NASA conspiracy theories are generally nothing new, especially as we celebrate the anniversary of our first steps on Earth’s moon (20 July 1969). But with NASA’s New Horizons Pluto flyby imagery released last week, some tired Moon Hoax conspiracy myths and misconceptions were recycled in the headlines.
But a group of individuals says the images are fake and that NASA staged the flyby. Major historic moments often inspire conspiracy theories, and bloggers have dubbed this one the Pluto Truther movement.[…”Crow”, one of the group members’] argument: How is it that NASA’s images of Pluto, supposedly taken from a only few million miles away, are of a poorer quality than those he took of Jupiter with his telescopic camera from 484 million miles away?
Without going into an exhaustive discussion of instrumental payloads aboard spacecraft, or the advantages of photographing a 139,822 kilometer-wide planet versus a 2,370 kilometer-wide dwarf planet (even if the dwarf planet has a wide distance advantage), it’s worth noting that different equipment is optimized for different tasks. Astronomer Phil Plait has already posted an excellent discussion of why the Hubble Space Telescope can take wonderful pictures of interstellar space, but counter-intuitively has trouble with closer objects like Pluto, at Bad Astronomy.
But according to Newsweek, “Crow” and his friends have problems with other NASA missions, including ones that aren’t even NASA missions:
This is very telling. I recently made a well researched clip on their Rosetta comet landing mission which demonstrates what we can expect from NASA on any given mission.
One of his “well researched” observations about the Rosetta mission, a European Space Agency (ESA) mission, is that the comet it approached, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P), was discovered from a photograph taken on the 11th of September (a telltale date, according to “Crow”) in 1969. We’re not off to a good start, and his analysis sadly doesn’t get better from there.
Another of the group’s spokespeople explained their objections further:
Shaw doubts the entire NASA space program, including the moon landing. His theory goes: If space is a vacuum, how could spacecraft traverse it? And if it is not a vacuum, but full of debris, why would governments spend so much money sending people and high-tech gear into it?
This “rockets can’t work in a vacuum” myth is all over the place in space conspiracy circles. It’s pretty central, especially among Moon Hoaxers, and it’s tempting to dismiss some of these questions (as one quoted Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist did) as making no sense. But these aren’t stupid questions.
As an engineer, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s indeed challenging to come up with a way to show/teach why rockets can work in a vacuum while we, the experimenters, are surrounded by air. Most forms of flight we’re familiar with (planes, balloons, helicopters) require surrounding air to generate lift, exploit a density difference, or push against, to stay aloft. At the center of this news story is a learning moment.
A Rocket-Hoax Experiment
Consider the example shown below of a scientist seated in a Radio Flyer wagon. The scientist hurls a rock away, creating an equal-but-opposite acceleration force away from the rock, and propelling the wagon in the opposite direction…
“But wait,” I hear the Spacefaring-Truthers say, “the ball is pushing against surrounding air, and that’s what’s pushing the wagon in the other direction.”
Not so fast. If you observe the relative surface area annotated in the figure, you’ll note that there is more air pressure against the back of the scientist (due to his larger surface area) than the rock. If anything, the projection of mass is moving him backward despite the (very small) influence of air pressure, not because of it. It’s the mass accelerated, not air resistance, which provides the force that drives our one-person wagon “rocket,” which is why rockets (not wings or propellers) make a great vehicle for travel through a vacuum.
Sometimes space is counter-intuitive, but you can try this one out for yourself. Just try not to hurt yourself or throw rocks at anyone. For more about how rockets work, check out an excellent overview by Fraser Cain at Universe Today.
Journey of Self-Discovery
According to the Pasadena-Star News, “The ‘truthers’ have adjusted the tin foil on their heads and declared that the whole journey is a fraud, announcing that “Pluto is only at Disneyland’ and “NASA’s mission is to ensure we know nothing about what is outside of our world.” But reporter Robert Rector observes that while we’re learning new things about worlds very unlike our own through these missions, “Ultimately, the Pluto fly-by is a journey of self-discovery.” And that’s why the risky journey through a vacuum and among debris is worth the ride.