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Episode 135 - How New Horizons Takes Photographs, Interview with Dr. John Spencer

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Recap: I bring you an interview with Dr. John Spencer, head of the hazards search for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto, and co-deputy of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation team for New Horizons. We discuss how spacecraft images are processed, unique challenges for New Horizons, and some of the things we're doing to try to avoid creation of anomalies that some people might try to claim are evidence for a conspiracy.

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.

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Episode Summary

There is no transcript because this was a live interview.

Bio: Dr. John Spencer is an Institute Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. He has been involved with many spacecraft missions to other worlds, including the Voyager program in the 1970s and 80s, the Galileo mission to Jupiter in the 1990s, and the ongoing Cassini mission at Saturn. Besides other research, John is currently the co-deputy of the Geology and Geophysics Investigation team on the New Horizons spacecraft mission to Pluto, and he is in charge of finding potential hazards for the mission. With that context, welcome to the show, John!

Topics Addressed:

  • Dr. Spencer's background in spacecraft imagery.
  • How do we "process" spacecraft imagery to remove all sorts of imperfections while preserving what we wanted to take a picture of?
  • Does the New Horizons spacecraft’s cameras present any unique challenges to image processing?
  • How big an issue is sensor noise, and how do you deal with that?
  • Does the New Horizons spacecraft mission present any unique challenges for which good imagery is important?
  • What technique(s) do you use to solve these challenge(s)?
  • The New Horizons team just a few weeks ago had a press release about finally discovering all the known moons in the system, but this is another case where I, even as someone who has done a lot of image processing and analysis, didn’t see them in the raw data. What are the techniques you use to pull these out of the data?
  • With that in mind, when I first contacted you about doing this interview, you had mentioned that there were certain “ethics” in image processing. A lot of people in my audience are used to various conspiracy theorists claiming that NASA is hiding things or airbrushing out aliens or things like that, but since I’ve addressed those issues in many past episodes, I was curious about what you meant by ethics.

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