Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 22, 2015

Should NASA Fund Old Missions In Operation, or New Missions in Development?


Introduction

This was my seventh post to the JREF’s Swift blog, published last week. I wrote it while I was at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) and was reading the news and listening to the (perpetual) budget issues at NASA.

The Post

Last week, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before the Senate Subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. In response to questions about the funding of Mars rover missions, The Planetary Society blog reported that Bolden stated the following:

“We cannot continue to operate instruments and missions whose time has passed, because I won’t be able to put something like InSight on Mars in 2016 … I have to make choices.”

This is an interesting statement and sentiment, and it’s one that I’ve wrestled with myself for several years. The question really boils down to this: Should NASA continue to fund proven missions well past their design lifetime that are still successfully operating, or should they “pull the plug” and move the funding (that they never originally budgeted for in the first place) to some other project, one that uses technology a decade newer? And, to make it more relevant to the JREF, if funding is pulled, will it spark a new conspiracy?

The context of this particular mission is that the Mars Exploration Rovers were twins – Spirit and Opportunity – with nominal lifetimes of 90 days. They landed on Mars a decade ago. Spirit died a few years ago, Opportunity is still functional and returning science information. It has gone through several extended missions, meaning that the money was never originally budgeted to pay for operations (mission control, planning, time on the deep space networks, and of course the scientists). Meaning that the money to fund them now eats into other previously planned programs.

Because the MERs landed on Mars a decade ago, the technology in them is at least a decade and a half old. Think about it: That was before the iPod, before most people had multi-CPU computers, and still well before digital cameras were mainstream. Contrast that with what one has available now to build a new mission, and you start to see some of the issues.

On the one hand, you have a still-operating mission. It’s there. On Mars. Still returning usable data. The cost to build it and launch it and make sure everything is working right is done, paid for, and will never have to be paid for again.

But, on the other hand, the money to keep it going prevents new missions, with better technology, with a new and different goal, from even getting off the ground and having the potential to do new science.

It’s easy to say, “Well, just increase NASA’s budget!” Easy to say, not so easy to get Congress to do. Delays and cost over-runs in both the James Webb Space Telescope and the Mars Curiosity rover both were not made up by Congress and so ate into other parts of the budget, such as basic scientific research funding (what I rely on to put food on the table).

If NASA were to simply “turn off” MER Opportunity, it would not be the first still-functional mission that NASA has effectively killed. There are several in recent times, but perhaps most interesting to me is the Apollo seismic network. The Apollo astronauts on later missions installed and activated seismic stations on the lunar surface to detect moonquakes. No, there are no buildings on the moon that we needed to warn, but rather whenever there was a quake – from something impacting to tides between it and Earth and the sun – the stations would pick it up and scientists on Earth would be able to use the data to slowly build up a picture of the interior of our nearest celestial neighbor. It’s a little like the way an ultrasound works, and it’s earthquake data on our own planet that lets us know about the interior structure of Earth.

When NASA ran out of funding for it after a few years after the Apollo program ended, they shut down the network, despite the fact that it was still returning good, usable data, and with each new quake we learned a little more about the structure of the moon’s interior. A consequence of this – besides a loss to basic scientific research – is that conspiracies about NASA finding the moon is hollow have become widespread among the astronomical pseudoscientific world. The thinking goes that they found it “rang like a bell” (which had more to do with the loosely packed surface material) and therefore either shut down the network so we wouldn’t know it was hollow, or they kept the network going but in secret.

Anyway, that bit of conspiracy aside, this really is a serious issue and serious question of where our monetary priorities should be. Assuming NASA’s budget is static and will not be changed to keep these long-lived missions operational, then what should a good administrator do? Should they keep the proven mission going? Or should they kill it and fund the new mission? Or, should they fund both and pull money from other parts of the budget, like education, or human spaceflight, or basic research?

I have my own opinion on this, but I’ll keep it to myself. I just know I wouldn’t want to be in Charley Bolden’s shoes when he makes that decision and has to not only answer to Congress, but to many scientists who will see their budgets cut, yet again.

Letter to the Editor

After the above post, I got an e-mail:

Stuart, what about the possibility of (for future missions, it’s probably too late to do something like this for Opportunity) turning operations for “expired but still viable” missions over to amateur (or private professional) research groups. After the official funded mission is over, could a bid process be set up to allow such groups (which would have their own private funding) to take over the control, data collection, and analysis from such “defunct” missions? Such a handoff would free NASA’s budget for contemporary / future missions, and also give other groups access to hardware / settings (Mars, for example) that their budgets would certainly not allow for. What are your thoughts in this regard?

Here was my response:

While this seems like a great idea on its face, you run into a lot of legal issues. In particular, ITAR-restricted information. That would put a stop to your scenario right away.

Beyond that, there are broader questions of how open the information would be once the data are gathered by an independent, private company. Though, one could of course argue that the company paid for it, therefore they should have the right to own it.

There are also some communications issues. The Deep Space Network is the only set of antennas that can record signals as faint as those sent by interplanetary craft. That’s a public (inter-governmental) group, so if the DSN brings down the data, are there licensing issues? I don’t know the answer to that, but it strikes me as a potential question.

Finally, you have “parts” of spacecraft that are still important and NASA (or other governments) still use even if they can’t fund all the other “parts.” For example, while MAVEN (around Mars now) has a suite of instruments for studding the atmosphere, they are only funded for one Earth year and must submit an extended mission request to operate beyond that. But even if that request is denied, the craft itself will still be kept active and act as a communications relay. It’s just that the science instruments won’t be collecting and transmitting data, and there won’t be money for scientists to analyze it.

It’s a very … perhaps “annoying” and “frustrating” … situation to be in, but unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as just selling the craft to someone else.

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April 10, 2014

Alien Lights or Cosmic Rays on Mars


Introduction

I was not going to talk about this because I didn’t think I had much to add. And I thought it was stupid. And, I’ve had run-ins with UFO Sightings Daily before (well, one).

But, people keep talking about it, so it at least deserves a mention here.

Origin Story

Everybody likes a good origin story. Wolverine made quite a lot of money.

The timeline, so far as I can tell, is that UFO Sightings Daily “discovered,” on April 6, 2014, and then posted, on April 7, 2014, the following:

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

Light on Mars in Curiosity Image (from UFO Sightings Daily)

An artificial light source was seen this week in this NASA photo which shows light shining upward from…the ground. This light was discovered by Streetcap1 of Youtube. This could indicate there is intelligent life below the ground and they use light as we do. This is not a glare from the sun, nor is it an artifact of the photo process. Look closely at the bottom of the light. It has a very flat surface giving us 100% indiction that it is from the surface. Sure NASA could go and investigate it, but hey, they are not on Mars to discovery life, but there to stall its discovery. SCW

Houston Chronicle Posts

It would’ve been relegated to everything else of random bright spots in images except that the Houston Chronicle‘s reporter Carol Christian decided to write a story about it.

And then two people posted to my podcast’s Facebook page (thanks Linda and Maryann). And Doubtful News picked it up, as did Phil Plait.

What Is It?

It’s a cosmic ray. >99% chance. Here’s what happens: High-energy particles constantly stream throughout the universe. We’ve been detecting them for decades, and their energy varies considerably.

Electronic imagers typically work when a photon – a bit of light – kicks up an electron within a pixel. Those electrons are counted after the exposure is done, and that’s how you get your image.

When high-energy particles randomly stream into a detector, they are higher-energy than the photons we’re usually trying to collect, and they appear as bright streaks. Digital cameras that you use for normal photography have algorithms to remove those as known noise sources, so you typically never see them. We also see them more rarely on Earth because many are blocked by the atmosphere.

Those of us who use research-quality cameras on telescopes, however, see them all the time. In fact, Phil said the exact same thing: “I’ve worked with astronomical cameras for many, many years, and we see little blips like this all the time.” (It’s nice when we agree.)

Right now, some of my research is focusing on using images from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit of Saturn, studying some of Saturn’s moons.

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Rhea from Cassini (W1594713967_1)

Here is one image of Rhea, taken by the ISS camera. It’s a raw image, about as original as you can get with respect to almost no processing has taken place. And look at all those stray bits of light! Pretty much every single one of them, including the two long streaks, and including the dots, are cosmic rays.

More evidence? Courtesy of Phil Plait, we have an animation:

Light, No Light (Phil Plait)

What’s nice is that this is from Curiosity’s NAVCAM, which has a pair of cameras. From the right camera, we have the bright spot. From the left camera, we don’t. The reason that you’re seeing a small shift in position is due to parallax between the two cameras (by design, since this helps tell distance). (FYI, Mike Bara, who addressed this just a half hour ago on Coast to Coast AM, claimed that the cosmic ray was the least likely explanation, and while he posts the parallax GIF on his website, he said he refused to name the source because “I dislike him [Phil Plait] intensely.” Despite showing a another image that Phil linked to, so clearly he read Phil’s blog. Mike’s seemingly only explanation for why it was not a cosmic ray is that he said it didn’t look like other cosmic rays people are pointing to. That’s like me saying that a rose is not a plant because all the examples of plants you’re showing me are trees. It’s a class of object, every cosmic ray on a detector looks a little different, especially when you have blooming factored in (see the next section).)

Why a Rectangle?

Either the cosmic ray hit at an angle, so we see it as a streak (see above example ISS image), or, as is also common with CCD images, when an individual pixel collects too much light, it tends to overflow, and spill over into neighboring pixels, almost always along columns. We call this “blooming.”

But Wasn’t It Seen In a Second Image in the Same Spot a Day Later?

Mike made this claim, and I saw it from a commenter on Phil’s blog. Thus far, no one has actually posted or linked to such a second image that I can find. If anyone has seen this claimed image, please let me know. And by “please let me know,” I mean providing the NASA image ID so I can find it. I know that Mike put an “Enhancement of April 3rd image” on his blog, but it’s useless for proving anything without the ID it came from.

Anything Else?

Maybe? This post might be slightly premature, and it’s a bit stream-of-consciousness, but I wanted to get it up before bed. The station on which I was listening to Mike on C2C decided to cut out the second half hour because of some crash somewhere, something about people dying, breaking news, etc. When I get the full audio, I may add to this, but it sounded like George was taking the interview in a separate direction after the bottom-of-the-hour break, though a caller may have brought it back up.

Let’s be clear about a few things, though:

1. The object is seen in one camera, not in another, despite the two cameras taking an image at the same time of the same spot.

2. There is a claim that it showed up in another image a day later, but so far as I can tell, this is just a claim and no one has pointed to that image. If it exists, I’d like to see it and I’ll re-examine my curt analysis.

3. We see similar artifacts in other Mars images, and we see them all the time in space-based cameras, and we see them generally in all electronic cameras (at least those that don’t get rid of them for us).

4. The story comes from UFO Sightings Daily and only became mainstream because a reporter at a somewhat mainstream paper picked it up.

So, what could it be? Aliens? Architecture that glints just right so it’s only in one camera of two that are right next to each other imaging something a few miles away? An impact flash from a crater forming? A dust devil reflecting the light just right? Lens flare?

Or a cosmic ray? I don’t think any of those previous explanations are likely, I think this is most likely.

Bara, as with other UFO / aliens protagonists, say that Curiosity should live up to its name and drive over there and investigate. Yup, take days, power, money (gotta pay the ground crew), and investigate what is very likely to be a high-energy particle that made it through the atmosphere and onto a camera’s CCD.

What do you think?

Edited to Add (10 hrs later): Per Phil’s latest blog post: “Except not really. Another expert on Mars hardware said it may have actually been a “light leak”, a bit of sunlight that somehow got into the camera through a hole, or crack, or seam somewhere in the hardware. He also says it may be a sharp reflection of sunlight off a glinty rock. Those are certainly plausible, though right now we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure which of these explanations may or may not be the right one.” Yup, another possibility. As is a defect in the camera sensor itself (see discussion in the comments to this blog post).

August 7, 2012

Richard C. Hoagland (et al.) on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) “Curiosity” Landing Last Night


Introduction

I attended a party at work for the Mars Science Laboratory (hereafter “Curiosity”) landing last night, so I wasn’t anywhere near the radio. I have to say that I am honestly a bit surprised everything worked exactly (or as near exactly) as planned and we had a very successful landing. A HUGE kudos/congratulations to all of the engineers who put that landing system together, and now the science team can start to learn more about Mars’ surface geology than hopefully most other landers put together.

That said, as promised on the Exposing PseudoAstronomy facebook page last night, Richard C. Hoagland was on Coast to Coast AM last night all four hours, each hour with a different person, discussing the landing. And I promised a blog post.

Warning: This post has snark. A non-trivial amount of it.

Hour the First

This was the hour that Curiosity landed. There was very little pseudoscience during this. A bit of wrong facts (such as the sky crane using steel cables to lower Curiosity when it used nylon), and a bit of Richard’s usual stuff, and then just four minutes before the top of the hour, we got to typical Richard.

There were prior two quotes perhaps worth mentioning. First: “There are several clues coming out of no less an authority than the White House that this mission, Curiosity, might be where NASA finally unveils a hint of the real Mars.” We know “real Mars” to Hoagland means ancient technology and life.

Second, in response to a question about finding fossils on Mars: “I am hearing officials – high officials in NASA – talking about Curiosity maybe spotting fossils. Now that means, politically, … if our trend curve / other data is accurate, this could be the mission where NASA comes clean and starts talking about actually what’s there on Mars.” I love how he always cites “officials” or “high officials.” Nameless, or course, to protect their identity, which also makes it uncheckable.

The typical Richard came out starting about 36:25 into the hour after George asked Richard what was “next” for Curiosity. Richard explained that it was going to be exploring the huge mound in the center of Gale Crater, Mt. Sharp, and that it would take years for the rover to get up to the top. But then we had: “The object itself – the mountain itself – [start talking in conspiracy voice as though he’s talking to a 3-year-old] doesn’t quite look … uh … ¿natural? Mount Sharp, the very peak, looks in fact like an eroded tetrahedron, like somebody – someone built this thing. This is going to sound totally nuts to all my enemies out there …”

Yup, pretty much. Immediately following that was a dig at, I think, Phil Plait as he mentioned hair-pulling but that some doing the hair-pulling don’t have much hair to begin with. He continued: “There is no commonly accepted mechanism for the formation of Mount Sharp in the middle of this crater.”

Richard then proceeded to say that craters form when an asteroid strikes a surface, “blasting a huge hole in the surface of Mars. How do you get a mountain? covering the crater subsequently? Where’d the stuff come fro? to form the mountain?”

George: “It was brought there maybe.”

Richard: “Exactly! And some of the photographs that have been taken by MRO, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that I have on the Coast website … they look down on incredibly geometric ruin-like structures photographed right in the path that Curiosity has to drive. … It is only the beginning.”

Apparently, Richard has no idea how craters larger than about 6 km on Mars form. At approximately that diameter and larger, craters are so large and create such a compressive force that the surface rebounds in the center and you get a central peak. Look at any reasonably fresh crater larger than 15 km on the Moon and you’ll see a central peak. Same with Mars (but the cut-off there is ~6 km as I mentioned). That explains a fair amount of Gale, but the rest of it – and why it was selected as the landing site – is what are thought to be sedimentary deposits. In other words, deposits made by water. Not a 50-mile-wide and 3-mile-high pyramid made by intelligent beings stupid enough to believe in your hyperdimensional physics, Richard.

Hour the Second

This hour was with John Brandenburg. This is not meant to be a poisoning of the well ad hominem nor non sequitur, but Brandenburg was introduced as having written books entitled, “Life and Death on Mars,” and “Beyond Einstein’s Unified Field.” He was further introduced as a plasma physicist and someone who was trying to “complete the work of Einstein” on unifying the fundamental forces mathematically. When one hears that, especially on a show like Coast to Coast, one’s B.S. detector should be tweaked.

Richard monopolized a lot of the time in the early part of this hour – and what I later found to be most of the show – and he reiterated his claim that the central mound in Gale Crater is a collapsed arcology. Some evidence, you might ask? Of course: “It’s got headlights! … Why, since you’re not driving at night, … why do you need headlights at night? They’re going into the structure where they don’t have any light!” Q.E.D. right?

He went on: “As we go through the morning I’m going to lay out more data points – carefully researched so I don’t sound like a total idiot, cause people can go and confirm this themselves; now, if they interpret the data the same way, that’s up to them, but the data is there … .”

That actually is a remarkably honest statement and it’s one of Richard’s many “outs” that he usually includes, and it’s also, incidentally, the way that creationists will often argue: It’s all about your worldview, we’re all looking at the same data! The problem with Richard is that he has his conspiracy/artifacts/life agenda, and the data – no matter what they are – will always support that from his vantage point.

He went on to say that the Obama administration is holding an “October Surprise.” I’m looking forward to November when George will come back and ask Richard why there wasn’t any no one holds Richard to this except for callers who don’t make it through and Facebook fans who get banned.

Anyway, after the bottom-of-the-hour-break, John explained that he believes Mars once had a thriving biosphere, that the climate changed dramatically with the formation of Lyot Crater (a crater that I have extensively studied and written three papers on …) that doomed the planet. Before that, it had an oxygen atmosphere and thriving biosphere according to him.

Well, real quick, in my papers I date Lyot Crater to about 3.3-3.7 billion years ago. There’s some VERY preliminary work I’m doing that might make it more like 2 billion years old, but that is in no way shape nor form an age that should be used at the moment.

On Earth, it took until something like 2.4 billion years before we had an oxygen atmosphere which was the pollution of the first bacterial life. This is a case where John Brandenburg can “believe” anything he wants, but it’s up to him to provide the evidence that supports his ideas and counters the established observations that disagree with his ideas.

Which get more strange. At 24:44 into hour 2: “There seems to have been a very large nuclear event. … One hypothesis I’ve put forth … [is] this was a natural nuclear reactor … and you can find a big radiation scar on Mars from the gamma ray spectrometer.” Okay, yes, natural nuclear reactors happened, it happened in Africa on Earth a long time ago. But there is NO evidence it happened on Mars. The Gamma Ray Spectrometer was designed to search for evidence of sub-surface hydrogen that is thought to be bound in water. Not search for nuclear blast sites. John cites several lines of “evidence” for his model that, honestly, are not evidence for anything he’s suggesting, but to get the whole story, of course you need to go buy his book.

No argument would be complete, though, without the argument from persecution, which comes at about 26 minutes into the episode when he said that he was denounced not only by the US but by the Soviets. I didn’t know he put forth his ideas prior to the 1990s.

But it gets better. The story continues when Richard comes back from listening to the NASA press conference and points out (first) that one of their lines of evidence for bombs going off is that some craters are in chains which look like bombing runs. Um, no. Craters occur in chains for at least three reasons: Pit craters (they are collapse features overlying voided lava tubes, so follow the lava tube), secondary craters (my specialty, ejecta thrown out from the formation of a primary crater), and craters formed by an object that was broken up by the gravity of the planet (think Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impact). Bombing runs would be the last thing any reputable scientist would suggest for the formation of a crater chain on Mars.

But it gets better. Richard points out that an instrument on Curiosity will be for investigating the radiation environment on Mars, but that because NASA keeps emphasizing “natural radiation,” they doth protest too much and so he thinks it’s code for, of course, radiation from whatever technology the ancient Martians had. It couldn’t be, possibly, because if they don’t say “natural radiation” some generic member of the public would wonder about it and ask why there’s radiation on Mars? (It’s because of a lack of atmosphere shielding it from NATURAL radiation from the sun and extra-solar system cosmic rays.) It’s why I keep trying to say “impact crater” instead of just “crater” (even though I fail) because “impact crater” is more specific. Even though it’s usually assumed. But no, it’s ’cause they’re using Curiosity to look for a way to date when the civil Mars war occurred that wiped everyone out.

The final “data point” we get from Richard in this hour that was supposed to feature Brandenburg in the first half and callers in the second half is that the White House christmas card from last year supposedly had, reflected in the blinds in the window, the logo for the Curiosity rover. Talk about pareidolia. And the fact that it was in the library, where no other White House christmas card has ever been photographed “before or since” (not sure how we’ve had a Christmas since 2011), is because they’re sending the message that Curiosity is going to uncover the ancient knowledge (represented by the books) of Mars.

2011 White House Christmas Card

2011 White House Christmas Card

How Richard puts this together is beyond me and likely would get him committed to many psychiatric institutes.

Hour the Third

It bears mentioning during this hour that Hoagland remarked about “typical NASA arrogance” when, during the press conference, the principle investigator for the mission was asked by a 10-year-old when “the kids” get to drive Curiosity on Mars. Hoagland stated that the PI had no sense of humor and bristled and said, “Well, there are 400 scientists ahead of her in line.” Richard’s response? Well, I already told you: “Typical NASA arrogance.” Hmm. How about “Basic fact and responding in a way that a child can understand.” As opposed to the reality, which is “never.” That would have been more of an arrogant response.

Most of this hour was relatively tame until around 24 minutes in. Robert Zubrin is, by most accounts a reasonably sane person and though he thinks that there are fossils on Mars, he doesn’t claim any of the pareidolia evidence that Sir Charles Schultz III does, he just thinks they’re there but we haven’t gathered evidence for them.

At 23:20, Richard interrupts, as he often does. In fact, there was a “debate” a few years ago between the two on Coast and Zubrin at one point effectively said, “Richard, if you’re not going to let me talk, if you keep interrupting me, I’m just going to hang up.”

Anyway, Richard claims that several NASA people have said that we might find fossils on Mars with Curiosity. I have not heard this. I would be very surprised if anyone connected with the team or a scientist or official at NASA stated that. I’d like to know who and when, Richard. If you skip over the one caller they took after that, to around 30 minutes in, Zubrin starts to question Richard’s statement. Then they start arguing. Hoagland believes they already know of fossils (and will disclose a few days before the US presidential election), Zubrin is more rational, which is always a big no-no on Coast.

They took one more call and Richard interrupted him.

Hour the Fourth

The guest this hour was Richard Hoagland. Oh, and some other guy who Richard didn’t really let talk. Something-something-something. (Looks up the name …) David Livingston.

David really didn’t bring anything to the table this hour because Richard kept talking. It was really just more of the same but Richard let his hair down a bit more and let himself talk more. Err, go more into his weird ideas. More conspiracy stuff, more “they know and this mission is going to let them talk about it and we have pictures of fossils” etc. etc. etc.

Final Thoughts

Can you tell I was a bit jaded by the end? Yeah …

Anyway, the only good thing to come out of it is, as usual, Hoagland kept saying throughout the night one of the only things that I fully support him on: The space program is awesome and the landing of Curiosity is a great accomplishment. More resources should be invested in space, and the landing of Curiosity has given the space program a very good and very needed P.R. boost.

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