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Episode 54: The Fake Story of Planet X, Part 5 (IRAS Discovery in 1983)

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Recap: In yet another episode on the Fake Story of Planet X, this episode explores the claim that NASA's IRAS survey actually found Planet X in 1983, and it was even reported in news papers. Since then, it's all been covered up. At least, that's what they claim.

There was no puzzler in episode 53.

Puzzler: This puzzler is an exploratory one with perhaps a few possible answers. One hypothesis that has existed is that there's a planet Vulcan interior to Mercury. Or perhaps a population of asteroids called the vulcanoids. So far, none have been discovered. Given that Mercury is so difficult to observe, how can we go about trying to determine if such a planet or population of asteroids exists? And as a hint, astrology is not a correct answer.

Q&A: This episode's question comes from Chris S. from across the pond who effectively asks: A claim that I've seen by some people, such as ancient alien proponents, is that there are some ancient monuments and sites that at certain times of the year, like the winter solstice, the rising sun shines directly along a long passage and illuminates a chamber floor. Or the sun on an equinox lines up precisely with two stones. But, as far as I'm aware, Earth's axis has changed in the last few years by a minimum of 7° so surely this would offset these alignments. What effect does this have to "sacred" and "ancient" sites which have been aligned with the sun?

To answer this question, I first consulted a previous guest, the Dumbass who I interviewed about ancient aliens in episode 18. He had a different insight than I, but it was along the same lines that I was thinking. Dumbass, AKA Parrot, said that ancient alien proponents will often make $h¡‡ up -- they'll pick any two points that happen to have the sun line up on their day of choice and say that clearly this means that this was built for that purpose. Or, they'll have a near-alignment with stars and claim that if you go back in time, due to precession, the site was built when the stars were just right for their arbitrary alignment, despite what all the archaeologists say.

So to backtrack a bit from his answer, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the stars will appear to move from a given location on a given day at a given time over the course of about 26,000 years. This is called precession, and it's why the nearly North Star now, Polaris, was not the north star when, for example, the ancient egyptians built the pyramids a few thousand years ago. So stars move, and any alignment with the stars today means that there could NOT have been that alignment more than a few hundred years ago.

That's not the case with the sun. Every year, astronomers actually re-define the year based on exactly when the center of the sun crosses the celestial equator on the northern hemisphere's spring equinox. That's why we sometimes add leap seconds to the calendar, based on when this happens.

Alignments with the sun do NOT change over time. The sun will always rise due East on both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and it will always rise furthest south of east on the winter solstice in your hemisphere and furthest north of east on the summer solstice in your hemisphere.

This means that an alignment that was based on the sun rising in a certain spot 5000 years ago will still happen today. Unless you're on a very fast moving plate of Earth's crust, but even then, nothing's really moved enough in the last few thousand years to throw off that rough alignment when you're talking about large stones.

What all this means, if we get back to Chris's question, is that any ancient monument built based on alignments with the sun WILL still show those alignments today. Any based on alignments with the stars more than a few hundred years ago will NOT show those alignments today. As for Earth's axis shifting a minimum of 7° in the last few years, I'm quite sure to what you're referring -- the magnetic pole has moved, yes, and it moves on human time scales. The geographic pole has not moved by more than a few millimeters.

New News:

  • Lunar Formation Updates (Episode 53)
    • Article 1: Cuk, M. and S.T. Stewart, "Making the Moon from a Fast-Spinning Earth: A Giant Impact Followed by Resonant Despinning."
    • Press release for Cuk & Stewart, including Movie showing angular momentum transfer simulation.
    • Article 2: Canup, R.M., "Forming a Moon with an Earth-Like Composition via a Giant Impact."
    • The first article is by Cuk and Stewart who reported on simulations of a giant impact that showed that the conditions for the impact to form a moon are not as restrictive as previously thought. In other words, the initial modeling of the impact event indicated that the Mars-sized object would have had to strike Earth at an angle, like a glancing blow, in order to get an outcome in which a moon formed and didn't destroy Earth.
    • These new simulations show that if the early Earth were to spin faster, the impactor could have struck closer to dead-on. They also showed that the material that would have formed the moon would primarily come from Earth's mantle, which helps to solve some of the isotopes of heavy elements that I briefly addressed in the last episode.
    • Meanwhile, another article came out by Robin Canup, who I may be able to interview on this podcast early next year. She's one of the originators of modeling the giant impact scenario and has been modeling it for over a decade. Her paper suggests that Earth may not have been hit by a Mars-sized object, but by an Earth-sized object. The combined planet would throw off a disk of debris that would also be primarily made of Earth's mantle, which also helps solve the isotope issue.
    • Both papers also rely on the Cuk and Stewart finding that angular momentum can be more easily removed from the Earth-Moon system than previously thought. One of the issues with having such a large impact, or Earth spinning around twice as fast as previously thought, is that the angular momentum of the combined system would be larger than we observe today, which is still abnormally large as I talked about last time.
    • But, Cuk and Stewart showed that soon after the Moon's formation, the Moon would have been in an elliptical orbit, and from gravitational gravitational interactions with the Sun over a very long time, the Moon can effectively bleed angular momentum off from the Earth-Moon system to the Sun, solving that higher angular momentum issue. If that doesn't quite make sense, I'll be posting a movie on the show notes for this episode that shows the simulations on the angular momentum transfer.
  • Radiocarbon Dating (Episodes 18 and 19)
    • Reimer, P.J. (2012) "Refining the Radiocarbon Time Scale."
    • Meanwhile, another paper came out since the last episode by Paula Reimer entitled, "Refining the Radiocarbon Time Scale." It was published in the journal Science.
    • I thought this article worth bringing up because I've previously discussed how radiometric dating works, but rarely do people ever get into the nitty-gritty details. One issue that we raised before is that the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere HAS changed over time, and you have to make corrections for objects that formed more than a few hundred years ago. When I interviewed Rachael Acks, she discussed an example of correcting for carbon put into the atmosphere since the onset of the industrial revolution.
    • This new article reports on the discovery of annual layers of sediment in a lake that have preserved organic material for the past 50,000 years, and because of this continuous record, it can be used to better calibrate how we correct for the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere that was incorporated into organic material at the time, and used for radiocarbon dating today.
    • Not a major paradigm-shattering discovery, but another example of how this kind of work is calibrated and how we're always working to refine our methods and techniques.

Additional Materials:


Before I specify what exactly we'll be discussing in this episode, I want to quickly list some of the other Fake Stories of Planet X that I've addressed in this podcast. The first was the idea of the 3600-year-old Planet X containing the alien Anunaki by Zecharia Sitchin. Second was Gilbert Eriksen's Wormwood that should be swinging by any day now. Third was the conspiracy idea that Planet X is approaching from the South Pole. Fourth was Nancy Leider's no-show Planet X from 2003, but her insistence today that it's still out there.

Claim: This episode's Fake Story of Planet X has to do with another conspiracy theory idea that NASA really and truly did discover Planet X in the 1980s and even news stories at the time reported on it, but that NASA covered it up and they're secretly monitoring it now but they're keeping it a secret from We the People.

IRAS Survey

Let's start out, as I normally try to do, with the science.

Earth's atmosphere blocks a lot of infrared light. Infrared light is the light that has a longer wavelength than visible light. Water is a good absorber of infrared light, and with the terrestrial atmosphere at 1-4% water vapor at any given time, it's responsible for absorbing around 70% of the infrared light. And being a molecule, it has a gagillion little bands of absorption that make astronomers' lives annoying. Another molecule that's not too common but we've heard a lot about is carbon dioxide, which is a very efficient infrared light absorber and generally in different parts of the IR spectrum than water vapor.

The point of this is to say what I said a minute ago, that our atmosphere is fairly efficient at blocking infrared light from getting in or out. What this means for astronomy is that anyone who wants to do infrared observations needs to get above the atmosphere or only work in very very narrow ranges of light that the atmosphere doesn't block. And work in dry locations. Infrared astronomy is very useful for performing observations like peering into dust clouds and the center of the galaxy because dust is more transparent in infrared light than visible. We can also see warm objects because they glow in infrared light, just like people do. And planets. And scientific instruments. Which means that besides the atmosphere itself absorbing infrared light, astronomers have to contend with their own instruments and the planet literally glowing in infrared.

What this is all leading up to is that the dawn of the space age meant that astronomers now had a better way of making observations in the infrared -- send an infrared observatory into space. It can be kept cold, and it can be above the infrared-light-emitting planet and infrared-light-absorbing atmosphere. This is the same case for ultraviolet, but that's a different podcast episode.

Fast-forward from 1957 with Sputnik 1 to 1983, a very good year when bright, promising astro/geophysicist was born. Also in that year, the IRAS was launched. IRAS stands for "InfraRed Astronomical Satellite" -- not the most original name, but functional and descriptive. And calling it the "IRAS Satellite" is the same as saying "PIN Number" -- Satellite is already in the name, so it's like saying "infrared astronomical satellite satellite," just like saying "PIN number" is saying "personal identification number number." If you really have to stick a word after "IRAS," use "survey."

Moving on from being pedantic, IRAS was the first-ever space telescope to perform an all-sky survey in the infrared. It imaged roughly 96% of the entire sky in four different wavelengths, 12 µm, 25 µm, 60 µm, and 100 µm. These are all where water absorbs very well. And for reference, 100 µm is about the width of a human hair, and 10 µm is about the size of a typical fog, mist, or cloud droplet.

IRAS Discovery

This means that this was the first time that astronomers - or really anyone - had been able to see what was visible in the sky at these wavelengths, and they could discover a lot of objects. In fact, over a quarter million infrared sources were found that hadn't been seen before. That's around the number of craters on Mars larger than about 1.2 km in diameter.

IRAS was launched in January 1983, and it had a 10-month-long mission. As with other infrared satellites, including the recent Spitzer Space Telescope, IRAS' lifetime was limited by the coolant on board. It was cooled by superfluid liquid helium, but after 10 months, the supply was depleted and the satellite started to heat up. That means that when it tried to image infrared sources in the sky, the signal was instead dominated by the glowing of the spacecraft itself. Though people such as Richard Hoagland have their own conspiracy about that and whether it really shut down.

So it went out of commission in November 1983, and in December, there were some press releases about some stuff it had seen. It's these news reports that Planet X proponents refer to when saying that NASA discovered Planet X, they're just keeping it silent. One in particular is from the Washington Post.

It's a real article, and I'll link to it in the shownotes, and the press release was real. Of course, there's yet another conspiracy theory about when the news was announced, just around Christmas and the Washington Post article printed just before New Year's Eve, so supposedly the story wouldn't get any traction.

But, getting back to the issue at hand, at least a third of the Planet X people that I've heard interviewed or read their material refer to this IRAS discovery and the Washington Post article. They don't refer to any other news articles.

The Post article starts by stating: "A heavenly body possibly as large as the giant planet Jupiter and possibly so close to Earth that it would be part of this solar system has been found in the direction of the constellation Orion by an orbiting telescope aboard the U.S. infrared astronomical satellite. So mysterious is the object that astronomers do not know if it is a planet, a giant comet, a nearby "protostar" ..."

So in other words, they see these infrared sources, and very early work from the data from IRAS shows that the scientists involved basically have no idea what it is. So it must be Planet X according to Planet X proponents. What they don't tell you is the rest of that first paragraph: "... a nearby "protostar" that never got hot enough to become a star, a distant galaxy so young that it is still in the process of forming its first stars or a galaxy so shrouded in dust that none of the light cast by its stars ever gets through. 'All I can tell you is that we don't know what it is,' Dr. Gerry Neugebauer, IRAS chief scientist ... said in an interview."

The Washington Post goes on to speculate more on what it could be, making much about the possibility of a previously unknown planet. But that's about it, and that's where the Planet X proponents stop. They say that IRAS discovered this, it was leaked by mistake, and everything since then has been covered up.


What they ignore is that these kinds of preliminary discoveries are ALWAYS followed-up with more observations to figure out what they are, or at least to try to figure out what they are. IRAS went hot before it could do more observations, and it lacked the resolution to really see much detail anyway.

Numerous other ground-based observations were made in other wavelengths of light to try to determine what several of the most interesting "mystery" objects were, including this one. A paper was published just the next year, in 1984, in The Astrophysical Journal (which is one of the main journals for astronomy and astrophysics), where they identified all of these objects as distant, bright galaxies that were especially anomalously bright in the infrared.

Not planets. And not a planet that hadn't been yet discovered within our solar system.


As with most conspiracy theories, I've never seen anyone actually acknowledge nor try to refute the follow-up with their data or their own careful observations. They all simply refer to the 1983 Washington Post article and say that any denial since then is simply a cover-up. Observations with better space-based infrared observatories have been censored. Because obviously the first news article about something and the first of many possibilities that are listed is the entire story and is always right.

And that's really it for this Fake Story of Planet X. An early all-sky survey found something that people were unsure about, and later observations showed it to be nothing in the solar system, but rather something several billion light-years away. But, the conspiracy people take those first observations and ignore everything else, and to this day, this is one of the primary "NASA really did actually factually discover Planet X" claims out there.

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