Exposing PseudoAstronomy

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 We recorded this on June 01, but none of it is out of date other than speculation about new moons or rings – or any hazards – found.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.

December 30, 2014

My First Infographic: What Have Our Planetary Space Probes Photographed Since 1970?



Introduction

This has been over two months in the making: I’m finally releasing my first infographic. It’s entitled, “Planets and Major Moons: Distribution of Non-Lander Spacecraft Photos Since 1970.” (Suitable for printing on A-size paper with a bit of top and bottom margin to spare.) The purpose is to show the number of images taken by different space probes of the planets (and major satellites), the percentage of the total images that were for each body, and for each body, the percentage taken by each different spacecraft.

PDF Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (3.5 MB)
PNG Version of Spacecraft Imagery Infographic (4.7 MB)

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Number of Images of Planets Taken by Spacecraft Infographic

Development Process

I’ve been wanting to create infographics for awhile. Really good ones are few and far between, especially for astronomy, but the good ones are often amazing works of art. I don’t pretend that this is an amazing work of art, but hopefully it’s not ugly.

To me, the key is to have a lot of information crammed into a small space in an easy-to-understand way that you don’t have to be an expert to interpret. In my work, I deal a lot with multi-dimensional datasets and so already I have to come up with ways of displaying a lot of information in as few figures as possible and yet still make them readable.

The Idea

An idea that I came up with is based on the claim that “NASA hides all its pictures!” (This is often, hypocritically, almost immediately followed up with NASA spacecraft imagery showing claimed UFOs and other pseudoscientific claims.)

And so, I wanted to investigate this: How many images really have been taken and are available publicly, for free, on the internet? After several days of research, I had the results, and I assembled them into the above infographic.

The Numbers

I was surprised by some of the numbers and I was not surprised by others. One thing that did not surprise me was that the outer planets have very few photographs (relatively speaking) of them, while most imagery has focused on Mars and the Moon (fully 86%).

But, I was not prepared for how very few photographs were taken by our early probes to the outer solar system. Pioneers 10 and 11 were the first craft to venture out, and yet, because of the (now) archaic method of imaging and slow bandwidth, they collectively took a mere 72 images of both Jupiter and Saturn. Compare that with the ongoing Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the moon, which has publicly released over 1.1 million images.

You can also see the marked effect of the Galileo high-gain antenna failure: Only 7.4% of the photos we have of Jupiter were taken by Galileo, despite it being an orbiter in the 1990s. Compare that with the Cassini orbiter of Saturn, which has returned nearly 50 times as many images, despite no dramatic change in technology between the two craft. This means that only 0.4% of our images of planets and moons are of Jupiter, while 1.9% are of Saturn.

You can also see the marked success of modern spacecraft and the huge volumes of images that (I repeat) are publicly available. The pie slices in the infographic are color-coded by approximate spacecraft operation era. Well over 90% of all images were taken after 1995, and the current suite of the latest NASA spacecraft (MESSENGER around Mercury, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the Moon, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter around Mars) account for a sizable fraction of the returned data for that body — especially MESSENGER, which accounts for 98.1% of all Mercury images.

What was I most surprised by? The Clementine mission to the moon. It returned and has publicly archived just shy of 1.5 million images of the lunar surface. I expected the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to have surpassed that. And, it still may, as it continues to operate and return data. We shall see.

Why the Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

As I said, one of the primary reasons I made this was to investigate the claim by conspiracy theorists that these space agencies hide photographs. The blame rests almost entirely on NASA by most conspiracists’ accounts. This infographic proves them wrong in two significant ways.

First, at least for the Moon, Mars, and Venus, sizable numbers of images have been taken by and publicly released by non-NASA sources. I specifically have data from the European Space Agency (SMART-1, Venus Express, and Mars Express), and Japanese Space Agency (SELENE / Kaguya). While both the Indian and Chinese space agencies have also sent spacecraft to the moon and Mars (Mars for the Indians with the recently-in-orbit “MOM” craft), and Russia has sent craft to Venus, Moon, and Mars, I could not find the public repositories – if they exist – for these missions. Therefore, I could not include them. But, a lack of those two does not affect the overall point, that non-NASA agencies have released photos of these bodies.

Second, as I’ve repeated throughout this post, these are the publicly released images. Not private. Public. To public archives. In the bottom-left corner, I have the sources for all of these numbers. (Please note that they were compiled in late October and may have increased a bit for ongoing missions — I’ll update periodically, as necessary.)

The total number of lunar images? About 3 million.

Mars? Around 1.6 million. Venus? Over 350,000. Mercury? Over 210,000.

It’s hard to claim that NASA hides lots of images when these numbers are staring you in the face.

What Conspiracists Could Still Claim

I think the only “out” at this point, given this information (and if they acknowledge this information), is for conspiracists to claim that NASA and other space agencies simply obfuscate the “interesting” stuff. I suppose that’s possible, though they’d need armies of people to do it on the millions of returned images. And they apparently do a pretty bad job considering all the images that conspiracists post, claiming that features within them are of alien-origin.

It’s amazing how the “powers that be” are so powerful, and yet so sloppy. Apparently.

What This Infographic Does Not Show

I had to decide to clip a lot of information. We’ve imaged a lot of asteroids and a lot of comets. Those are out. We have had landers on the three closest bodies (Moon, Mars, Venus). Those images were not included.

Also, I focused on visible-light images, mostly. There are some instruments that take more UV images, or far-IR images, or various other wavelengths, but this infographic focused on the visible or near-visible light camera data.

Pretty much the only exception to this is for the Magellan mission at Venus, which took radar swaths of the planet to “image” the surface. I included this because, in early test audiences, I did not have Venus at all, and they requested it. Then, I did not include Magellan, but the test audiences wondered what happened to it. Describing why that data was not present made things wordy and more cluttered, so I, in the end, simply included it and put a footnote explaining the Magellan data.

This also fails to show the volume of data as measured by or approximated by (for the older craft) pixel count. If I were doing this by amount of pixels returned, the Moon and Mars would be far larger in comparison, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter would be much larger fractions of their respective bodies.

Final Thoughts

I’m releasing this under the Creative Commons license with attribution required, non-commercial distribution, and no derivative works (please see the CC stamp at the bottom of the infographic). This is so that I can at least have some semblance of version control (see release date at lower right).

I hope you find it useful and interesting. And at least somewhat purdy. If you like it, share it.

July 3, 2013

Preview of #TAM2013 Workshop 1A: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”


The Amazing Meeting www.amazingmeeting.com #TAM2013

WORKSHOP 1A • HOW YOUR CAMERA LIES TO YOU • 8:00-9:30A.M.

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide

TAM 2013 Workshop 1A Title Slide: “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography”

 


Introduction

As I announced a few months ago, and is now apparent at the top of the official schedule, I will be co-presenting a workshop entitled “How Your Camera Lies to You: From Ghosts to UFOs, a Skeptics’ Guide to Photography.”

I’ve now presented two drafts of the workshop in talk form at the Denver and Colorado Springs Skepticamps, and Bryan (the co-presenter) and I have met a few times and are near a final version. As such, I want to give a preview of what you can expect if you come (and if you’re going to TAM and will be there Thursday morning, you should definitely go to this workshop!).

Original Description

First, we’ll take you through a brief history of photography, from daguerrotypes to polaroids to cameras around Mercury, to learn about how images are taken and processed. In the next phase, we’ll show you processing tips and tricks and what Photoshop is really doing when you tell it to “Reduce Noise” or “Auto-Levels” and how every processing step can introduce more anomalies. During the last third of the workshop, we’ll go through numerous examples of claimed paranormal, supernatural, or alien images and take you through how to analyze them to figure out what’s really going on. This workshop will be interactive with the audience being asked to guess what manipulation has been applied and how they would start to analyze each new image for what may be really shown.

That was the description that I wrote back in January when originally planning this. I’m a very linear thinker. The idea of talking about how cameras work, then anomalies that take place due to how they work, and then paranormal claims based on those anomalies made total sense to me and is probably still how I would do it if I were teaching a university course.

Revising

Bryan is a much more abstract thinker. His talks are frequently a lot of pictures up that he and Baxter just talk through and discuss, sometimes forgetting that they even included them in the presentation. The workshop has ended up being something of a mesh of the two that I think works out better than either extreme.

Here is a revised description:

So much “evidence” today for paranormal claims stems from photographic and vidographic depictions.  The vast majority of these are based on well known but unidentified anomalies based in photographs and videos are made, while many others are intentional hoaxes.  We’ll take you through many of the key anomaly types by using actual claims that are made based on them.  We’ll also show you how real scientists know about these and are able to remove a lot of them from their data.  Finally, we’ll take you through some actual hoaxes and discuss ways to determine how they were done and why they are more likely to be hoaxes than real.  This will be interactive: We’ll be asking you to participate along the way and see if you can figure out how some of our examples were done.

Rough Topic List and Outline

There’s a lot of stuff that I wanted to fit in this workshop. Heck– I’ve done two podcast episodes dedicated to this material and most of the stuff I discussed in them didn’t make it into the workshop. This could easily have been four hours long if I had my way, but I don’t think anyone would want to go to that. So, Bryan and I have settled on a few of the anomaly types that we think form the majority of ghost-type and astronomy-type claims out there (and can also be applied to other claims), then I get to talk about how astronomers process photographs, and then we’ve settled on five hoaxes to round the workshop out — two ghost-type, three astronomy.

I should preface this list that it is still subject to revision, and it may be truncated if we run short on time. But, as currently planned, the topic list of anomaly types is:

  • Double Exposure
  • Forced Perspective
  • Long Exposures & “Night Mode”
  • Obstructions in the Optical Path
  • Optical Reflection and Refraction
  • Lens Flares
  • Hot Pixels
  • Noise
  • Pareidolia
  • Finite Resolution
  • Compression

Examples of these include, but are by no means exhaustive: Cities on Mars and the Moon, ghosts, reptilians, geoglyphs, orbs, UFOs, and Planet X.

Interactivity

Workshops, as opposed to TAM talks and panels, are meant to be interactive. Or at least, they are supposed to be (many aren’t *cough*ScienceBasedMedicine*cough*).

We have some planned, besides the obvious, “Please interrupt us if you have a question!” and questions at the end, and send any feedback to us at this email. One is where we ask if anyone can find the ghost in some images. Another is for all the hoaxes, asking the audience to spot the red flags and what the steps of investigation should be or could be. During some of the anomalies discussion (bulk of the workshop, probably the first ~50-60 minutes), we’ll be doing a live photography demo and asking in some of the cases what you/they (the audience) thinks may be going on — even though we’ll be giving the broad category (like, “crap on the lens”), the question of exactly what’s going on is still not always obvious.

Final Thoughts

This should be a really cool workshop, one that I don’t think has been done at TAM in a long time, if ever. You have a pro and semi-pro photographer (I’ve sold some stuff!) and this year’s only TAM presenter who’s an actual astrophysicist (me!). We’re also the first workshop, a great way to launch your TAM-affiliated activities.

So, if you’re going, come to the workshop! Ask questions ‘n’ other things! There may be delicious prizes!

If you’re not going, but you think this’ll be interesting, help spread the word (Twitter, Facebook, direct e-mailing to friends who are attending, sky writing, smoke signals, etc.).

May 10, 2013

Podcast #74: The True Color of Mars


Conspiracy strikes!
But Stuart says, “Mars’ color
Is natur’ly red.”

This episode is hopefully the last for a few months on image processing gone horribly wrong. I swear.

This one is an episode I’ve been wanting to do for awhile — at least since last year — but I had been putting off because I didn’t want to listen to Richard Hoagland again and take detailed, dense notes. And I’d covered Richard a lot recently. And I’d done a lot of image analysis episodes. The claim is that the color of Mars is fake, that it really should look like Earth. And since no space agency’s photos look that way, they’re all fake color.

The episode includes has two Coast to Coast clips (both Hoagland), Q&A, feedback, and a puzzler! The episode is around 40 minutes long.

December 1, 2012

Podcast #56: Photography Claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax, Part 3


Sorry this is coming out a few hours late (though earlier than some), but the fact that I can speak clearly today was a surprise. Anyway …

This episode is the third of likely just three on photography claims people make that supposedly show the Apollo lunar landings were faked. Claims addressed are:

  • Why Can’t We Image Apollo from Earth?
  • Lens Flares are present when they shouldn’t be because they were using the best possible lenses
  • The backgrounds in some photos aren’t right …
  • Who took Video of Neil Armstrong Descending onto the Moon and the LM lifting off the Moon?
  • The American Flag is Always Lit Regardless of Side
  • There Are No Stars!
  • The “C” Rock.

This is also a “full-fledged action-packed” episode featuring all other segments: New News, Q&A, Feedback, Puzzler, and an announcement.

The announcement is: Though it’s a bit early to say for certain we’re not all going to die this December 21, I’m starting to look for back-peddling by doomsday proponents for a follow-up episode very early next year. If anyone listening to this podcast happens to come across something by anyone who claimed stuff like Planet X would cause a pole flip, a big solar storm would wipe us out, or even on the positive side that we’ll all be able to levitate and do instant healing, and you see these people start to make up excuses for why it’s not happening, please send it in!

P.S. I tried a new noise removal setting in this episode as well as a different equalizer. I also saved it at slightly higher bitrate. Let me know if there are still issues, or if the audio at least sounds any better.

May 16, 2012

Podcast Episode 35 – Apollo Hoax Photos, Part 2


Slightly late, episode 35 has been posted. I go over four photography claims dealing with crosshairs and shadows.

I’m also considering experimenting with making this episode (and potentially some other visual ones) into YouTube-type videos. Let me know what you think.

Oh, and this episode introduces a new segment — new news related to previous episodes.

April 15, 2012

Podcast Episode 31: Photographic Claims of the Apollo Moon Hoax (Part 1)


In this latest episode, I talk about some of the main photography claims that people point to in perpetuating the Apollo Moon Hoax idea, or why we supposedly did not go to the Moon with astronauts between 1969 and 1972.

This is a Part 1 edition, though the Part 2 will come in around a month or so. This one focuses not on the photographs themselves, but claims that the astronauts could not have taken them. Part 2 will address many of the main claims about what’s in the photographs as opposed to the existence of the photographs in the first place.

I also have a different kind of puzzler this time. This is a photography challenge, of sorts, where your challenge (should you choose to accept it), is to take a photo of the moon and a photo of stars. Then, use the settings you used on the moon to try to take photos of stars (and see what happens), and then use the settings you used to actually get stars and take a photo of the moon (and see what happens).

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