pixels tall and 7 pixels wide into something 50x that size. In other cases, he has stretched the aspect ratio, making the image much wider or taller than it should be if given a simple expansion.

Let’s look at two examples. In the example below, Basiago describes as: “These and other animals on Mars defy classification by any known system on Earth. We would include among the new forms of fauna on Mars the animal whose giraffe-like head can be seen peering from behind the cliff literally within feet of Spirit. This animal has red lips, a patch of blue beneath its bulging eyes, and a crest atop its head like some dinosaurs. Even the most spirited disinformation that this report will inspire will have difficulty finding a mundane, non-biological explanation for The Spying Giraffe.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

Basiago Pareidolia Example 1

In this second example below, Basiago describes: “Maybe the creatures seen – including both living plesiosaurs (left) and dead ones (right) – are plesiosaurs that survived on Mars the extinction that befell plesiosaurs on Earth.”

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

Basiago Pareidolia Example 2

I’ve been kind with these examples. In the many, many photographic blow-ups that he includes in his paper, these are among the best few that actually sorta kinda look like what he claims. However, any normal reader with pretty much any amount of common sense can tell that these are simply rocks. Or, at the very least, one would need higher-resolution photographs to really tell anything, as opposed to just blowing up a low-resolution image (e.g., the far-right one in the first example).

Final Thoughts

What automatically enters my mind when someone claims they see something anomalous in a photograph, or that they see “data’s head” on the moon or subway systems on Mars, I first think “pareidolia,” and my second thought is, “what’s the resolution?” In other words, is the object they’re describing actually fully resolved, or are they stretching the pixels to bring out something that’s not really there? As was the case in the examples of “amateur scientist” Andrew Basiago, both of these were at play, and what he was really looking at was simply a bunch of rocks.

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