The real Phoenix, in black and white

The real Phoenix, in black and white

The real Phoenix, in black and white

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 29 2008 10:30 AM

The real Phoenix, in black and white

Some antiscientists never learn.

Of course, if they did, they wouldn't still be antiscientists.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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I present to you one Ted Twietmeyer. He is a contributor to Rense.com, a webby bastion of poor thinking, bad evidence, breathless speculation, and out-and-out nonsense. Twietmeyer, you may recall, made some incredibly ridiculous claims about an Apollo picture, and back in January I wrote how I was able to shut down his goofy NASA conspiracy theory in about 30 seconds of using teh googles.

Surprise! He's at it again. And surprise! 30 seconds of Googling shows he's wrong again.

This time -- of course -- he's frothing about Phoenix and claiming NASA is covering up the real images. Take a moment to shut down some brain cells and read what he wrote. In a nutshell, his big complaint is that the images are not in color. Yes, that's the huge NASA conspiracy: they're sending black and whites, and not color glossies.

But first, let's dissect the idea that the images are not in color. The first images we saw from Phoenix were greyscale (not "MONOCROME" [sic] as Twietmeyer claims). That means we saw images that were shades of grey, and no color. The image shown here on the left, for example, is one of the earliest Phoenix sent back, showing a part of one of its solar panels and a small patch of Martian surface. It's indeed lacking color. Why?

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Phoenix -- and almost all modern space probes -- use cameras that are digital detectors called CCDs. These are basically computer chips that are sensitive to light. When a photon hits a part of the chip, it is converted into a charge, and the amount of charge that builds up tells the chip how much light hit it. But all the CCD can do is count photons. It can't really tell a red photon from a blue one; all it knows is how much light hit it.

The way to produce color is to trick the CCD. You put a red filter in front of it, for example, and that lets only red photons through. You do that again using a green filter, and then a blue one, taking three images in all. Then you can add the three images together, producing a color image (there are a lot of details to this of course, which you can read about here, here, and here).

That's a lot of picture taking, and then a lot of post-processing to get the colors right! So of course, when we land a probe on a planet for the first time, scientists are perfectly happy to wait for extra images to be sent back, for people to process them, then to make them into color, and finally to display them...

Pbbbbbt. Duh. Of course they don't do that. They take a bunch of images without a filter (or maybe through just one filter) and send them back immediately so scientists and engineers can assess the status of the probe. Color information is cool, and even in many cases useful, but not right away! It's more important to just find out what's going on with the lander.

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That's why the pictures first seen weren't color. Had Twietmeyer actually done any research at all (or -- GASP -- talked to someone who actually knows about this stuff) he would have found that out right away. But it's easier to spin ridiculous conspiracy theories.

About this, he says:

What we saw today is a dramatic replay of the Viking lander more than 30 years ago, complete with another image of the spacecraft's foot and a view of the horizon. But those images broadcast more than 30 years ago from Mars were in COLOR. But not images in 2008! Who can believe this nonsense?

Well, I couldn't agree with his last sentence more! But maybe not in the way he means. And irony alert: the first images sent back from Viking were greyscale! It wasn't until the next day that the first color images were produced. How did I find all this out? By typing "first viking pictures" into Google.

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But then, I have a PhD in astronomy. I'm highly trained in the intertubes.

Second irony alert: color images were sent back from Phoenix within a day or two of landing as well.

Twietmeyer goes on and on about this. As a caption to an image from Phoenix, he says:

First black and white May 25, 2008 image of Martian arctic landscape, taken from jpl-nasa NASA website. This is claimed to be a "raw image before processing." But JPL-NASA doesn't say just what the processing does.

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OOoooooo, JPL doesn't say what "processing" means! That must mean conspiracy! Puhhhlease. Anyone who has worked in astronomical digital imagery knows exactly what processing means. The images right off the chip aren't very pretty, or even useful. There are cosmic ray hits, calibration issues, electronic noise from the camera itself, problems with telemetry (dropouts) and so on. These are all known problems, and can be taken care of using some image manipulation techniques. That may sound like the images are being fiddled with, but it's actually a fairly rigorous technique to turn the raw data into something you can actually analyze. I've written about this many, many times. But as Twietmeyer clearly believes, why do any actual research when it's so much easier to make conspiracy claims?

I expect we'll be seeing more silly claims like this, not fewer, the more probes we send to space. It's frustrating to have to deal with this kind of irrationality... especially when these very pictures we see represent the height, the pinnacle, of rationality: our ability to use science to send machines to other worlds and send back data. It took a vast amount of clear thinking to be able to do that, and people like Twietmeyer are trying very hard to tear that down.

And they will, no doubt, always have an audience. But when you hear some claim about conspiracies, ask yourself: does the person talking have any real experience in this field? Have they done any research to back up their claims? Are they telling me the whole story? What are they leaving out?

And in many cases, such as this one, they are leaving out the evidence, the background, the research, the investigation, the science, and above all, the critical thinking and logic to back up what they claim. All they leave in is the hot air and wild speculation, and that's not how you find the truth.

Tip o' the tin foil beanie to BABloggee Skyhound for letting me know about this.