NASA shoots themselves in the foot and creates another conspiracy

You would think that fighting a conspiracy accusation for 25 years over a picture that appeared to be a massive face on the surface of Mars would have made NASA a bit more careful to be extremely transparent in their exploration efforts. At least the face image taken in the Cydonia region of the Red Planet was a matter of the angle of the sunlight and the shadows cast. The latest entry into the “NASA Coverup Files” was an unforced error on NASA’s part:

Alien conspiracy theorists are confident they’ve caught NASA in the act of covering up the fact that we are not alone in the universe.

A video posted on YouTube yesterday showed how an image of Saturn’s moons Dione and Titan, taken by NASA’s Cassini orbiter, had been digitally altered before being added to the space agency’s Picture of the Day website.

In the video, “DominatorPS3” turned up the brightness levels on the photo to show that a “huge” object can be seen behind the smaller moon, Dione. Clearly visible are brush strokes that show how the rainbow aura of the object has been blacked out.

This is one of those things better viewed than described. Have a look at the pictures:

The left side is the image NASA published of the Saturnian moon Dione shown against the much larger moon Titan. (Titan’s the only moon in our system with a dense atmosphere like ours – albeit consisting of different stuff – and the only other body in the solar system with surface liquid forms like our lakes and rivers.) The picture is a thing of beauty and, given the distances involved in any astronomical endeavor, having the 2 in frame like this is an extremely difficult shot to pull off. It’s a wonder they’ve managed it at all. However, certain members of the public have taken to examining any photo release by NASA for evidence of… well, extraterrestrial activity. Or, perhaps, evidence of NASA’s covering up potential extraterrestrial activity. That’s where the frame on the right comes in. The brightness and contrast of NASA’s released shot were increased to examine the photo for signs of editing. Note the area of darkness around the trailing edge of Dione and you can clearly see the marks of “Photoshopping” where someone blacked out an area of the original shot.

NASA explained this thusly:

The person responsible for the manipulation, Emily Lakdawalla, told a forum of excitable theorists that she made the changes because of the way Cassini takes photos.

“Cassini takes color pictures by snapping three sequential photos through red, green and blue filters,” she said. “In the time that separated the three frames, Dione moved, so if I did a simple color composite I would be able to make Titan look right, but not Dione; or Dione look right, but not Titan.”

“So I aligned Dione, cut it out, and then aligned Titan,” Lakdwalla explained, “and then had to account for the missing bits of shadow where the bits of Dione had been in two of the three channels.”

Planetary shots like this aren’t a matter of making sure your flash is turned on and charged up. The images take longer to collect than the click! of a shutter button like we do here on Earth. We’re not usually taking pictures of stuff from that range. From a physics perspective, Lakdawalla’s explanation sounds perfectly reasonable. But was it so unforseeable that someone might find the evidence of her editing – “tampering”, they’d call it – of the image and, sans any notice of that editing by NASA, conclude that NASA didn’t want people to see what their cameras had recorded in that part of the shot? After the face on Mars, the “fake lunar landings” and all of that, was it that hard to imagine?

NASA should have released the original photos, phase shifts and imprecise shots and all, and then released the shot they did with a nice, big caveat that the image had been adjusted to compensate for color shifts and positional movements by the moons in the frame. Viola. No conspiracy. Let the people like “DominatorPS3” get the headaches trying to compensate for the composite mismatches themselves. The rest of us will just enjoy the artistry of the combined shot.

I understand what NASA was trying to do, but I would remind those involved that NASA’s not an art gallery. They are supposed to be the nation’s premiere scientific exploration organization in the realm of astronomy and space. Science requires – demands – absolute transparency where the collection and display of data is concerned. It demands that the original data be available above all else and that edited or “adjusted” data not be presented as if it’s the accurate picture of what really happened. Too many or our scientific endeavors are derailed in this way. NASA should know better.



  1. Viola is a musical instrument. Voilà is French for “there you have it,” literally, “see there.”

    Sticking to English is safer.

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