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Episode 88: Is Phobos Hollow?

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Recap: A common claim by Richard Hoagland is that various celestial objects are artificial or have artificial objects or structures upon or within them. One such object is Mars' inner moon, Phobos. This episode is a look at the history of the claim and the evidence presented.

Puzzler for Episode 88: There is no puzzler in episode 88.

Answer to Puzzler from Episode 87: There was no puzzler in episode 87.

Q&A: This episode's question comes from Dorri J. who asks: "I was listening, again, to episode 3 where you mention the Oort Cloud. I understood you to say that our Oort Cloud is only theoretical, but that astronomers know there are Oort Clouds around other solar systems. Did I get that right? If so, why do we know they exist far away but not for sure in our own system?"

The answer has to do with the brightness of a bunch of stuff spread over the entire sky versus concentrated in one small area.

In our solar system, when viewed from Earth, the theoretical Oort Cloud is made of trillions of objects up to 2 light-years away spread throughout the sky. Very dark objects. If you were to look in any given direction with a telescope, the field of view would hypothetically only contain a very few of those objects. The sum total brightness is beyond our current ability to detect them in any wavelength of light.

Contrast that with looking at a distant star system. The entire thing is within the field of view of the telescope. If you're able to block out the light from the star, then you can see stuff around it. If you look in the infrared, you can see objects that are cooler than the star, such as planets, which is how in a very few cases we've been able to directly image planets around other stars. And, within your field of view for systems that are farther away, you have the light from those trillions of cold objects in an Oort Cloud in a very compact field of view.

With that in mind, it appears as though I was remembering incorrectly and may've jumped the gun. We have observed water-rich bodies falling into protostars and evaporating around red giants, and seen evidence of asteroid belts and ice-rich comet belts around other stars, but apparently not a spherical distribution of icy bodies around other stars. Not yet, anyway.

Additional Materials:


Claim: That's really the claim in this episode, that Phobos is hollow: [Clip from The Unexplained #34, starting 5:49]

1950s-1960s Origin

But, before we get to him, we can go back over 50 years to 1958, the same year that NASA was founded. In fact, the date on this episode, October 1, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of that founding.

However, this story has nothing to do with NASA, for once. In 1958, the Russian astrophysicist Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky was studying Phobos' orbit around Mars. The moon had only been discovered in the very late 1800s, but it was known how long it took to orbit the planet. Based on how long it took, one could then predict where it should appear around Mars on a given day. What was being discovered around this time is that Phobos was NOT actually where it should have been, it was slightly ahead in its orbit.

We call this "secular acceleration," meaning that the moon was accelerating its speed around Mars, meaning that it was gradually getting closer and closer. Shklovsky's contribution was that he proposed a model where the secular acceleration could be explained by a "thin sheet metal" structure for Phobos, meaning it's hollow. He based this on estimates of how dense Mars' upper atmosphere is and concluded that it could not exert enough force on the moon - if it were solid and so weighed a lot - to change its orbit the amount that he observed it.

Put another way, if we go back to basic physics, if you want to change the movement of a big massive object, you have to apply a large force. If you want to change the movement of a big light object, you can apply a smaller force. Shklovsky determined that Mars' atmosphere could not provide a large enough force to change Phobos if Phobos were heavy, therefore it had to be light, and since we had a decent idea of its size, it had to be hollow to still be that large. One of his calculations was that it was an iron sphere 16 km wide but less than 6 cm thick. Obviously in that kind of situation, it would be artificial.

Shklovsky wrote a book in 1962 entitled, "Universe, Live, Intelligence." It was later expanded in 1966, with the added co-author Carl Sagan, and the title changed to "Intelligent Life in the Universe." I haven't read the book, but Richard Hoagland claims that an entire chapter is devoted to Phobos.

In 1969, Shklovsky was shown to be wrong about Phobos - and this is of course the part of the narrative that Richard Hoagland leaves out when telling the story. Shklovsky's observations were shown to be over-estimates, that instead of Phobos' orbit decaying at 5 cm/yr, it was 1.8 cm/yr, much less. And, we now attribute it and it can be fully accounted for by tidal effects as opposed to atmospheric drag -- something that Shklovsky did not consider.

We have also had spacecraft flyby Phobos and so we can estimate its mass. From the mass and measurements of its volume, we know that its average density is 1.887 g/cm^3, or a little less than twice as dense as water. Rock is generally 3-4 times as dense as water, so this indicates that Phobos is probably a rubble pile.

In astronomy, a rubble pile means that you have an object that's been hit so many times that it's fully fractured, and while there is some material strength left, it can best be modeled as a large pile of gigantic boulders held together by mutual gravity and a teeny bit of material strength. Most asteroids other than the largest are rubble piles. Phobos being a rubble pile would not be unusual.

And with that, one might think the story would die.

It did until 2010, when it was revised by the Coast to Coast AM pseudo-science adviser ... I mean, science advisor, Richard C. Hoagland.

Overview of Hoagland's Claim Types

Anyone who's listened to this podcast for more than a few episodes by now probably has a good idea of what Richard Hoagland's shtick is. It can be classified into a few different things.

1. Richard takes photographs and blows them up in size and increases contrast and claims that the image noise and compression artifacts are real and evidence of artificiality. He's especially big on rectilinear features.

2. He practices numerology and searches for numbers that play a part in his made up physics mythology and when those numbers show up, he claims that's evidence for his idea.

3. He creates straw man arguments about what people say or claim, read well beyond the actual intention of something someone has said, and claims therefore that they're actually supporting his claim.

4. He insists that he's reading the data correctly and that anyone who doesn't see what he does in the data is looking at it wrong or they're being paid to say he's wrong.

5. Whenever possible, he references science fiction as evidence, especially Star Trek and his ties to his "good friend" Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek).

We see all of these in his claims about Phobos.

Why 2010

The reason that 2010 was the year of interest by Richard for Phobos is that it was February 16, 2010, that the European Space Agency (ESA) swung by Phobos with its spacecraft Mars Express. Mars Express has a radar instrument called MARSIS and it has a very high resolution camera called the High-Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC). Mars Express is on a highly elliptical orbit that can take it very close to Phobos and, in 2010, it did, and they took the highest resolution images and first radar data of the moon.

After a week or so, they released the data. Already, Richard Hoagland sniffed a conspiracy. Why? Because they sat on the data for a week. It couldn't be because it takes awhile to downlink data from Mars. It couldn't be because it takes awhile to make sure that they've processed the data correctly for an object they've never imaged with that instrument before. It couldn't be because the scientists themselves wanted to see if they could get any initial science out of the data before releasing to the public and other scientists who might try to scoop them on something.

No, it's because, according to Richard Hoagland, they were figuring out how to hide its amazing artificiality from the public by adding image noise. And the fact that Richard, after spending a day with Photoshop, claimed to have figured out an algorithm to remove that noise and find the amazing artificiality, that led him to claim that they WANTED people to figure it out and that disclosure would happen before the end of the year.

What happens if you argue with Richard about this? If you try to tell him that you simply disagree? Robert Zubrin found out on May 26, 2010: [Clip from Coast to Coast AM, May 26, 2010, Hour 4, starting at 4:52]

Hoagland's Data

So what are these data? When you really get down to it, it's the MARSIS radar data. MARSIS stands for the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding. It's a pulse radar sounder and altimeter and has ground-penetrating radar capabilities. It effectively - if not precisely - works by sending a radar beam at an object and listening for the echos as the radar bounces back. It might receive a series of echos, each of them coming from a different radar reflector that's at a different distance from the craft.

Kinda like if you have a bright laser pointer and shine it on a series of translucent plastic sheets that are separated a bit by air, you will see with your eye a separate laser spot on each plastic sheet. You can try this at home if you have a laser pointer and a bunch of plasticware for storing food -- stack the lids and shine the laser at an angle, and you should see a separate spot on each lid. In this case, the laser is the radar transmitter, the lids are different radar reflectors, and your eye is the detector.

In doing this, you can build up a 3D picture of an object. Ice and water make really good radar reflectors at the wavelengths that MARSIS is tuned to, and that's why the instrument is on Mars Express. But, it can also pick out large changes in density, like with the laser showing you changes between air and plastic. When MARSIS was used on Phobos, the team found that there were voids within the moon.

To quote the ESA press release specifically: "Previous Mars Express flybys have already provided the most accurate mass yet for Phobos, and the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) has provided the volume. When calculating the density, this gives a surprising figure because it seems that parts of Phobos may be hollow. The science team aim to verify this preliminary conclusion."

Note the grammatical error in the last sentence. I should also point out that often NASA press releases have small grammatical errors, and some even have minor factual errors. This becomes important later on.

It's the phrase "Phobos may be hollow" that must have set Richard off with glee that they really truly did use that term and he didn't have to make it up. Richard went on a few shows and claimed that an "inside source" from ESA told him that there was discussion within the MARSIS team that the data clearly showed that there were gigantic void spaces, rooms with walls, ceilings, and floors, and "firmaments" that all showed that it was a spaceship that was fully 1/3 hollow. Richard even went on to claim that his inside source sent two graduate students to a space summit that President Obama held in 2010 with the data showing it was artificial, but Obama and others refused to listen.

"Hollow" or "Porous"

Howard Hughes runs the podcast "The Unexplained," and it was that podcast that Richard discussed a lot of this. To his credit as a journalist, Howard contacted the study's author and a man quoted in the ESA press release, Olivier (O-liv-ë-ä) Witasse, and Howard released a roughly 30-minute episode immediately after his interview with Richard asking about the claim of Phobos being hollow.

This is why I pointed out the grammatical mistake in the press release and frequent mistakes in NASA's. Olivier was clearly a non-native English speaker. Howard pointed out that it would seem that an organization like ESA or NASA should have the best editors around and know what they're talking about when they try to translate things and be very specific about their language. My pre-emptive point is that they try, but they are not perfect. Here's the relevant exchange: [Clip from The Unexplained #35, starting 9:43]

OW: "Probably we should not have used 'hollow.' Because I think that, yes, because for some of us, English is not our native language of course--"

HH: "So you're saying that that word, 'hollow,' and that interpretation, was simply lost in translation?"

OW: "Yes, I think so. Because what we wrote is that we said part of Phobos is maybe hollow, and in fact maybe what we should have written on the web and said to everybody, and we know it, and we have the data for that, Phobos is porous. It's not a complete solid body. We know that from the data that we have that Phobos might be maybe 30% porous. ... 30% a void inside Phobos. And we should have used the word 'porous,' or 'low-density,' instead of 'hollow.'"

Later in the interview, Olivier points out that the press release did not state that Phobos is hollow, but rather that PARTS of Phobos may be hollow, which he meant to mean and be interpreted as Phobos is porous. He also stated that people are welcome to their opinion about this kind of thing, but that there are no facts that could possibly back up their claims that Phobos is hollow, and he blew away the whole inside source thing, stating that no one in ESA seriously believes Phobos is artificial, nor did they send any grad students to see Obama with the data about it being artificial.

Hoagland Rebuts

Nearly two years later, Richard rebutted this simply saying that Olivier is getting paid to keep up the lies. Richard also presents a straw man, saying that Olivier believes that it's porous as in sand in an hourglass, whereas Richard is thinking voids like swiss cheese. That's wrong. Olivier never said that, but Richard used it to create a false dichotomy saying that the sand model is wrong and his void model is correct.

When in fact, neither is what the scientists think. As I explained earlier, it's the rubble pile model with voids on the scale of millimeters to meters. But, Richard spent well over 10 minutes lamenting that Howard was unable to get Olivier to be honest ... as in, state that Richard was correct, and that Richard found it very frustrating that he can't get any scientist to be "honest" because they're all bought and paid for.

Linda Moulton Howe's Contribution

Linda Moulton Howe did her own very base-level investigation in 2013. LMH, as she's often abbr. on Coast to Coast, is an investigative journalist who runs the website. She has been associated with Coast since the very early days with Art Bell and was the 11th guest Art had on his new Dark Matter radio program, on October 3, 2013.

She claimed that Phobos is weird, and that she was sent a "web article" that describes Phobos as a camouflaged object that has a hollow interior that someone from ESA leaked to her. She did a teensy bit of research, found a recent press release from Purdue University that quotes Jay Melosh who didn't accept my faculty application two years ago, and contacted him to do an interview under what sounded like false pretenses: She told him that she wanted to interview him about why they wanted to do a sample return mission to Phobos.

Instead, the roughly 15-minute interview that she played on Coast was almost entirely made of her asking in numerous ways and numerous times about the validity of her "leaked" information that Phobos could be hollow and unnatural. Each time, Melosh told her no. No evidence it's hollow, no evidence it's artificial, no one at ESA thinks it's artificial, and that it's just porous, not hollow.

Bits of Other Data

I mentioned that we see five different types of claims by Hoagland in this. I've focused mainly on the third and fourth with the radar data and interpretation of the word "hollow." But, he does use the others.

For example, he did claim that he figured out an algorithm to subtract some of the noise that "they" added to the image and it shows it's artificial. I've looked at his rendition of the images and it's an over-use of the Sharpen and Contrast tool, and reading into image noise and compression artifacts, as usual.

For numerology, he claimed that Phobos orbits Mars in 7 hours 39 minutes, and that both the number 7 and the number 39 are special hyperdimensional physics numbers, therefore they couldn't happen by accident, therefore Phobos is artificial. It's true that 39 is twice 19.5, which is his big important number, but I don't know how 7 factors into anything he's said before.

And, he's entitled his two-part very lengthy web series on Phobos' artificiality as, "For the World Is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky." Anyone who's an Original Series Star Trek fan should recognize that. For the 99% rest of you, it's the title of an episode where an entire civilization, the Fabrini, believes they are living in a planet, when in fact they are in a giant space ship made to look like a large asteroid called Yonada. The title of the episode is a line that an inhabitant says after he discovered this and was killed by the Oracle of the People - a god-like computer - that runs the ship.

So, there you have it -- all parts and we have a Hoagland quint-fecta.


It really seems as though the modern push for Phobos being hollow came from a "lost in translation" press release by the European Space Agency. Mix in standard pseudoscience that we've talked about numerous times on this podcast, and you can easily take that single misused word to make a hollow mountain out of a rubble pile molehill.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 3. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Stuart R.   Lyons, CO, USA

7:51pm on Thursday, January 9th, 2014

There is plenty of geometry that is natural. Richard Hoagland's thesis that any and all geometry indicates some form of life is simply wrong.

Anonymous   Location unknown

5:51am on Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Like all modern stablishment defenders you avoid the abvious and stick to theories proven to be wrong. The photografic material shows geometrical paterns indicating artificality.

Ant   Darwin

6:56am on Saturday, October 26th, 2013 

I observe that all data from the ESA MEX of Phobos has been redacted.

NASA have admitted Phobos is not a captured moon. It has unexplained lack of mass, MEX detected 'geometrical radar reflections', some have attempted to say it is a geode, but that requires hydrodynamic evolution.

Moreover, there are the grooves.
They are not due to tidal forces, they don't succumb to natural lines of weakness. They are geometrical.

Phobos does not appear to be a natural object.

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