Space & Planetary Science: July 2010 Archives

Keith's 27 Jul 6:28 pm EDT note: This was just posted on the Kepler website and at NASA.gov: "Earth-size is not Earth-like: the TED Talk by Dimitar Sasselov: Two weeks ago, I gave a talk at TED Global 2010 which was very well received, but caused confusion. I talked about Earth-like planets, which many people would equate to Earth-size and "habitable." Earth-size and Earth-like is certainly not the same. Take the example of Venus, an Earth-size planet whose surface will melt lead. I understand that the term "Earth-like" was misleading to most of the media coverage. The Kepler mission is designed to discover Earth-size planets but it has not yet discovered any; at this time we have found only planet candidates. The June 2010 Kepler data release with 306 candidates is an encouraging first step along the road to Kepler's ultimate goals, and specifically - the goal to determine the frequency of Earth-size planets in and near the habitable zone. However, these are candidates, not systems that have been verified sufficiently to be considered true planets. It will take more years of hard work to get to our goal, but we can do it."

That's all that Sasselov (NASA) has to say? It took two days to generate this? Dimitar Sasselov's Kepler statement puts the blame on other people (media are people too) misunderstanding him - not on what he clearly said. He clearly said "The Galaxy is rich in small, Earth-like planets" and "the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there". These are rather bold statements for mere "candidate" planets. Moreover these words clearly evoke specific concepts in one's mind i.e. worlds - like - Earth.

If Dimitar Sasselov is going to formally represent the mission to the public then he needs vastly improve his speaking skills beyond what he currently possesses. Moreover, he needs to be reminded that this is a project funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. His audience is not some little club of elites but rather everyone, everywhere. Lastly, he needs to understand that 99.9% of humanity is not versed in the nuances, subtleties, and jargon that he and his fellow science majors use every day. He used the phrase "Earth-like" and he needs to admit that he made the error. For his audience to get the impression that they got is perfectly understandable given the words that he used.

This should be an object lesson to the Kepler team - and to NASA - as to how NOT to take a tantalizing topic and present it to the public. Sasselov bungled the delivery such that the world could not clearly understand what is - and is not proven as fact - yet.

Keith's 27 Jul 8:58 pm EDT update: there is now a lengthier post by Sasselov here. I only learned about it from an alert reader. NASA PAO has not bothered to tell the media and no mention is made on any Kepler website. So I guess you have to stumble across it or just happen to see it flash by on Twitter. The essense of my complaint is the same - Sasselov claims that this was all a misunderstanding by the media - not poor choice of words and lack of through explanation on his part such that non-astronomers (i.e. virtually everyone) can understand. Fess up Dimitar, you said what you said.

Keith's 28 Jul 10:54 am EDT update: It is rather odd that NASA Kepler and NASA PAO are shy about alerting the media to the presence Sasselov's comments (both short and long versions). No media advisory, press release, or email update have been issued. This is especially odd given the effect that his initial comments had and how the media portrayed them. Its almost as if the Kepler folks do not care to correct the record - thus letting stand the original interpretation by the media. Once again - remedial PR training for the Kepler team is long over due.

- Kepler Team Needs To Take PR 101, earlier post
- Kepler Co-Investigator Spills The Beans: Lots of Earth-like Planets, earlier post

Our galaxy is rich in Earth-sized planets, CNN

"Since the time of Nicolaus Copernicus five centuries ago, people have wondered whether there are other planets like Earth in the universe. Today scientists are closer than ever to an answer -- and it appears to be that the Milky Way galaxy is rich in Earth-sized planets, according to astronomer Dimitar Sasselov. Drawing on new findings from a NASA telescope, he told the TED Global conference in Oxford, England earlier this month that nearly 150 Earth-sized planets have been detected so far. He estimated that the overall number of planets in the galaxy with "similar conditions to the conditions that we experience here on Earth is pretty staggering. It's about 100 million such planets."

Did planet hunter leak data about other Earths?, New Scientist

"[Sasselov] says his chart uses the same data that was presented in Kepler's previous announcement, only it has been "rebinned" to include candidates with larger radii, up to 2.9 times the radius of the Earth. The chart label fell victim to TED font size requirements, and the "9" was lopped off instead of being rounded up. "The chart definitely has a mistake," Sasselov told New Scientist."

Kepler scientist tries to stop galaxy-sized rumors he started, Ars Technica

"One of the scientists who works on the Kepler planet-hunting mission, Dimitar Sasselov, inadvertently set off a bit of a controversy when he appeared to announce that its first big data release implied that our galaxy is rich in Earth-like planets, with approximately 100 million habitable ones. That might be great news, except for some awkward facts: he dropped the news during an informal TED talk, and nobody at NASA or elsewhere was prepared to back up his assertions. In fact, the Kepler team has faced a bit of a backlash for its decision to limit the release of data on Earth-like candidates. Had Sasselov spilled the beans?"

Millions of Earths? Talk causes a stir, Alan Boyle's Cosmiclog, MSNBC

"NASA Watch's Keith Cowing said he was confused by Sasselov's seemingly significant non-news: "The Kepler folks seem to want to have things both ways," he wrote. "On one hand they want to tantalize us (and select audiences) with what they have found but yet at the same time they do not want to put their reputations on the line when people start taking their comments as fact. This project clearly needs to put some PR strategy in place." My efforts to get comments from Sasselov or other members of the Kepler team today were unsuccessful, but NASA spokesman Michael Mewhinney did tell me that the scientists are preparing a fresh response and would provide further clarification on Tuesday. So check back here for updates as they become available."

Keith's 2:28 pm EDT note: My reaction to this news is not unlike my reaction to the opening scene of the early Star Trek Enterprise episode "Strange New World" - and the crew's reaction to seeing an M-Class planet unexpectedly fill the view out a window. As Crewman Novakovich comments to Crewman Cutler, "You'd think that the Captain would make an announcement or something". The discussion between Captain Archer and T'Pol about Archer's impatience to see and explore the new world is equally appropriate to the current Kepler story.

ARC PAO's Michael Mewhinney and his cohorts have had several days to come up with a response. While the world is buzzing about this astonishing news we've heard nothing from the Kepler team. Someone needs to light a fire under Mewhinney et al The fact that NASA can't get its act together to address this news is baffling. Trully baffling. I can understand dragging their feet when there is bad news, but when paradigm-shifting, awe-inspiring news like this starts to circulate around our planet, the agency's inability to address it makes me wonder if the agency trully understands what it is doing - and the impact it can have on they way we view the universe.

Keith's 4:52 pm EDT update: Finally - a response from the Kepler folks - via Twitter here: "@KeithCowing We're working on it! New Kepler blog contribution from Dimitar is on its way. Will tweet the moment it's ready." and here: "@NASAWatch Kepler blog contribution from Dimitar Sasselov is expected to be out today."

- Kepler Team Needs To Take PR 101, earlier post
- Kepler Co-Investigator Spills The Beans: Lots of Earth-like Planets, earlier post

Data Leak: Galaxy Rich in Earth-Like Planets, Science

"NASA didn't plan it this way, but earlier this month a co-investigator on the Kepler satellite mission in the hunt for other Earth-like planets announced to a conference in Oxford, England, that "planets like our own Earth are out there. Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in this kind of planet." The announcement--which wasn't getting out until conference organizers posted a video online last week--was especially striking because it was largely based on Kepler data that team members had been allowed to keep to themselves for further analysis until next February. So, traditionally, such data would be released formally with all involved scientists onboard."

Claims of 100 Earth-Like Planets Not True, Space.com

"What Dimitar presented was 'candidates,'" said David Koch, the mission's deputy principal investigator at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif."These have the apparent signature we are looking for, but then we must perform extensive follow-up observations to eliminate false positives, such as background eclipsing binaries. This requires substantial amounts of ground-based observing which is done primarily in the summer observing season."

Kepler Scientist: 'Galaxy is Rich in Earth-Like Planets', Discovery News

"There's a bittersweet feeling to this announcement. Although the news is groundbreaking, it's a shame that it was leaked during a TED talk rather than being released via official channels from the whole Kepler team. Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, goes one step further, pointing out that it's wrong for this news to be announced in the U.K., only for the news to finally break weeks later."

Keith's note: Ok, I am confused. The charts that Sasselov showed are not what you show when you are unsure of what your data is telling you. Indeed, one chart proclaims "Kepler space telescope - the first 700 planet candidates: The Galaxy is rich in small, Earth-like planets". There is no hesitation or equivocation, this is a declarative statement that comes across as a fact i.e. "the Galaxy *IS* rich in small, Earth-like planets". You certainly would need a lot of confirmed "candidates" in order to make such a bold claim in public.

Listen again to Sasselov's words: "You can see here [Chart] - small planets dominate the picture. The planets which are marked "like Earth" - definitely more than any of the other planets that we see. Now for the first time we can say that. There is a lot more work we need to do with this. Most of these are candidates and in the next few years - we will confirm them - but the statistical result is loud and clear - and the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there." He says that the "statistical result is loud and clear" in other words he has data to back up his claims.

Is the Kepler team hiding something? Why is Sasselov talking about data that the Kepler team said that they did not want to discuss yet? Does Sasselov not understand what he is talking about? Or is this an issue with a scientist with a tendency to exagerate combined with less than perfect English skills? This was a public presentation by a key Kepler scientist speaking in that capacity. Did NASA PAO screen these materials before the presentation?

The Kepler folks seem to want to have things both ways. On one hand they want to tantalize us (and select audiences) with what they have found but yet at the same time they do not want to put their reputations on the line when people start taking their comments as fact. This project clearly needs to put some PR strategy in place.

Reader note: "These articles were sparked by a talk that was given by Harvard's Dimitar Sasselov at TEDGlobal at Oxford this month. It was posted to the TED site last week and picked up by various sites: link. The smoking gun is the slide in the background at about 8:15 in the talk."

Keith's note: Here is the slides - plus another. Now I see where the story had is origin - so Fox and the other papers are off the hook - although they did manage to scramble things a bit. I think Sasselov's use of English is at fault here. Also, my original comments about the Kepler team's PR skills have been underscored by this fumbled release of stunning news.


Click on image to enlarge

How odd that this venue was chosen - one where you have to pay thousands of dollars to get in - in a foreign country - as the place where this announcement is made by Kepler Co-Investigator Dimitar Sasselov. What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements. And then the project's Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience - offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.

If Dimitar Sasselov is allowed to give an exclusive update to a high-priced, hand-picked audience in the UK, then the Kepler project should seek to give the rest of us here back in the U.S. an update on the amazing discoveries Kepler has made. Not to do so - immediately - will call into question the agency's avowed intent to be open and transparent to the very people who pay the bills for these missions. Indeed, a disclosure such as Sasselov's already makes the Kepler mission team's rationale for not releasing data sound hollow.

This is amazing, paradigm-shifting, stuff, NASA. Everyone wants to know more. Set the Kepler data free.

More plus video, partial transcript, and earlier post below.

Four decades later, recovering lunar images (photos), CNET

"Around 2005, space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing of NASA Watch learned of prior attempts at restoring the images. With a renewed interest from NASA in moon exploration and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter set to go to the moon in 2009. Wingo and Cowing became more and more motivated to work towards restoring the tapes."

Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

NASA Names New Director for Lunar Science Institute

"Yvonne Pendleton has been named director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) headquartered at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. Pendleton has served as the NASA Ames deputy associate center director, chief of the Space Science and Astrobiology Division and as a research astrophysicist for 31 years, including nearly two years at NASA headquarters."

The Kepler Asteroseismic Investigation: Scientific goals and the first results

"So far data have been available from the first 7 month of the mission containing a total of 2937 targets observed at a 1-min. cadence for periods between 10 days and 7 months. The goals of the asteroseismic part of the Kepler project is to perform detailed studies of stellar interiors. The first results of the asteroseismic analysis are orders of magnitude better than seen before, and this bodes well for how the future analysis of Kepler data for many types of stars will impact our general understanding of stellar structure and evolution."

Asteroid Lutetia, As Seen By Rosetta's OSIRIS Imaging System, DLR

"The European Rosetta spacecraft has achieved a further milestone on its journey to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. On 10 July 2010 at 17:45 CEST, the orbiter flew past asteroid Lutetia on its second and final pass of the asteroid belt at about 15 kilometres per second - 54,000 kilometres per hour - merely 3162 kilometres from the asteroid. The confirmation was delivered at 18:10 CEST to ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt."


Course Correction Keeps New Horizons on Path to Pluto

"A short but important course-correction maneuver kept New Horizons on track to reach the "aim point" for its 2015 encounter with Pluto. The deep-space equivalent of a tap on the gas pedal, the June 30 thruster-firing lasted 35.6 seconds and sped New Horizons up by just about one mile per hour. But it was enough to make sure that New Horizons will make its planned closest approach 7,767 miles (12,500 kilometers) above Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EDT on July 14, 2015."

Ice Rich Crater At The Moon's North Pole

"NASA Radar returns first high-resolution view of an unusual crater near Moon's north pole Mini-RF, a synthetic aperture radar on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, recently imaged a potentially ice-rich crater near the north pole of the Moon. Located at 84N, 157W, this permanently shadowed crater, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) in diameter, lies on the floor of the larger, more degraded crater Rozhdestvensky (110 miles, or 177 kilometers in diameter). With no sunlight to warm the crater floor and walls, ice brought to the Moon by comets or formed through interactions with the solar wind could potentially collect here."

First Directly Imaged Planet Confirmed Around Sun-like Star, Gemini Observatory

"A planet only about eight times the mass of Jupiter has been confirmed orbiting a Sun-like star at over 300 times farther from the star than the Earth is from our Sun. The newly confirmed planet is the least massive planet known to orbit at such a great distance from its host star. The discovery utilized high-resolution adaptive optics technology at the Gemini Observatory to take direct images and spectra of the planet."


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