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Episode 122 - Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta Conspiracies

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Recap: The Rosetta mission with a destination of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has faced numerous conspiracies circulating throughout the internet (and even more mispronunciations of its target). In this episode, I talk about a few of them.

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Transcript

Background: The Rosetta mission follows a long line of missions to comets, but it is the first to do so in nearly a decade, the first to orbit, and the first to attempt to land a craft on the surface. It is also the first in the age of social media, and the Rosetta outreach team has done an amazing job at releasing information and keeping interest in the mission and target. As I blogged about in my second contribution to the JREF “Swift” blog and reposted on my own, releasing information to the public has both good and bad points, where the latter primarily involves pseudoscientists using the early release and out-of-context information to advance their own pet ideas. In this episode, I’m going to address three different conspiracies related to the Rosetta mission.

It’s a Space Station

The first broad claim that I want to address is that this particular comet was targeted because it was special because NASA knew that it was artificial. Being a European Space Agency - or ESA - mission with no NASA participation, I’m not sure why the secret space folks at NASA would have told ESA, but that’s beside the point.

So far as I can tell, this claim in particular originated with the venerable bastion of journalism, UFO Sightings Daily. They posted an alleged e-mail from an alleged person on allegedly September 29, 2014, that stated, in part:

“I cannot disclose my name [sic] my rank within the ESA (European space agency) or any other distinguishable information about myself that could jeopardize my safety down the road. However, I have written this email, which I have sent to you along with certain (illegally obtained) photographs in question, because of the fact that there are numerous things going on in the world right now, particularly within the realm of reconnaissance missions to explore space and the objects therein and there are lies being told, and more to the point, blatant coverups that are being pressed without consequence against the public. And in this case, with regards to the Rosetta space craft and its publicly touted mission to investigate comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Do not think for ONE MOMENT that a space agency would suddenly decide to spend billions of dollars to build and send a spacecraft on a 12 year journey, to simply take some close up images of a randomly picked out comet floating through space. I hope that your viewers and connections if not your viewers themselves, are not as naive as the government hopes you are. There is ALWAYS a reason for money like this to be spent on such a mission, and that reason I can assure you, was not to take picture of a rogue space rock.

Okay, I gotta stop there because there are several issues to bring up. One that’s pretty damning is that 67P was not the original target. Rather, it was comet 46P/Wirtanen - a much more pronounceable name - to be encountered in 2011. Unfortunately, the planned launch on January 12, 2003, failed, and it launched a year later on February 26, 2004.

The entire mission had to be replanned with new rendezvous targets en route and a new final destination. The only way one can claim that 67P was the original target is to claim that the original failure was planned by Those In Charge, knowing that the only alternative with a new launch window would be 67P. I’m not saying no conspiracy theorist has claimed this — in fact, Richard C. Hoagland has made this exact type of claim about Apollo missions in the past. But, unless you sink incredibly deep into the realm of conspiracy, 67P was not even the original target.

Another problem with the claim is that it was a 10-year journey, not 12-year. Minor, but another error.

The cost is actually correct, with the total cost being about €1.3b, or US$1.8b. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s “billions of dollars,” but same-diff, as the expression goes. However, the fact that this person uses dollars, and the fact that they got the timescale wrong, the fact that they didn’t apparently know that 67P was not the original target, the clarification that the attached images were illegally obtained (really, who says that?), the poor grammar, and the capitalization of ESA when most Europeans only have the first letter capitalized in pronounceable acronyms, leads me to think that this e-mail is clearly fake and not from someone in ESA. Besides the crazy content, of course.

The e-mail went on:

The images attached to this email, are 2 of the original images captured by the rosetta space craft on it’s approach to the comet 67P. By saying that they are original, I should clarify this is meant that they are the undoctored [sic] versions of the images already shown publically [sic] or soon to be released publicly. These images depict the true nature of the mission and the real reason the space agencies across the world made it a priority to venture out and partake in a military reconnaissance mission around this object.

Comet 67P is NOT a comet. Some 20 years ago, the NASA space agency began detecting radio bursts from an unknown origin out in space. It would late [sic] be known that these bursts had likely come from the direction of the now named comet67P [sic]. Once the technology progressed, it was confirmed that not only were these signals coming directly from the comet itself but that the comet had seemed to change trajectory as well, which to any scientist, is an obvious impossibility for any rock confined to the physics of space.

Pausing here, there are two more things to be discussed. First is one I left out of the last section, and that is stating that comets are rocks. As I discussed ad nauseam two episodes ago, comets are not rocks. They are “dirty snowballs,” primarily composed of ices mixed with rocks.

Second is the claim that 67P changed course. Perhaps needless to say to you, I could find no evidence to back up this statement. I was able to find that in 1959, a close encounter with Jupiter changed its orbit a bit, but that was 1959, not 1994. I also found evidence that the rotation period - its “day” - changed from about 12.76 hours to 12.4 hours relatively recently, but that is easily explained by uneven outgassing or sublimation in one part acting to slightly alter the spin.

For the conspiracy minded, I can think of only one way to say that this really did happen — that it did, but that The Powers that Be have covered it up, somehow. The problem with this thinking is that while it’s true that amateur and even most professional astronomers do not tend to meticulously chart the positions of comets, this one was discovered in 1969, it orbits the sun every 6.44 years, and thus it has made many orbits.

And it has been observed by people who know where it should be many, many times over the past 45 years. If its trajectory had altered even a little bit, people would have noticed, and it would be recorded, simply because it would no longer be where it had been predicted to be.

It’s easy to make a simple claim that something like this happens - like a comet changing its course a little bit - but it’s quite another to find some way to cover it up. These are not difficult observations to make, and just a few months after a comet would have allegedly changed course, and the position would be quite different from where it should have been, and this would have been reported and I’d be able to find evidence of it.

The email does continue, however:

It was at this time that the NASA space agency [which is redundant] decided to plan out a mission to send a military backed reconnaissance mission to the object, in hopes of discovering it’s true nature. Because of it’s nature and secrecy, the American space agency made a deal with European government insiders, to publically [sic] tout the mission as a search to simply get a close up of one of the millions of comets flying through space. It was the perfect cover, and it allowed the governments to go about getting the mission off the ground, without the need to hide it’s launch.

The images attached are undoctored, and depict the true inner workings of comet 67p, which as it turns out, is something completely different from a comet, and is only being disguised as such. As for who is disguising it and why, I cannot answer. All I can tell you is that whatever this thing is, it does show signs on it’s outside of machine like parts and unnatural terrain. I trust that you will do your best to pass these images onto the proper sources, and ask that you simply have patience for my next reply.

Whatever this object is, it did not ask to be found or scrutinized. And it appears for good reason.

Whew. Okay, the Grammar Guy in me was horrified having to type out all of those i-t-apostrophe-s-es in that. It is from someone who never learned their homophones and someone who uses commas whenever they take a breath. Which is in the English language, making me think this was NOT simply someone who is not a native speaker, for the cadence of pauses and commas is from someone who has been speaking English as a native.

Besides that, the website did not present the two allegedly undoctored images that had allegedly been sent. It did provide one image with a big circle in the middle with the question, “UFO Sending Radio Transmissions or is it a base inside Comet 67P?” The area that’s circled shows a small bright splotch. Which, to me, looks exactly like your basic cosmic ray bright spot.

I know that anyone listening to this who’s remotely conspiracy-minded is going to groan. After all, cosmic rays seem to be the go-to thing for dismissing some of these bright anomalies in images. Unfortunately, while it’s unsatisfying, the problem for the anomaly hunters is that this is a true phenomenon. Cosmic rays are high-energy particles that can hit the detector and because of the energy imparted, they make a bright splotch at that pixel. You can get cosmic ray “splashes” which set off other nearby pixels, and you can get the rays coming in at an angle to hit a few in a streak.

Speaking from my position of authority, as a guy who works with spacecraft imagery in my research ALL THE TIME, cosmic rays are in most images that I use unless they have been specifically removed by various computer algorithms. Lately, my non-Pluto-planning work has focused on Saturn’s moons and Mercury, using imagery from the MESSENGER and Cassini cameras, and I see numerous cosmic rays in almost every image I use.

I ignore them. Scientists in general ignore them because we know what they look like and we know they’re not real data. It’s also why we tend not to use imagery at the pixel level, but look for features that are many pixels across.

Anomalists frequently do the exact opposite, and when a single bright pixel shows up right where they think something interesting is going on, it’s an alien thing and no longer a basic, simple cosmic ray.

Image Manipulation

Along these lines, while I’m talking about images, I also want to address the claim made by a commenter on the UFO Sightings Daily website. An anonymous commenter gave the URL of an image and stated, “This image shows that have been edited by Microsoft ICE v1.4.4.0 (Microsoft Image Composite Editor is an advanced panoramic image stitcher ) which is an image editor software. Please provide the raw untouched image for further analysis, then we can start extrapolating from there. Currently what can be extrapolated based on this is *)*^)^&^^. If in doubt, open with Notepad++ the image and check the first lines for the software that was used for the last save. ^_^, Enjoy.” [All typos are in the original.]

The reason that I’m going to address this seemingly small claim in one comment on one fringe site claim is that this claim is not unique to Rosetta images, and this episode would be rather short if I skipped it. I have seen this claim applied to images from practically every spacecraft we’ve sent out, and the generic form is, “If you look at the metadata for the image, it says that it was created or modified in [insert image processing software name] and therefore that is PROOF POSITIVE that the image has been faked."

The claim itself may seem to make sense on its face. After all, why should a photo from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of an Apollo landing site have been modified in Photoshop? Isn’t that what that metadata means?

No.

Moving onto the next claim … okay, I suppose I can go into more detail here. Whenever you take a photograph with a camera, or whenever you save an image in image processing software, metadata is almost always written out. This is a string of information that - for any software that reads metadata - tells that software or that person who’s looking at it various information.

For example, when I take a photograph with my camera and then look at the metadata, the metadata tells me the camera type and model, the firmware version, the shutter speed, f-stop, ISO, any mode I had the camera on, any color adjustment, and lots of other information. If you’ve ever geotagged a photo, that’s written out to the metadata as GPS coordinates. Many computer-based photo storage solutions like Apple’s iPhoto will write metadata when you tag images with keywords or faces.

It’s not a bad thing, and for a guy like me who documents stuff like crazy, it’s a good way to keep track of things, right in the image file itself.

The same thing happens with most photo software. After all, it, too, wants to let anyone looking at the metadata know that that software had some role in the image you’re looking at. That role could be as simple as saving a photo as a different file format. I’ve often taken PNG files written out by graphing software I use, put them into Photoshop, and saved as a TIFF for a slightly smaller but still lossless file. I did absolutely no manipulation in Photoshop, but Photoshop will attach a tag to the metadata saying that I have done something to that image in Photoshop version whatever-I’m-using.

Similarly, I have taken spacecraft images, and not liking the command-line tools that many in the field will use to mosaic them together, I’ll do it in Photoshop. That means taking perfectly fine, normal images, placing them carefully relative to each other, maybe needing to change the scale or rotation of one by a tiny fraction of a percent, and then saving the final mosaic.

I did this with the Cydonia mosaic in my first movie that came out in May this year (and yes, more are coming, though I’ve learned my lesson and am not giving estimated release dates). That Cydonia mosaic will therefore be tagged as having been created or modified in Adobe Photoshop.

That doesn’t mean I faked it. That doesn’t mean I manipulated it beyond just stitching the panorama together. That doesn’t mean I brushed over some alien who was waving at me. All it means is that Photoshop happened to be the last piece of software that saved the image.

So too is the case here. I’ve covered image processing and photography with spacecraft in earlier episodes, so I’ll just over this and say that after the images from Rosetta had basic corrections applied, like correcting for biases in the detector or a mote of dust on the lens, someone had to save it in a way to put it online. If it were me, and I’ve done this now for 17 years, I would have taken it into Photoshop, maybe rotated or resized it, possibly adjusted the contrast so you could see more, and then saved as a lossy JPG and uploaded it to the website.

Incredibly benign. And suddenly because it says that it was modified in Photoshop, it becomes a conspiracy. And, it takes just a few seconds to claim it’s a conspiracy, but I’ve now spent nearly five minutes explaining why it’s not.

Skyscrapers (RCH)

Before I move off of comet 67P being targeted for various nefarious or secret reasons, no discussion of images and special-ness would be complete without at least mentioning that Richard C. Hoagland claimed that there are skyscrapers on the comet. Now, to be fair, he did this before Rosetta went into orbit, and since then he hasn’t repeated the claim - and if I’m mistaken I’m sure Expat will correct me for next episode.

But, this is par for the course: It’s almost required now that for any small body - be it asteroid or comet - that attracts any attention of us Earthlings, Richard Hoagland will claim that it is a spaceship, or that it has artificiality to it usually in the form of buildings.

As for debunking this, I’m not going to bother. It’s ridiculous on its face, as are most claims by Richard, but this one simply has no basis in any observational data so there’s not where to start with debunking it: The onus is on him to provide really ANY “evidence” for his claim.

Singing -> Intelligent Signals

The final claim I’m going to address stems from an unfortunate effort by the Rosetta outreach team who entitled a blog post on November 11, “The Singing Comet.” The post stated, in part:

Rosetta’s Plasma Consortium (RPC) has uncovered a mysterious ‘song’ that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is singing into space.

[… O]ne observation has taken the RPC scientists somewhat by surprise. The comet seems to be emitting a ‘song’ in the form of oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment. It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased by a factor of about 10,000.

The music was heard clearly by the magnetometer experiment (RPC-Mag) for the first time in August, when Rosetta drew to within 100 km of 67P/C-G. The scientists think it must be produced in some way by the activity of the comet, as it releases neutral particles into space where they become electrically charged due to a process called ionisation. But the precise physical mechanism behind the oscillations remains a mystery.

From a public outreach standpoint, I can fully appreciate this effort, including the “sonification” of the data by German composer, Manuel Senfft. From a guy who practices skepticism in his free time, I cringed.

That’s because this set the conspiracy sites ablaze claiming that the comet is literally singing, that it’s sending a message to humans, that it’s communicating with us in some way, that it’s trying to raise our consciousness, etc. Even on a weekly radio show I now do - “ATS Live” in conjunction with Above Top Secret, on Saturday nights US time, where I’m the token skeptic - when we talked about this story, one of the panelists “went there” and posited that this was aliens trying to communicate with us.

This is where you have to follow the rules of skepticism to remind yourself what’s really going on.

First, the press release specifically stated that this was the plasma instrument that detected oscillations at 40-50 mHz. That is about 500 times slower in frequency, or “lower,” than human hearing. Additionally, the quote-unquote “song” is taking that oscillation and increasing the frequency by over a factor of 1000 so you can actually hear it. The comet is literally just vibrating very, very slowly, about once every 20-25 seconds. That’s it. This has nothing to do with radio signals posited in the first claim I talked about in this episode. It’s tiny vibrations found by the plasma instrument.

Second, there is a conventional explanation. Occam’s Razor is a maxim that would tell you that the explanation that introduces the least amount of new information is likely to be correct. While the exact mechanism is unknown, the plasma team has an explanation that works.

Third, people may desire to return to the original sentiment that I mentioned in the very first claim of this episode, that this is a spaceship and it’s sending out secret signals, and this is proof all that stuff was correct. The problem with this, is why would they admit to it now? You can’t have stuff being secret and conspiratorial while it’s being shouted out in press releases and composted into a sound file that, as of this writing, has been listened to over 5.6 MILLION times. Either this stuff is secret, or it isn’t.

Wrapup

That really about wraps things up with this topic. This was a big event, and Rosetta had many “firsts.” It took a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time to do this, and it is exploring a body that you can’t get to and see for yourself from your armchair. You have to trust what a pan-governmental agency - the European Space Agency - is putting out in terms of the data.

That means it is rife for conspiracies. And yet, those are the only that I’ve been able to find. That’s also why I initially resisted doing this episode. I only decided to do this topic after I could find a few more conspiracies AND thought that I could possibly use it to teach some real science or science process.

In the future, I expect we’ll continue to get weird conspiracy claims about practically every mission or every mission’s encounter with new objects. I’m almost dreading what’s going to be put out when New Horizons gets to Pluto next July.

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