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Episode 52: The Mystery of Phobos 2

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Recap: Did the Soviet Phobos 2 mission encounter an alien mothership just before it was lost, or was this something created two years after the fact by UFO enthusiasts who played fast and loose with the facts to create a fanciful tale based on image artifacts and conspiracy?

Solution to Episode 51's Puzzler: Nancy Lieder claims that Planet X is 23x the diameter and 4x the mass of Jupiter. She also said its gravity is 50% more than Earth's - we'll assume she means surface gravity - and that it is a water world with just a few landmasses. Is what she said plausible based on what we know from basic physics?

The solution is that no, this is not plausible, for several reasons. First off, Jupiter is 10% the diameter of the Sun, but it's about 0.1% the mass. If you increased Jupiter's mass by a factor of 4, there's no way it would be 23 times the diameter. That is, unless somehow you artificially heated it so that the atmospheric gases were more excited and expanded by a huge amount.

Also, at 4x the mass of Jupiter, you'd still just be a gas giant. The generally accepted term "brown dwarf" is for any object between about 13 and 80 Jupiter-masses. Above 80, and you become a star.

This is basic physics that has been demonstrated and never shown to be wrong in 400 years -- if it were somehow wrong, then many other things wouldn't work the way they do, such as hot air balloons.

Another issue is the 50% more gravity. Let's just assume that any "surface" of a gas giant expands proportionately with the diameter - though that's another issue, we know of no way for a planet to be that large and not be mostly gas as opposed to rocky as she's claiming. An object with 4x the mass and 23x the diameter would have a surface gravity of 4/23^2 that of Jupiter -- only 0.76% Jupiter's surface gravity. Jupiter's "surface" gravity is roughly 2.4x Earth's, meaning that Planet X's would only be 1.8% Earth's under Nancy's scenario, not 150%. Again -- fairly basic physics.

So, no, Nancy Lieder's Planet X is not plausible nor really possible under any of the basic physics that we've been using for centuries. As Phil K. put it, "Disproving Lieder's claims is like shooting fish in a barrel ... but will any of her followers pay attention?"

Puzzler: There was no puzzler for this episode.

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

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Claim: The claim we'll be looking into this episode is that the Soviet spacecraft to Mars, Phobos II, was blasted out of the sky in March of 1989 just after it photographed either a UFO mothership or a missile missile headed towards it, launched from the planet.

Missions to Mars

I think it's important in this kind of discussion to first talk about the history of missions to Mars. In total, by my count, there have been 43 different missions to Mars. There was one Chinese mission, one from the European Space Agency, one Japanese, 20 Russian or Soviet, and 20 American. Of all of these, 21 were mostly or completely successful, and most of those successful ones were from the United States.

The Soviets / Russians haven't had a completely successful mission to Mars since 1973. On the other hand, they have had much more success with landing on Venus than the United States.

What's the point in going through all this? The point is that space travel is hard, and it's hard to get everything working completely right, and it's hard for it to be a success. And some country's space programs have a better track record than others.

Phobos Missions

Phobos 1 and 2 were both named for Mars' larger and closer eponymous moon. They were almost twins, but because of weight restrictions, some instruments flew on one craft and not the other.

The scientific investigations of both missions were to conduct studies of the space between planets, observe the sun, characterize the plasma environment near Mars, study Mars' surface and atmosphere, and study the surface of the moon Phobos. They were launched on July 7 and 12, 1988.

Phobos 1 was operating normally for just under two months, and then on September 2, 1988, it had a communications failure. Mission operations on Earth could not regain contact with the craft. After an investigation, it was determined that the problem was with a software update on August 29/30, where there was an error that ended up deactivating its pointing thrusters. One single letter was sent wrong and that caused the thrusters to shut down. With those disabled, it couldn't keep pointed towards the sun, and the solar arrays couldn't power the batteries. So, Phobos 1 was dead.

Phobos 2 operated well for over 9 months, gathering data en route to Mars and when it got there and entered orbit on January 29, 1989. The final phase of the mission was for Phobos 2 to get within just 50 meters (160 ft) of the moon Phobos, and then to release two landers.

During a maneuver to bring it closer to the moon, the transmitter to send all communication back to Earth was shut down to conserve power, since it was already operating only on the backup power system. But, it didn't send a signal back indicating it had re-started, like it was supposed to. The control group on Earth tried to send emergency commands, and they got 17 minutes of telemetry data. But the craft was tumbling, the telemetry was confusing, and the only communication was through the small antenna on the craft. After those 17 minutes, they lost all contact on March 27, 1989.

Before it failed, it had returned several dozen images with a pixel scale up to 40 meters, which is pretty good.

After a lengthy investigation, they were able to decipher the telemetry and find out that the failure was with the spacecraft's on-board computer as opposed to getting hit with something like a meteor. So, the failure was determined to be due to a malfunction with the on-board computer. Something mundane that has been the cause of failure of half the missions to Mars.

At least, that's the official story and what THEY want you to believe.


Enter the conspiracy.

Conspiracists usually tell a somewhat different story. They say that, rather than already having suffered some mechanical and computer failures, including the loss of its main transmitter in late 1988, Phobos 2 was a completely flawless mission until it lost contact on March 29.

They say that it lost contact just before releasing the rovers onto Phobos, rather than a few days before the release during a maneuver to get closer to the moon.

But what they really focus on is the last reported infrared image returned from the craft. They tell a story of how the image was smuggled out of Moscow by Russian astronaut Marina Popovich who got it from another Soviet astronaut. She then showed it at a UFO convention in 1991, and she claimed it was "the first ever leaked accounts of an alien mother ship in the solar system."

I've actually seen a few different versions of the last image, so there apparently were a couple last images, but regardless, what they all show are a white vertical stripe in the bottom of the image vertically, but in the center horizontally. And that stripe is aimed towards the moon Phobos, which is nearly saturated white, towards the top.

Various people claim this is a spaceship that is at least 15 miles long. Or that it's the blast of a plasma beam weapon that destroyed the Phobos 2 spacecraft.

These are, of course, extraordinary claims, some of which are, on their face, factually wrong.

But what about this last image? All the ones that I could find that actually had a date attached say that the image was taken on March 25, 1989. That's interesting because, if you remember, that was two days BEFORE contact was actually lost.

And, as far as I can tell, there were actually several images taken after the one in question that was supposedly the last. In fact, I obtained an archive of 52 images taken by Phobos 2 and converted them from the file format the Planetary Data Systems service uses versus one that's normally readable, in this case to PNG. I count 12 taken for 62 minutes after that "last image" was taken.

What's even more interesting is if you scroll through the 52 images quickly, you'll notice that many of them have an artifact. There's a white, vertical stripe in the bottom of the image, centered horizontally. It varies in size, but that same artifact is present in 17 of the 46 that aren't saturated in that area of the image. The earliest dates to February 21, 1989, over a month before the craft was lost.

One also has to think more about the claim that this vertical line is a UFO mother ship that's a mile wide and 15 miles long. On what is that based? For those of you who have been with this podcast from the beginning, or listened to the older episodes, think back to Episode 2 wherein I explained why you can't know the size, distance, and speed of a UFO in any real units unless you already know one of those items. The application in this case is that even if we were to accept that this were a spacecraft, it would still be impossible to know how large it was unless you assumed its distance. I'm assuming in most cases that the UFOlogists assumed it was as far as Phobos was and that's how they calculated, it, but that's an assumption. Think of a fly on the lens appearing larger than an airplane 30,000 feet up.

However, all that apparently doesn't matter to conspiracy people, especially when they have remote viewing to back them up: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, February 17, 2008, Hour 2, starting 27:50 with Jim Marrs]

What the remote viewers told him: As Phobos 2 and Mars Observer started to get into orbit, a disk-like object rose from Mars towards each craft, with no hostile intent (like a tugboat vs. missile), and "scanned Phobos 2 with some kind of electromagnetic scanning beam ... . It realized that this was nothing that it had anything to do with, so the disk-shaped object turned and flew back to the surface of Mars, and-but, in beaming, uh, this probe, probing beam to the Phobos 2, it scrambled the onboard computer - threw it all off, probably sparking and going - and they lost control, and both the Phobos 2 and the Mars Observer then spiraled into the atmosphere of Mars and probably burned up."

Available Evidence

So in the end, with what are we left?

The known facts are that half the missions to Mars have failed. Phobos 2 was already having mechanical problems, and on March 27, after its transmitter had been shut down to conserve power while executing a maneuver, regular communication could not be re-established and the craft was lost.

We also know that many images taken by Phobos 2 and sent back to Earth have numerous image artifacts, including one that appeared on over 1/3 of the images perfectly aligned with the scan lines that digitized the images to send back to Earth. For more background on that, refer to episodes 47 and 48.

On the conspiracy side, we know that a Russian cosmonaut presented one of those images that had that artifact, claimed it was the last image taken by the craft (which it wasn't), and claimed that it was a UFO and she had to smuggle the image out of Russia. This was then printed in UFO magazine in 1992.

So that's the available evidence. On most conspiracy sites that you'll find if you do any internet searching for this, you'll find this usually in the context of NASA cover-ups (which is impossible since this was a Soviet mission), or Phobos itself being a gigantic spaceship, or Mars having life, or other such things. But the evidence here needs to stand on its own.

So as critical thinkers, we need to ask ourselves: What's the most likely explanation given the evidence available?

Is it that in this one case, the line was in fact not an artifact, but it's a plasma weapon or alien spaceship that destroyed Phobos 2 two days before it lost contact with Earth and sent back at least a dozen other photos?

Or is the evidence more consistent with it being an image artifact that was trumped up by UFO enthusiasts who played fast and lose with the facts and continue to propagate the conspiracy today? I think you know what my thoughts are on this subject, but of course, you should always examine the evidence for yourself.

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