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Episode 138 - New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 1

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Recap: A look at many of the conspiracies related to the New Horizons mission through the Pluto-Charon system. This Part 1 episode focuses on some of the more mundane conspiracies, such as those related to naming conventions, the data download plan, and young-Earth creationism.

Additional Materials:

Episode Summary

Claim: By way of background, unless you’ve been living in a cave, in which case kudos for having internet access and listening to this podcast, you know that the New Horizons spacecraft made a successful fly through the Pluto-Charon system on July 14, 2015. As with anything NASA, conspiracies are bound to crop up.

Disclaimer: Before we get into them, I need to give a small disclaimer. I work on the mission, on the science and planning sides. Nothing I’ll be talking about is secret or embargoed, and I make no representations that what I’m talking about is anything other than my own opinion, based on the information that I lay out herein. As in, I don’t represent my employer, nor NASA, this is all on my own, unpaid time, etc. etc. etc.

Naming Process

That out of the way, let’s get going. First, I want to talk about the naming process, because this has been a craw in a few peoples’ sides, including some scientists and legitimate organizations. By way of further disclaimer, I am remaining neutral in this, I am not involved with the International Astronomical Union, and I was not involved in the New Horizons sub-group working on nomenclature. I’m just going to tell you what’s going on as I understand it.

Officially, as far as most of the astronomical community is concerned, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is the only group that can assign official names to objects in the solar system and elsewhere. This is one of the few groups that, during the Cold War, was able to remain politically neutral and as such it holds onto that neutrality very strongly. In assigning names for objects or features, it tries to balance gender, nationality, and other things like it should not invoke a strong emotional response in a normal person. So you’ll never see an object named “Satan.” The names should also be somewhat pronounceable by people who speak any of the major languages on Earth, and names shouldn’t be duplicated but there are exceptions.

They also emphasize that nomenclature is not for the purpose of honoring someone, some place, or something, rather it is to facilitate communication so that when one person talks about “Lyot crater” on Mars, we all know what they mean.

Every body in the solar system has its own naming theme. For example, moons of Saturn are named after Greco-Roman Titans. Moons of Uranus are named after Shakespearian characters. Moons of Neptune are named after water deities.

Because of the name “Pluto,” the IAU established that bodies around it should be named also for underworld-related deities, which is why you have moons named Charon, Hydra, Kerberos, Nix, and Styx. Conveniently, as I learned last month, their order is alphabetical.

The IAU also established that the theme for major features on Pluto itself should be named for deities associated with death or the underworld, names for the underworld, heros and other explorers of the underworld, writers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, and scientists and engineers associated with Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

For Charon, it’s destinations and milestones of fictional space and other exploration, fictional and mythological vessels of space and other exploration, and fictional and mythological voyagers, travelers (which the IAU website misspells), and explorers.

Anything on Styx should be named after river gods because Styx was the river in Greek Mythology that took you to the underworld. Nix is deities of night, Kerberos is dogs from literature, mythology, and history, while Hydra is legendary serpents and dragons.

Seems kinda cool.

As of this podcast, all names currently used for surface features on Pluto are preliminary or provisional, and are just used by the team to facilitate communication. My understanding is that they have been submitted for approval by the IAU, but that process can take months, and the IAU can reject any names. I think the only name that was fast-tracked and approved was the bright heart-shaped area now known as Tombaugh Regio, named for the discoverer of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh.

All of the other names were, for interest of a short term, crowd-sourced. A website was created by some people on the New Horizons team to solicit names from around the world and let people vote on them. After duplicates were removed, offensive names were removed, unpronounceable names by most people were removed, and politically sensitive names were removed, we were left with a list of names from which to choose for names the team would make provisional designations and then submit to the IAU for approval. So it’s the IAU who puts the naming theme in place, then the public voted for names the team would choose to recommend.

Alright, that’s a lot of background. Onto the conspiracy and controversy. The first is the basic one: Any time you name something for death, you’re going to get some religious people upset. So let’s get that one said and done and move on.

Second is the name “Cthulhu” which is a character in H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional works, for which the dark equatorial areas of Pluto have been provisionally named. Cthulhu was by far one of the most popular names on the naming suggestions website. Lovecraft himself has a crater named for him on Mercury. However, there is evidence that Lovecraft was a racist. Others point out that he was a product of his time. Others, such as myself, point out that naming something Cthulhu effectively recognizes the character, not the creator, and the MESSENGER team with Mercury when they named a crater Lovecraft should have gotten any flack, but they didn’t, therefore let’s move on.

Third is the venerable Richard C. Hoagland, who because of his new radio program I have a lot of material from but will be focusing a bit more on his claims in Part 2 than this Part 1.

Richard Hoagland says he sees signs and messages, pretty much in everything. For more than seven minutes about 1.25 hrs into his July 24 radio program, he, Keith Laney, and his significant other “it’s complicated” Robin Falkov discussed the naming scheme. He also discussed it elsewhere.

One of the two claims I’m going to address is that he says Cthulhu itself was supposed to be a giant. Since Richard sees giant buildings on Pluto — more on that in Part 2 — then he thinks that naming this feature Cthulhu was the New Horizons’ team’s way of saying that, indeed, there were giants there that made these giant buildings. I don’t think much more needs to be said there. If you believe that, I’m not sure why you’re listening to this podcast.

The second of the two claims follows from the naming scheme for features on Charon. Because the theme included fictional and mythological vessels of exploration and their explorers. With the number of nerds out there - including yours truly - it was inevitable that some names would be from Star Wars, and of course some from Star Trek. Richard Hoagland re-branded his “Mars Mission” website in 1996 to the “Enterprise Mission,” after the Star Trek theme of not splitting infinitives and boldly going where no one had gone before: Basic exploration. Twenty years later, he said in response to some features on Charon being provisionally named “Kirk” and “Spock” that this was NASA’s way of actually giving a nod not to Star Trek, but to Richard Hoagland’s “Enterprise Mission” itself, in other words, NASA’s way of saying that Richard was right.

Again, if you believe that, I’m not sure why you’re listening to this podcast.

Data Downlink

Alright, now that I’ve beaten naming conspiracies to death, let’s move onto another mainstream topic that’s been the subject of much consternation: Data downlink. First off, this is just data download. I’m not sure why we call it downlink, but we do, so … that’s that.

There are really three parts to this and the conspiracy claims that come from it. First is the shortest: Why wasn’t there “live” feedback during the New Horizons flythrough the system? Great for the scientists, great for the media, etc.

Two reasons. First, the concept of “live” even from the Moon doesn’t make sense since there is a 2-second light travel time. From Pluto, it’s 4.5 hours. So there’s no such thing as “live.” Second is that the spacecraft can do one of two things: It can either point its antenna at Earth and transmit, or it can point its instruments at the Pluto-Charon system and take data. One or the other. When you’re in the place you’ve travelled 9.5 years to get to, you’re going to be taking data rather than talking to Earth.

This is different from many outer solar system probes in the past, that’s true. In the past, like with the Voyager probes, there was an instrument platform that could be moved relative to the antenna so that you could take data and talk to Earth at the same time. That was NOT the case with New Horizons. Something that moves adds risk, especially on a 9.5-year voyage in extreme cold.

But as context for this claim, it has been raised by none other than Richard C. Hoagland. He stated that he was mystified that there were no live radio signals from the craft, and he said he was astounded that no news media were asking why there wasn’t a live radio signal during any of the NASA press conferences the day of closest approach. He then remarked that the reason that he thought of the question as opposed to mainstream news media was that he had a lot more experience in this sort of thing.

Um, no. It’s because other people know how to read the press briefing materials or did their homework on the spacecraft on something as simple as Wikipedia.

Next up for the downlink claims is why it’s so slow. I’ve spoken at length about this in interviews recently, and I have a very lengthy blog post up about this that I’ll link to in the shownotes - it’s Part 6 and part 8 in my New Horizons series - so I’ll give you the very very short version here:

1. To communicate with the craft, we have to be able to pick the signal from the craft out of random noise in the radio dishes and from space.

2. The spacecraft has a finite power that it can send through its antenna in a signal to Earth.

3. When the main antenna was sending 24 Watts of power to Earth, it was received at about 3*10^-19 W. To me, that’s just astounding that we can receive a signal that weak.

4. The signal can be modulated, or broken up, into bits. The power received in each bit is the signal strength divided by the number of bits. So if you want to send a high-bit-rate signal, there would be very little power in each bit, and we couldn’t pick it up.

5. Putting these all together, we have three 70-meter radio telescopes in the Deep Space Network on Earth. Given the line-of-sight angles between the spacecraft and the radio dishes, the bit rate with which New Horizons can communicate with Earth tops out at anywhere from about 1300 to 2500 bits per second. Yes, that’s a maximum of 2% the speed of a 14.4k modem from the 1990s. That is SLOW.

6. So with about 60 gigabits of data recorded during the encounter with Pluto, and we can’t downlink data continuously because the telescopes can’t always see the spacecraft from Earth and we have to negotiate for time, it’s going to take up to 16 months to get all the data back to Earth.

And that’s that. Basic physics, basic engineering. The conspiracies I’ve seen related to this are basically in the category of NASA’s just saying it’s so slow so that they have time to fake the data and get rid of the alien bases.

The third class of the data downlink conspiracies comes, yet again, from the venerable Richard C. Hoagland. And again, I’ll mention that I really don’t set out to focus on Richard, it’s that he now has his own radio program and so he is very much “out there” and provides a lot of false information that’s easily accessible for me to get ahold of.

Okay, justification that I really don’t need to give aside, here’s what Richard said on August 1, immediately followed by a clip from August 4, on his radio program: [Clips from The Other Side of Midnight, August 1, 2015, starting 45:24; and August 4, 2015, starting 28:23]

“We’re supposed to get images 7 times bigger, or 7 times more resolution than the ones we’re seeing, but they haven’t shown them to us yet. For some reason. And, some of them have got to be on the ground, I mean, look: In terms of mission strategy, if you have taken, uh, your whole dataset in several hours during closest approach, then you turn around and start sending the data home, what would you want to send home that would be the most valuable, uh, if the spacecraft died let’s say, in, two days. You’d want to send your highest resolution data, taken the closest to the planet, that you— that you basically got. Right? […] ‘Cause if you don’t send the best data home, and something happens, you’ve lost it forever! So that means the best, high-resolution data is on the ground of all of these things, and Keith, they haven’t shown it to us in over a week.

“In the last several weeks, even though an awful lot of that high-resolution imagery now should have been downlinked, sent four-and-a-half hours across the solar system at the speed of light, and had received by the DSN, the Deep Space Network, […] all of that high-resolution imagery […], all of that should now have been downlinked and send to the Earth so that we at least should have a really good and comprehensive dataset and stunning images, 7 times greater in resolution than anything we’ve seen so far, and, we’ve seen nothing.”

The explanation of why there’s no conspiracy and NASA isn’t hiding “the good stuff” as Richard and others have put it, is yet another one of practicality, multiple interests, and delegation. I’ve also written extensively about this on my blog, linked to in the shownotes as Part 8 of the New Horizons series, so I’ll attempt to give the short version here.

As I said, there are a couple things going on. One of them is that once the spacecraft is through the system and in good health, there is really no reason to suspect that it’s going to die at any moment and so you want to bring down the highest pixel scale images first. That’s just wrong on two counts. One count is as I just said, there’s no reason to expect the craft will die now, any time soon.

The second count is science priority. You can think of New Horizons as a laboratory. A laboratory with a couple different pieces of equipment, and you want to run science experiments to test hypotheses and gather data about many different things. The New Horizons science team came up with literally hundreds of science questions and goals, audited them many times, and ranked them into four groups based on broad priority. Within each group, they were also ranked by sub-group and then again within each sub-group they were ranked by priority.

Every single observation New Horizons made was designed to answer these questions and linked to one or multiple goals. So the way this works is that now that those observations are all made, the observations which will answer the top-priority questions is downlinked first. And then we go down in priority.

Put very bluntly, the best pixel scale images do not answer ANY of the top-tier science questions, and so they are not top-priority. Some of them will support some of the top-tier science questions, so a few will be downlinked before others, but a priori when the downlink schedule for July and August were being planned months earlier, none of the 70-80 meter per pixel images were scheduled because they answer lower-priority questions.

Rick D. posted an analogy to my blog post about this that I think works very well, so I’m going to quote from him:

“Any of us who have ever had to prepare a many-slide presentation to a boss or an audience, and have strict time budgets under which to work, do not try to work on one best single perfect slide, and worry about all the other slides later. If you run out of time, you are screwed. You work on getting the entire thing done, but your first couple passes might be at a higher or rougher level, and then as you have time you drill down to make it more perfect and fleshed out. That way you accomplish the goals of communicating as much info as possible in the time you have, but if something unexpected interrupts you, you’ve got a lot more to show than one incomplete attempt at one perfect slide.”

But, there’s another part of this, too. New Horizons has 8 science instruments, which includes the main antenna. Only two of those instruments take pictures. Well, sort of three. The data from the other 5 take data that we call “low-speed.” It requires significantly less disk space, it cannot be compressed, and the low-speed data also include things like basic spacecraft housekeeping as well as header information for the high-speed (images) data that tell us important things like if that particular image is full of black pixels, meaning it was off the disk of the body and so we shouldn’t even bother to downlink it.

I’m rambling a bit here, so to bring this back together, data downlink is prioritized based on science question prioritization that was created over five years ago. High-res images don’t answer top-tier science questions. And, for the month of August, it was decided that all of the low-speed data would be brought down from encounter, so those instrument teams could get their science done more quickly, and so that the other instrument teams could get header information to better plan their downlink priority.

Beyond that, the downlink order is based on allocation by the PI in terms of how many bits each science theme team can get per downlink track, meaning each time we’re connected to the spacecraft via the DSN. The atmospheres theme team gets a share, the particles & plasma gets a share, the composition team gets a share, and the geology and geophysics investigation team gets a share. It’s only these latter two teams that use the images for their science, so only a portion of the downlink allocation will go to images even after August.

That’s the way to be fair to your team that’s made of many different interests, that’s the way things are done, period.

But, that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that’s wrong. I think that Richard Hoagland may have actually read my blog post on this subject, for a few days later, on August 4, he stated this on his program: [Clip from The Other Side of Midnight, August 4, 2015, starting 05:47]

“The idea that from-from now until the end of-of August, ’til September, they’re only going to be sending particles and fields data, and, you know the uh measurements in the vicinity of uh, um, Pluto, in terms of non-imaging. I mean, does that really make sense? […] [T]o me, the logical rationale for sending relatively low-priority data, when it’s the images that will tell us about the geology and the internal energy sources and the atmospheric effects - and of course the structures, the artifacts, the ruins - that data absolutely had to have been prioritized and sent home first in the hours and hours and hours right after the closest approach. So the fact that it’s on the ground, by all logic it’s on the ground, and they’re not showing it to us, they’re not holding press conferences, they’re claiming they don’t have it, means there’s a reason to create a um, petition at the White House to basically demand after 50 years, access to our damn data. No more excuses.”

There’s really no other way to say this: Richard Hoagland is wrong. Basically, this is his argument:

1. Richard Hoagland thinks that if he were managing the mission, he would send back the best pixel scale images first.

2. Therefore, that’s what New Horizons must have done.

3. But, those images haven’t been released.

4. Therefore, “NASA” is hiding these images because “NASA” is trying to figure out what all the buildings mean.

Spot a flaw there? Yeah, it’s that second point. All because Richard thinks something, that doesn’t make it true.

Very Few Craters

Alright, now that I’ve beaten naming conspiracies to death and explained the data downlink plan, let’s go with a more science claim: There are no craters.

Despite my best efforts, as a crater person, on the team, this still became the 2-bit headline. It’s wrong. There are plenty of craters on Pluto, plenty of craters on Charon. Anyone who says there are no craters is wrong.

What there aren’t is unambiguous craters on the bright, heart-shaped area of Tombaugh Regio. What I mean by this is that the images that are on the ground are a few of the Sputnik Planum region of Tombaugh Regio. These are at 400 meters per pixel scale. These are lossy compressed JPG images where each JPG compression block is 8 pixels across.

This means that unless a feature is high-contrast and significantly larger than 8 pixels - or 3.2 kilometers, then it is unlikely we can see it in these images. On the team, some of us refer to the smoothing out effect of the compression as “Resurfacing by JPEG.”

So when I say that there are no unambiguous craters in this area, I mean that with the current quality of the images, at this pixel scale, there are no obvious craters. There are some candidates, sure. But we’ll have to wait for the lossless versions to be downlinked before we can say for certain. That still means that there could be multi-kilometer-diameter craters in this area, we just can’t tell yet.

But somehow, in the 140-character press headlines, the, “There are no large craters in the Sputnik Planum region of Pluto” headline that I would have written gets chopped down to something like, “Scientists Baffled: No Craters on Pluto!”

But besides bad headlines, there’s plenty of other misinterpretation about the craters on Pluto. The main one I’ve seen not only on pseudoscience forums and radio, but also on real science forums. It goes kinda like this: Scientists shouldn’t be baffled that Pluto has few craters because its orbit is inclined 17° relative to the plane of the solar system, and it’s the plane of the solar system where most impactors are.

Okay … I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Scientists, in general, are not stupid. We know this. Every model that modeled the impactor population at Pluto takes this into account. They take into account that the impactors are mostly ice as opposed to rock. They take into account that the impactors are likely somewhat porous. They take into account that the impactor speed is significantly less because of good ol’ Kepler and his laws of planetary motion. And of course, we take into account Pluto’s orbital elements.

But beside that, it’s not entirely “surprising” that Pluto has so few craters. This was predicted at least over a year ago to be a consequence of sublimating and refreezing of the atmosphere. What is surprising is the relatively few craters on Charon, though the one decent pixel scale image with favorable sun for mapping craters that we have so far does show many dozen craters in that small area, before we’re hit by resurfacing by JPEG again.

Scientists unfortunately often forget that they know lots of stuff that other people don’t know, and things are taken for granted. I think, unfortunately, that when people have remarked about the “surprisingly few” craters observed on Pluto, that is taking into account Pluto’s orbital characteristics. It’s implicit, because it’s a “duh” point for those who tend to talk about it, and they forget to mention that this is implicit.

That gets lost not only by paranormalists and conspiracists, but also by the mainstream press and even the science press.

Young-Earth Creationist Takes

Few craters, though, is a good lead-in to the final set of non-mainstream claims I’ll be addressing in this episode: Young-Earth Creationist ideas. Whenever there is a major science thing in the media, I’ve found that it’s almost like a nervous tick, that many of the major young-Earth creationist outlets feel the need to remind their readers that it’s all still okay, they can warp the science to still fit their worldview.

Along the crater front, Danny Faulkner, writing for Answers in Genesis, wrote the following:

“[S]cientists have found far fewer craters than they expected. […] Being far from the sun, Pluto ought to be very cold and hence not have experienced recent volcanism. Any primordial heat would have long ago dissipated, if the solar system were 4.5 billion years old. [… T]here ought not to be any significant geological activity sufficient to remove craters on Pluto’s surface. Compounding this problem for a 4.5-billion-year age for the solar system is the fact that Pluto is located in a particularly crowded part of the solar system. […] Therefore, Pluto ought to be undergoing impacts today at a higher rate than most other objects in other portions of the solar system. Planetary scientists who are committed to belief in a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto.”

As I already said, Pluto has craters. Moving on, the whole way we get our crater chronology starts from the moon (which Danny acknowledges, and he actually gives a reasonable overview of the subject). We do see heavily cratered areas of Pluto. So if we see some areas that have a huge number of craters relative to other areas, it just means that the one with few craters (or maybe none) is much younger. How much younger, though? If Danny wants to say that the heavily cratered areas are 6000 years old, does that mean that the “heart” region of Pluto was created yesterday?

To bypass some more of the quote and get to the last statement, this is common among creationists: God of the Gaps. Set up a scenario and say someone can’t explain something and then say GodDidIt. Except, we have plenty of ideas of why there may be no craters over some parts. One of the main ones is the atmosphere, which I mentioned before but I’ll expand on now. The atmosphere is tiny, but it cycles. Pluto is tilted almost like Uranus, except more. So for 124 years we have one pole facing the sun, and for 124 years the other. During this time, it’s likely that the ices on the surface near the sunward pole sublimate (turn from solid to gas) and some get deposited on the pole that’s in night. This gives you a “surface” that is literally no more than a hundred years old.

In fact, going into this encounter, I was warned that several models predicted that there may be very few craters on Pluto simply because of this process, of not only ices being deposited as many, many layers of frost, but also because when they sublimate, they are removing that surface that had been cratered. So some predictions going in were that Pluto may have a few very large, shallow craters, but nothing else. Obviously that’s not the case, Pluto is more interesting, but to say that we “are at a complete loss to explain the lack of craters on Pluto” is bullocks.

Danny also made the argument that Charon has fewer craters than expected, therefore it’s young, too. There’s a problem if we take this approach: How can Charon be older than Pluto? If we’re using the metric of craters (and incorrectly per the standard young-Earth creationist), and Charon has more craters than Pluto (which it does), then Pluto is even younger than 6000 years old, right? What is he trying to say here, that Pluto formed a few minutes before Clyde Tombaugh discovered it?

Since I started with Danny Faulkner, I’ll address another of his arguments before moving on. He argued that Pluto is outgassing nitrogen, and therefore it’s young because Pluto is a body with a finite size and there must be some activity that’s releasing the nitrogen so it’s still active but “evolutionary” models say it shouldn’t be.

Yes, Pluto was found to be shedding molecular nitrogen gas. “Outgassing” is the wrong word here — perhaps an honest mistake by Danny, but it’s wrong nonetheless. It’s that nitrogen gas is escaping from the surface, not being outgassed from below the surface (that we know of).

This is a classic young-Earth creationist argument: Take the current rate for something, multiply it by 4.5 billion years, and claim it’s impossible. They do that with Earth’s moon, Earth’s and Mercury’s magnetic field, and other things — but those in particular are ones I’ve blogged or podcasted about.

But in this case, Danny didn’t even do that simple math, even if the assumption of taking the current rate back through time is wrong. 500 tons per hour means very roughly 2*10^19 kg over 4.5 billion years. Seems like a lot. But Pluto is 1.3*10^22 kg. That means it would have lost a mere 0.15% of its mass due to nitrogen escaping over 4.5 billion years if the current rate has been the rate for 4.5 billion years. Just one to two tenths of one percent.

Not a problem.

Next up is the Institute for Creation Research. While Jason Lisle has written a more recent article, it rehashes much of what Danny Faulkner wrote. Jake Hebert wrote an older one that offers a different twist. I suggest reading it if you ever need an example of starting with one topic and twisting it to something completely different and still arguing wrong.

Kinda like a politician who wants to answer a question that’s not asked. For example, a reporter would ask, “Do you think that there should be a mandatory waiting period at shelters before a stray animal can be euthanized?” The politician may respond with: “That’s an excellent question. I love pets, especially dogs. And you know who has dogs? Mexicans. I think that we need to be stronger in our immigration policy in blocking illegal immigration from Mexico because all they’re bringing into America is drugs.”

Yes, that’s a contrived scenario. But yes, it is also exactly how Jake Hebert wrote his article about Pluto. He starts out talking about Pluto. Then he says that any science you’re going to read about the New Horizons mission will be a secular, materialistic story without a deity, but people talking about New Horizons aren’t going to say that directly because it would offend taxpayers. But that means we don’t understand how the solar system formed, and even though New Horizons will yield information about Kuiper Belt Objects, all they really are is comets. And then, insert everything creationists have said about comets for the last several decades that indicates they prove a young solar system.

Which, from my point of view, means you can insert everything that scientists have said to rebut those trite arguments for the past several decades that proves comets DON’T prove we live in a recently created solar system, including this very podcast in Episode 3. There’s a reason that was my third podcast episode: It’s a really easy set of young-Earth arguments to debunk.

Finally, there was Terry Hurlbut. For those who have the pleasure of not knowing who this person is, he is one of the primary editors of Conservapedia, he has an Examiner site, and he along with a few other VERY conservative people write at another website, “Conservative News and Views.”

Terry wrote a few posts about New Horizons. It all stems from his advocating even a fringe idea among the fringe ideas of young-Earth Creationists: Walter Brown’s “hydroplate” idea, so-called because he thinks that Noah’s Flood was caused by Earth’s plates opening up that allowed the “waters of the deep” to not only flood Earth, but blast enough material into space FROM EARTH to form all the asteroids, all the comets, and Pluto, Charon, and their moons.

As I said, fringe among the fringe.

But, somehow Terry is able to fit a lot of astronomy into this idea. For example, one of his first posts of course, along that line of thought, said that Pluto is only as old as Noah’s Flood, and it was created in Noah’s Flood. “Why?” you might ask. Simple: Pluto is red. Rusty red. Therefore it has rust. Therefore it must have iron that was in an oxygen-rich environment. Therefore it came from Earth. End of story.

When I sent that around among the team, the one of the higher ups on the mission responded with, “What a simple logic train. I should have thought of that.” I responded with, “Much easier than your so-called ‘science.’” to which he replied, “Exactly.” Other responses among the team were, “I thought it weighs the same as a duck.” And another was, “So we’ve all been wasting our time? I feel like such a fool!”

But, there was more from Terry. He followed the same basic protocol as before, grabbing onto one tiny finding, saying it’s impossible to explain with modern science, and therefore Pluto was launched from Earth during the flood. Your basic non sequitur or “does not follow” logical fallacy.

In this case, the finding was carbon monoxide (CO) ice found in Tombaugh Regio. Terry explains this by saying that during the Flood, Pluto and Charon formed by material ejected from Earth, which heated as they contracted, burning the plant matter that was also ejected. The gases released from the burning plants included CO, which fell as “rain” onto the surface of Pluto in what he claims is a basin that is now Tombaugh Regio.

I know and you, dear listener know that I try to avoid ad hominem attacks in this podcast. But seriously … I had to fight my brain to write that. It’s just so ridiculous that it reads like a bad Poe or an Onion article. But, it’s a good example of how science really works, in contrast with young-Earth creationism, so I think it’s a good one to close out the episode.

Terry tried to emphasize in his article that neither NASA, SwRI, nor JHU/APL (the three institutions involved in the mission) have tried to explain the CO ice. Therefore, we don’t know now and therefore Terry’s idea is the only one out there.

The thing is, we don’t have all the data that taken yet. I already explained, in brief, the downlink plan a half hour ago, and the best pixel-scale data that we do have right now is all lossy-compressed. And scientists by their nature are very cautious about publishing hypotheses about something without doing a lot of tests of those hypotheses. AND within the mission itself, there’s the general thinking that it’s better to put out obvious findings now and save the possible interpretations later once we have more time to look at the better data and talk with more people and amongst ourselves.

Put in that context, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that NASA would put out the press release about unambiguous findings of concentrations in one area of Pluto of CO (as in: we found it, it’s in ice form, and it’s concentrated in one particular area). That’s a neat finding, it’s probably a somewhat unexpected finding, and we could even generate a good, simple graphic to illustrate it.

There’s simply no reason to then add unnecessarily that there are several possible models to explain it but “more data are needed, stay tuned several months until we get that data to test it.” That’s kinda a downer to close out a press release, and it’s not warranted when we literally had the data for less than a day from when that came out.


And I think that about wraps up the main segment of this episode. We’ve gone from conspiracies about the names of stuff within the system to conspiracies about getting the data from New Horizons itself. Then to a more science observation about craters that got warped not only in the mainstream press, but also used and abused by young-Earth creationists who had a few other arguments in case that one didn’t stick.

But, none of these are valid arguments. And in the next episode, I’ll discuss some more misconceptions about the bodies and the mission itself, mostly focusing on anomaly hunting.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 2. Page 1 of 1.

John   Ohio, USA

3:10pm on Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

So the conspiracy buffs and Bible literalists have nothing better to do than spin yarns about space probe data? Life must be pretty easy in their world if they have the time to figure out all these elaborate schemes to "prove" their fantasy scenarios are factual...

Chew   Location unknown

8:07pm on Monday, August 24th, 2015

I stumbled upon this recently. It's very nerdy:

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