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Episode 139 - New Horizons Pluto Encounter Conspiracies, Part 2

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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 2 episode focuses on anomaly-hunting -based conspiracies, including the alleged secret space program and a lot of image analysis.

Additional Materials:

Episode Summary

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.

Claim: That out of the way, I haven’t done an episode in awhile that truly focused on anomaly hunting, so for newcomers, I want to define it for you in the way that makes the most sense to me: Anomaly hunting is where you search for anything that doesn’t make sense to you, and then you use that to claim whatever you want based on it not making sense and therefore the official explanation must be wrong. As I said in a recent interview which should be posted soon to The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, pretty much everything I’ll be talking about on this episode really does not rely on New Horizons at all. Rather, the people making the claim simply use New Horizons as a jumping off point to claim the conspiracy they were going to claim in the first place. In this episode, the very rough outline is to first talk about some of Richard Hoagland’s technological claims as an example, then some image analysis claims, and some other tidbits.

Some of Richard Hoagland’s Ideas

As I mentioned in the last episode, Richard Hoagland now has his own two-hour radio program weeknights, and as such there is a wealth of material for this podcast and blog. I focus on some of his claims not because of any particular dislike of him or need to pick on him, but because he focuses on fields of science that I do, and he is prolific in this area so I think I would be remiss if I DIDN’T mention his ideas. And some people think that any publicity is good publicity.

So first off, one of Richard’s main positions over the years is that there is the public space program, and there’s the secret space program. He’s less of a major advocate of the alleged secret space program than some people, such as Kerry Cassidy or even Mike Bara, but he still thinks that there’s a secret group that knows everything that he claims is real is real, and that they have much better technology than anything public.

To wit, on July 4, 2015, there was what for some reason we still call a “spacecraft anomaly” on New Horizons that caused its main computer to shut down, the craft to go into safemode, and the backup computer to do EXACTLY what it was programmed to do which is to gather all the telemetry it could, find Earth, and try to get in contact with us.

The sequencers and mission operations group met immediately and they actually had a good idea of what might have went wrong. They had planned for so much that might go wrong, but there were a very few, very low-probability things that were still on the board they hadn’t practiced for. The telemetry showed it was one of those things, they wrote a new sequence, I did my part for it while I was literally flying there on July 5, and we were fine.

We lost some observations that were for the lower-priority science questions I mentioned in the last episode, but nothing from the top priority. As an example of one of the observations we lost was the “family portrait” image, so-called because it was the last time the craft would be able to image all the objects in the system from the sun-lit side in one shot.

It turned out that the issue was a timing one. The computer is not only technology from when the spacecraft was built over a decade ago, but it’s even more primitive because with NASA, you have to select something that has a known, successful track record in space as opposed to the latest and greatest Mac Pro or something like that. It’s slow. It does what it needs to do.

But it takes a lot of time to compress images and other data, and the sequencers didn’t quite account for how long was needed for all the images that it had just taken. Not only that, it was also trying to burn the core sequence - what it was going to do from 10 days before through 2 days after closest approach - into memory. All while sending and receiving stuff from Earth.

In my experience, iTunes still crashes if I’m trying to import a CD, sync with my iPad and iPod, download the latest podcast episodes of Cognitive Dissonance and The Reality Check, and listen to music at the same time. Imagine a computer built over a decade ago trying to do all this stuff, flawlessly, for, well, a decade. To me, it’s impressive that safemode doesn’t occur more often on spacecraft.

But as I said, we recovered, and that’s that. Or not. According to Richard Hoagland, this was the secret space program crashing the spacecraft’s computer as a message to Alan Stern, who’s the principle investigator of the mission. He thinks it was a warning to NASA and Alan to not show what’s really there, or at least what Richard thinks is really there.

Because going into this, Richard also made another claim, that Pluto itself is either really young, or really artificial. Why? Because going into this, many people predicted that we would find more moons, or rings, because of the dynamics of that area of the solar system and likely impactors and ability for material to escape and other things. Because there were predictions of this, then Richard said that we MUST find moons or rings IF the system is natural. Because we haven’t found any moons or rings, then Pluto and Charon must be made of some material that does not produce rings or moons and therefore they’re artificial, OR they are both incredibly young, in which case they’re still artificial.

To debunk this, it’s as simple as saying that in science, a prediction does not always come true. To say that a prediction MUST be true or {insert bizarre conspiracy idea} is completely misunderstanding or misrepresenting how science works.

But, Richard still thinks that it harbors the ruins of an ancient civilization, which I’ll talk about more when I talk about image anomalies.

A final point before I move on to more image-based claims is more conspiracy when something doesn’t go 100% according to plan: On the morning of July 14, 2015 (US time), which was during the spacecraft’s time of closest approach, NASA’s website crashed.

Since I had to be at work at 4:45AM that morning, I was listening to Richard’s live radio program at the time. I heard his guest, Keith Laney, state, “Of course, I have no proof of this …” He then proceeded to get into conspiracy.

He was shocked an hour earlier at the incredible details being revealed in the publicly released images from that morning. About 10 minutes before Keith Laney stated his “no proof” comment, we had a NASA guy come into our geology room and tell us that we were so popular that we crashed NASA’s website. I knew that it was a matter of moments before the conspiracy folks would spin something.

Which is exactly what Keith did. He said that NASA was releasing such good stuff and such “revealing” images of Pluto (despite them being lossy JPGs of lossy JPGs), that their website was shut down by Those In Control.

This of course completely ignores the fact that NASA’s websites are available as cached versions on many websites, including Google which was not taken down, and that the image in question had been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Instagram which also hadn’t been taken down, and likely millions of times on other sites including news websites, Twitter, Facebook, and those other new social media things like MySpace.

This is an example of a conspiracy claim for which he really did have NO proof of, he was just spouting whatever conspiracy came to mind, and it makes no sense if you know anything about how the internet works.

Image Analysis: Blockiness

Moving onto image-based claims, I’ve talked extensively on this show about how incredibly arduous proper image analysis is, and how when you do this kind of thing for a living (like me, staring at spacecraft images), you tend to build up a mental library about what all the different kinds of image quirks look like so that you don’t misinterpret them as a real feature.

One of those that we don’t have to deal with too often these days - but still do for some kinds of images - is compression artifacts. Going into this encounter, we really did not know how bad they were going to be. In particular, the images on the craft can be saved at a 6:1 lossy compression ratio, meaning they take up 6x less than the original image but because information has been removed, some areas are going to look weird, and that weirdness is going to be based on exactly the kind of compression algorithm. Which in this case, was JPEG.

JPEG tends to have two primary characteristics. One of them is that areas of low contrast are smoothed over. If you have little folds in a white wedding dress, those will go away. A white wedding dress right next to a black tux will be preserved because that’s high contrast. That’s why I mentioned last time that some of us have referred to terrain we’re seeing as “resurfaced by JPEG” because it’s smooth and we don’t know if it’s really smooth or if it’s the compression algorithm. That’s why areas of Sputnik Planum look very smooth, but we can still see the borders of what look like convection cells, and we can see the high-contrast Norgay Montes rising up next to them.

JPEG also is blocky. My layman’s understanding of it is that it looks at data in blocks of pixels before deciding how to deal with the pixels in that block. In this case, 8 pixels by 8 pixels. If the data in that block is low-contrast, it’s going to pretty much wipe everything out of that block of 8 by 8 pixels, but the average brightness of the information originally there will be the average brightness of the final smooth block. Same for the next block, so you can get a different color block that’s smooth right next to it. If the data in the block next to it is high-contrast, it’s going to try to preserve a lot of the information in that block.

And so you end up with a blocky image that has different toned 8x8 pixel blocks interspersed among 8x8 blocks that look like they have some high-contrast features.

And how well this works is dependent on the amount of light or the original brightness of the image. If we have a relatively bright body, like Pluto which reflects up to about 25% of the light it receives, then we were pleasantly surprised with how the images came out. If we have a relatively faint body, like Charon which reflects maybe half that much — so it’s more like Earth’s moon — then the JPG compression makes the image look MUCH worse, much more blocky.

That’s all from the spacecraft and that’s how the science team gets them. NASA’s press releases make their own JPGs, applying their own compression algorithm to already compressed data. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. also apply their own much heavier compression to the images once they’re on those servers. So really anything that YOU see, or anything the conspiracists see, is going to have had at least two levels of different compression applied, and all the artifacts propagate through.

I gave you that long intro because, looking at my notes, 5 of the 10 claims I want to at least mention in this episode are based on not understanding blockiness and compression artifacts.

Let’s start with a ‘Sralian, who I talked about in the Part 4 blog post. You might want to read that one because I’m only going to go into one of his several claims here. This came to my attention because it was sent in by Warwick. The person, who YouTubes under the moniker “ART AlienTV,” thinks that there are huge cities on Pluto. And surprise, it’s not Richard Hoagland.

You know it’s high production value when he’s showing you a YouTube movie of one of his previous YouTube movies that he’s showing you in his browser.

The entire crux of the gentleman’s argument is that he sees a blockiness in the released images: [Starting 7:04 into the movie]

“You can see the pixels if I zoom right in, that’s as far as I can zoom in. You’ll see the individual pixels here. Now of course, they run in parallel to each other with the edges of the picture. So they run left to right and up and down. So these structures don’t run in parallel to those pixels at all. They’re completely diagonal to it. So— and they’re running roughly at 45° here. So it has nothing to do with pixelation and that can be demonstrated quite simply by zooming in. You can actually see the individual pixels here. And these structures are going the other way, so, I cannot see how that— No one’s actually accused me of, uh, this being pixelation, yet, but I’m sure someone will. Uh, some— some spook, will probably, you know some guy from MI6 will come on here … heh! Who knows? Or someone from NASA will try and debunk it. But we’ll see! We’ll see what they have to say.”

Based on the last 5 minutes of explaining JPEG blockiness and that these images are compressed at least twice, you probably have an idea of what I, who’s been called by at least one very, very obnoxious person a “paid shill for NASA,” would say: It’s JPEG blocks.

But — ¡gasp! — how could I explain that the blocks are tilted at almost 45° and not parallel to the image edges! Could he have me cornered, so to speak?


It’s really, really simple: Rotate. The spacecraft will be at a somewhat arbitrary roll relative to the planet based on other things. A decision was made early in June that all publicly released images should have Pluto’s north pole up. So it’s really as simple a thing as the image having been rotated before being released. Just like the fiducials (cross-hairs) for the Apollo photographs from the moon that people point to as being not centered and not parallel to image edges. Rotate and crop.

But, he has a come-back to say that they can’t even possibly be JPEG artifacts at all: Throughout the original YouTube movie that he shows you a YouTube movie of, he has a caption, stating: “THIS IS NOT PIXELATION OR JPEG ARTIFACTS - THIS IS A TIFF IMAGE”. He also states: [Starting 2:52 into the movie]

“This is taken from a TIFF image, as it says here. And TIFF images do not break up in the same way as JPEGs do. They will eventually break up if you really crank them too hard, uh, but they don’t break up that easily. JPEGs are already compressed and resized and stuff and already have kinda s-square blocks in them, but these square blocks you get in JPEG images don’t go across diagonally.

Could he have me backed into another corner?


Images were released not only through NASA via press release. Images are also released to the NASA PhotoJournal website which is meant more for advanced hobbyists as well as other scientists, so the captions are much longer and more detailed. NASA PhotoJournal has an odd quirk. They provide every image as JPEG and TIFF. Regardless of what you send them. Meaning that if you send them a ridiculously compressed JPEG, they will post the JPEG, but they will also convert it to a TIFF and post that.

Apparently “ART AlienTV” never looked at the “Save As …” option in the Paint Shop Pro software he’s using. But it’s a good example - however trite - of how it’s really easy to make a conspiratorial claim based on something that may SOUND like it makes sense when you initially say it. It’s just then that any tiny amount of examination shows that it’s wrong.

Image Analysis: Giants

The next claim is made by both this person and Richard Hoagland. I’ll play the first guy first: [Starting 3:39 into the movie]

“Suddenly I noticed all these HUGE rectangular structures here, and they go right across that area. […] Just above [a crater] are a huge cluster of buildings that looks like a city, um, but uh, the thing is […] it’s a small planet, but these are enormous buildings IF they are buildings.”

And now for Richard Hoagland, a bit longer of a clip: [The Other Side of Midnight, July 24, 2015, starting 48:26]

“As I looked at this architecture, comparing it to all the other images of architecture I’ve analyzed across the solar system for the last 30-some years […], there is a consistency in the mega-architecture. In it’s all about the same scale, and it’s HUGE. And it strongly implies that the folks who built this stuff were huge. ‘There were giants in the Earth in those days, men of renown.’ Does that— does that ring a bell? […] So we go to the outer-most planet of the classical solar system, the one in the highly inclined 17° orbit […], which means that the erosion is much-much-much-much less than anybody’s expected, uh, both from the mainstream community and-and even among amateur astronomers. But not to us.”

Before I address the giants, I want to first address Richard Hoagland’s last statement. I don’t know if Richard really believes what he says at this point, but it doesn’t matter: The statement itself is another example of an incredibly arrogant statement where he and his close-knit group thinks they know something obvious that no scientist has thought of. He’s wrong. As I said last time when talking about the cratering on Pluto, this is one of those basic things that’s taken into account in our models of what the crater population on Pluto should look like based on the impactor population. It’s incredibly arrogant to think that he’s the only one who thought of this. Just like it’s incredibly arrogant in the last episode for him to think that the reason he thought to ask why there was no live signal from the spacecraft as it went through the closest approach was because he had more experience than any of the literally hundreds of journalists who were there at the time.

Okay, that out of my system, this is one of those things that’s sort of been in the back of my mind as something to talk about for awhile, and it extends to most anomalies people find in images: They always happen to be on the size of just a few pixels across, at least in their basic structure. It doesn’t matter if it’s these kinds of flyby missions where we have pixels on the scale of hundreds of meters to kilometers on a side, or even when we have orbiters that can image things just 10s of centimeters on a side: The anomalies are always on the scale of a few pixels in their fundamental features.

That is why most of the stuff that these people see is gigantic, because the pixels are large so the structures have to be large. In Richard’s case, he was talking about images with pixels 400 meters to 2.2 kilometers across, meaning that he was looking at what he said were buildings that by definition MUST have been many kilometers across. The same is true for the Australian who was looking at images with 3.1 kilometers per pixel, so his buildings that happened to be in units of 8 pixels were at least 24.8 kilometers across, too.

When you see what you consider buildings that happen to scale with your image resolution, perhaps that says more about how you are interpreting the images than anything else.

Image Analysis: “Geometry”

But, this brings me to another piece that I’ve also wanted to address for a long time, and it’s a claim that is not unique to Richard, but it is very, very often cited by Richard: Geometry means an intelligence constructed it. He uses this to claim pretty much everything in the solar system is either artificially constructed - like Mars’ moon Phobos or the asteroid Steins - or that it has buildings or ruins of buildings on it.

Let’s start looking at this claim as Richard makes it, for on its surface, it seems like it might make sense. Richard, whenever bringing this up, does not claim credit for it. Rather, he says that this comes from Carl Sagan (argument from authority), that when some of the first satellite photos of Earth were returned, Carl searched for any signs of intelligent life, and the only thing he could find was a dark logging road in Canada in contrast against white snow. That it was long and linear.

Hence came the maxim: Intelligence will reveal itself on a planetary surface by creating geometry. I have paraphrased it slightly, but unfortunately I don’t have the audio in front of me so I can’t state it exactly. But really, that’s the claim: If you see regular, repeating geometry, it requires life.

Now again, on its surface, this makes sense. People certainly make geometric patterns (it’s easier to drive on a straight road, for example, and we like to make square or angular buildings). We see nice geometric patterns in the animal and plant kingdom, too, including seemingly complex patterns such as spirals and the Fibonacci Sequence (which turns out to be an optimal pattern for leaves to get sunlight, and you see it (for example) in the patterns of seeds on a sunflower).

Life can and often does certainly create geometric patterns.

But so does non-life. The Grand Canyon is an excellent example of a fractal — an incredibly complex geometric shape which is characterized by a self-repeating pattern at all scales — no matter how much you “zoom in,” you get the same kind of structure visible. Like clouds, snowflakes, mountains, river deltas, and waterfalls, too. Valleys have a characteristic size given the environment, creating patterns of undulating waves. Sand dunes also have a characteristic wavelength and create undulating patterns. Individual mountains have nice, regular geometric shapes within the fractal pattern mentioned above. And so on.

In my particular field of study, we can look at impact craters. These are typically circles. Or ellipses. On Mars, there’s a certain type of crater that produces ejecta that looks like petals on a flower with nice broad, sinuous, regular perimeters. We also get craters forming all in a row, either from the impact or breaking up into a string of objects or ejecta from the crater itself producing them. These can have very regular, V-shaped ridges between them formed by overlapping ejecta curtains during formation. There’s also the famous “Meteor Crater” in Arizona which is practically a square: This was made by pre-existing faults that controlled the shape as the crater was formed, and we see these elsewhere, too. In fact, I was just in Arizona for a conference and you see plenty of flat-topped mesas which sharp, angular edges that form the drop-off of a cliff, controlled by veins of material with slightly different strengths.

These are all very regular “geometries.”

You do not need life to create “geometry.”

In fact, this kind of claim is so common in many fields of pseudoscience that it has a basic logical fallacy to describe it: The Single Cause Fallacy.

From its name and this discussion so far, you can probably guess what that is, but I’ll elaborate. It basically goes as, This Item A can be caused by Thing B. I observe Item A. Therefore, Thing B was the cause.

Or, as unicorndaniel stated on my blog: X implies Y. Y is true. Therefore, X. His example was: If it’s ice, it’s cold. Liquid oxygen is cold. Therefore liquid oxygen is ice.

In this particular case, Richard and other people observe something that they have classified into the nebulous and ill-defined term “geometry.” And because life can give rise to geometric patterns, they conclude life made this “geometry.”

As opposed to a natural process that we see not only at home on Earth, with myriad examples, but all over the solar system, as well.

As opposed also to – in some cases that he and others have claimed – what really could be an intelligent cause: computer compression artifacts and/or electronic noise (think speaker static) in the camera detector.

My bet for some of the stuff shown across the internet is in that last category. My bet for all the rest is in that first category, that it’s simple, basic, geologic (and other natural) processes that can easily create regular geometric patterns.

While Richard is fond of quoting Carl Sagan when it helps him, he needs to remember other things that Carl also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Pictures of features that could very easily be described by known, does-not-require-intelligence-to-explain-them phenomena do not qualify as that extraordinary evidence.

Just … Crazy

Which might sound like my normal kind of poetic transition for a wrap-up, but there’s One More Thing, as Steve Jobs was fond of saying before revealing the next neat product.

I would be remiss in talking about this on an episode about New Horizons -related conspiracies, even though I really don’t want to give the guy more time because I’m not sure about his mental state. So long as we focus on the claims, I think it’s okay.

If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably from the “Lunar Wave” stuff where he thinks the moon’s a hologram that he put out years ago and somehow made him famous on several conspiracy shows, including “The Higherside Chats” which also runs on Art Bell’s network, which might be why he’s been picked up by other conspiracy show hosts. His monicker is “Crrow777” where crow is spelled with two “r”s.

His claim that I’ll address in this episode really boils down to this: Because he can get from Earth (what he thinks) are better images of Jupiter and Jupiter’s moons than what NASA was showing of Pluto from New Horizons several days before encounter, New Horizons is fake.

He’s wrong.

First off, in his first video, he is fully focused on saying that Jupiter in his camera and telescope is better than Pluto from the LORRI instrument on New Horizons. In his second video, he commits the logical fallacy of Moving the Goalpost and claims that what he really was talking about was Jupiter’s moons, not Jupiter. But everything about his first video is about Jupiter, really, so I’m not sure what he’s trying to pull.

Let’s do some really basic math — I haven’t talked math on this podcast in a long time. Jupiter was near the opposite side of the sun as Earth in mid-July, meaning it was around 900,000,000 km from us. Pluto was very roughly 5,000,000,000 km from us, or around 5.5x farther.

Jupiter’s radius is about 71,000 km (on average). Pluto’s radius is around 1190 km. So Jupiter is around 60x bigger in size.

Take 60x bigger and 5.5x closer Earth, Pluto is going to look around 330x smaller than Jupiter.

Okay, but what about from New Horizons? The first images that he complains about and said were an “insult to your intelligence” were from late May 2015, when New Horizons was about 50,000,000 km away from Pluto, or about 18x closer than we were to Jupiter. Except, he wasn’t showing you LORRI images. He was showing you MVIC images, which have a much worse pixel scale: They sacrifice closeness for color.

It’s the second animation he shows, about 3:45 into the video, which is from LORRI from April, when New Horizons was about 110,000,000 km, or 9x closer than we are to Jupiter.

So, simple math: Jupiter is 60x bigger, New Horizons was 9x closer, so Jupiter would STILL, if the optics were all the same, be about 6.5x bigger than what he’s doing in his back yard.

Except, the optics are not the same. I don’t know the field of view of his specific telescope. The build of the telescope changes the field of view, as does the camera size. LORRI has a field of view of 0.3° (about 60% the size of Earth’s full moon). It also has a 1024×1024 pixel detector, or 1 megapixels.

Crrow777 looks like he was using a dSLR camera, which typically has around 20 megapixels. That means that his resolving power – the ability to see a certain number of pixels across a feature – is going to be around 4-5x that of LORRI (take the square-root of the number of pixels, which is area, to get length).

So, not only is Jupiter going to still be 6.5x bigger if the telescopes are the same, but due to the number of pixels in his camera, it will be about 30x more pixels across than how New Horizons is seeing Pluto.

And that’s really about it. Everything else he says that I talk about on my Part 10 blog post in the series is just fluff around the basic claim and the basic lack of understanding about how imaging works and how distance and size of bodies factors in.

And he might seem particularly “fringe” to you. Yet, he has a lot of support among the paranormal crowd, and Newsweek keeps publishing - practically weekly - the same news story that talks about his YouTube movie along with some others. His movie has gotten around 100,000 views at this point.

And so even while he might seem fringe, he’s getting publicity. And yet he uses the same basic kind of lack of understanding as others do in this field, just like Richard Hoagland, Keith Laney, Mike Bara, and so many others where they fail to understand how to properly read image data and account for what the camera really saw versus what you see on your computer screen.


And I think that THAT is a reasonably poetic way to get to the wrap-up. As a reminder, this is an episode where I’ve talked about most of these issues in my currently 11-part blog series about Pluto conspiracies, so if you want to read more on these, see the shownotes where they’re all linked.

This is the last of my two-part series on New Horizons Pluto Encounter conspiracies, though there’s still another potentially hour-long round-table discussion I did with six early career scientists. We recorded it at the beginning of July, before the encounter, but it’s taking awhile to edit due to lots of outtakes and lots of noise level changes.

So, conspiracy-wise for New Horizons, at least based on its encounter, we’re done. And I think what I said near the beginning of the episode still holds true: Many of the conspiratorial ideas raised that I talked about here were going to be raised regardless of if we were going to Pluto or if we were going to your back yard. The context doesn’t matter, it’s just a jumping off point, a starting position from which they can talk about the conspiracy they already had in their minds.

While New Horizons data is teaching scientists new and exciting things about a world we’ve never been to in an place in the solar system we’ve never explored with its capability, the phrase, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” can be used to describe the conspiracies that various people have invented to go along with that vast area of new scientific exploration.

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