NASA PR: Good And Bad Examples

Earlier this summer, the Dawn spacecraft observed some striking “bright spots” on Ceres. NASA made this into a PR game, challenging the public to vote on what these spots are (ice, salts, whatever).

This image, made using images taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows Occator crater on Ceres, home to a collection of intriguing bright spots. The bright spots are much brighter than the rest of Ceres’ surface, and tend to appear overexposed in most images. This view is a composite of two images of Occator: one using a short exposure that captures the detail in the bright spots, and one where the background surface is captured at normal exposure. The images were obtained by Dawn during the mission’s High Altitude Mapping Orbit (HAMO) phase, from which the spacecraft imaged the surface at a resolution of about 450 feet (140 meters) per pixel. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

OK, it’s not horrible to try to create interest in far off planetary science, even if it made no sense to guess from the monochrome images when the spacecraft was about to move lower and collect high resolution, multispectral data. (I.e.,, the correct answer was, “wait until we see the data”.)

That was in April, and Dawn has collected more data, including spectral data.

But NASA is still milking this “mystery”, releasing more detailed (but scientifically negligible) monochrome imagery and fancy animations, laying on the hokum, “Soon, the scientific analysis will reveal the geological and chemical nature of this mysterious and mesmerizing extraterrestrial scenery.” Soon?

My prediction is that there will be splashy press releases accompanying papers at the big conferences this fall (AGU in December and AAS in January for sure). That would be about normal for writing up important results.

I’m sure there will be results from Rosetta and New Horizon at those same conferences.

For comparison, I note a nice blog post by Carly Howett, “New Horizons Probes the Mystery of Charon’s Red Pole”. Without condescending, she walks through the question of the red appearance of Charon’s surface. She explains some exotic chemistry that can generate Thorin, a Nitrogen, Methane, and Carbon Monoxide ice, which she hypothesizes are the constituents of the deposits we observe on Charon.

But the story is far from complete or solidly supported, and she says, “This is one of the many things I am looking forward to better understanding as we receive more New Horizons data over the next year and analyze it in conjunction with continued laboratory work.”

To me, this keeps my interest far better than boneheaded public opinion “polls”. Science is about careful thinking, not about guessing.  And I really like getting insight about the thinking behind the hypotheses, which good science teachers do so well.


Space Saturday


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