What if the scientific data collected by NASA and JPL on 164,000 asteroids was wrong?
This article reviews what happened when a renowned scientist challenged NASA and JPL.
If the data is wrong, is Earth at a greater risk of an asteroid impact?
Why would NASA cover up the truth?
First let’s start with some background
NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) spacecraft was an infrared-wavelength astronomical space telescope active from December 2009 to February 2011. WISE scanned the entire sky twice with infrared light snapping pictures of a billion objects including remote galaxies, stars, and asteroids. Its primary mission ended in October 2011.
NASA extended the mission in Oct. 2011 and renamed NEOWISE and scanned the sky’s for four months searching for Near Earth Objects – During its primary and extended mission it had discovered over 35,000 new asteroids and comets and over 154,000 solar system objects.
When the mission was complete in 2011 WISE was put to sleep.
Then the Chelyabinsk meteor exploded over Russia in February 2013 and the world woke to the threat of asteroid impacts – Earth needed to step up efforts of asteroid detection.
WISE was brought out of hibernation in September 2013. Since its cryogen coolant was depleted the operating temperature of the telescope was reduced by having it stare into deep space. It’s instruments were re-calibrated and began taking pictures in December 2013.
From December 2013 and May 2019, the telescope made 640,000 observations of over 26,000 known asteroids and comets.
- NEOWISE hunts near-Earth objects from low-Earth orbit.
- The spacecraft orbits Earth once every 95 minutes,15 times per day.
- NEOWISE is still scanning the sky’s today
As of mid-August 2019, NEOWISE is 36% of the way through its 12th coverage of the sky since the start of the Reactivation mission,” according to the spacecraft’s project page. “Over 840,000 infrared measurements have been made of 34,889 different solar system objects, including 1,030 NEOs and 176 comets.”
But NEOWISE’s success at its second career was due to luck, not design, and the luck is running out. “It turned out to be pretty good at picking up asteroids,” Amy Mainzer, who was principal investigator for NEOWISE at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California at the time, said during a media briefing in March. “Because it was never designed for that purpose, it is near the end of its life.”
NEOWISE mission is expected to end around mid-2020, although he emphasized that timeline is an estimate, and the instrument’s tenure could last longer.
So, what’s wrong with NEOWISE?
NASA began releasing NEOWISE data in March of 2015. A renowned scientist named Nathan Myhrvold studied the data and found scientific, methodological, and ethical problems with the NEOWISE Asteroid project, its results, and published papers. He went to great lengths to examine and analyze the published data.
For those who may not recognize the name here is a short introduction:
Nathan Myhrvold is described as a polymath or person of wide-ranging knowledge. He is a fascinating man.
He spent 13 years and Microsoft and rose to the chief technology officer at Microsoft. He founded Microsoft Research in 1991. He co-founded Intellectual ventures, he is involved in developing new, safe Nuclear energy reactors and is a professional chef. He wrote a cookbook, The Modernist Cuisine: The art and science of cooking. The six-volume tome is 2,438 pages and described as the cookbook to end all cookbooks. Nathan has published original, peer reviewed research in the fields of paleobiology, climate science and astronomy. He truly is a polymath.
I had the pleasure of communicating with Nathan and others at Microsoft 1996 after my company, ADS Tech developed an RDS AM/FM radio for personal computers. The internet was in its infancy so there was a great deal of interest in transmitting data over radio and TV subcarriers.
So, what did Nathan find in the NEOWISE data that concerned him?
He found that:
In a series of scientific papers Nathan outlined in incredible detail the mistakes, misguided analysis, and errors in the scientific method that the NEOWISE team gathered and reported data.
– More than half of the NEOWISE reported properties from approx. 164,000 asteroids suffer from systematic errors and inconsistencies.
– the NEOWISE analysis violates Kirchhoff’s law of thermal radiation which is a fundamental and simple law which is taught in every freshman physics course.
Kirchhoff’s law in simple language states: For an arbitrary body emitting and absorbing thermal radiation in thermodynamic equilibrium, the emissivity is equal to the absorptivity.
– results suffered from incorrect albedos (the amount of light radiated off the asteroid) and diameters.
– Nonstandard data analysis was used – some involved discarding much of the observed data with no valid reason so much data was purged.
– Irreproducible results – NEOWISE paper do not describe their methods in enough detail to allow them to be replicated. NEOWISE team leaders have refused to explain the details to any external researchers. This is a clear violation of normal practice of science and a violation of NASA and JPL rules.
– Copied ROS diameters (ROS – Radar, occultation, and spacecraft measurements – previously collected measurements and presented them as NEOWISE results. In more than 100 cases. They copied data without referencing the sources which is plagiarism.
– Fabricated results- NEOWISE model curves completely miss all the data points they claim to fit in 30% to 50% of cases. In effect, the results are fabricated.
– The diameter estimates are less accurate than claimed.
– The NEOWISE team copied ROS diameters from previously published papers and presented them as NEOWISE modeling results, making it impossible for third parties to check the actual accuracy of calibration tests.
The Cover Up
From June 2016 through May 2016 Nathan made the NEOWISE group aware of the Kirchhoff’s law issue. Amy Mainzer, the principal NEOWISE investigator replied that he was confused; after that, Nathan received no further comments from her.
Nathan repeatedly sought comments and clarifications on the NEOWISE data, but the NEOWISE team refused to answer, so he wrote and published a paper to demonstrate that the asteroid diameters and other physical properties had large differences from published NEOWISE results hoping to get a response.
Instead of answers he was criticized and responses from the NEOWISE team did not address the issues that were raised.
As Nathan continued to push the issue the NEOWISE team defended their use of plagiarized ROS diameters, data was backdated, and some results were purged from the report archives.
Nathen went so far as filing as series FOIA requests and appeals for original data. NASA has gone to great lengths to resist producing most of the NEOWISE records requested.
Nathan suffered through two years of stonewalling and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on FOIA fees and attorneys on three administrative appeals all in the quest for scientific clarity.
Why would NASA and JPL Cover up the Truth?
Why wouldn’t the NEOWISE team admit their mistake and respond to repeated FOIA requests? The people at NASA and JPL are smart. Without access to the working drafts, internal communications and all the data it’s impossible to know.
Maybe they could not live up to their stated goals? They claimed they would achieve accuracy for asteroid diameters that is better than 10%. This would be twice as good as previous thermal-modeling efforts had claimed. It is unclear whether the NEOWISE data set, or asteroid thermal modeling more generally, could ever achieve the accuracy claimed. But it was certainly not possible given that the NEOWISE team made some basic scientific and statistical errors from the outset. They dealt with reflected sunlight in a way that ignores Kirchhoff’s laws.
They needed to keep their funding. The NEOWISE group was advocating for a major new space telescope project, called NEOCam, and seeking up to $600 million in funding. A big selling point of NEOCam is that it would be run by the team that was successful with NEOWISE. A scandal over NEOWISE could easily scuttle their ability to sell this huge project.
NEOCam was finally fully funded in September 2019 two months after asteroid 2019 OK had a close encounter with Earth. It was discovered the one day before it passed 44,000 miles above Earth. The nearly 500 ft asteroid was the largest close encounter on record.
Why does this matter
Arguing over the size of rocks that are millions of miles away may seem silly—Does this really matter?
Maintaining the scientific method matters. How else can hypotheses be tested against experiments and observations? The results published must be submitted in such a way that they can be replicated independently to achieve the same results.
Beyond arguing about the scientific method, the study of asteroids is quite important. It is a very active area of research around the world because asteroids can tell us a lot about the origin of the solar system—and because there is a 100% probability that a major asteroid impact will affect life on Earth at some point in the future, just as it has multiple times in the past.
The NEOWISE papers have been referenced by hundreds of other scientific papers. A quick search on Google Scholar shows that the most cited NEOWISE paper has hundreds of citations. Four of the other NEOWISE papers have 95 to 285 citations. And a search for “NEOWISE” turns up 1440 papers referencing the project.
If the NEOWISE data is Wrong….then all the papers using incorrect data are wrong.
Asteroids are important to everyone on Earth. We know that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. In 1908, an asteroid impact flattened Tunguska, Siberia. In 2013, a smaller meteor exploded in the air over Chelyabinsk, Russia.
The NEOWISE results are critical to assessing the risk of future impacts, which in turn depend critically on having accurate diameter estimates. In recognition of this risk, Congress directed NASA in 2005 to identify 90% of all near-Earth objects that are 140 meters in diameter or larger by the end of 2020.
That work is coordinated by the office at NASA that oversees NEOWISE.
After what I from Nathan Myhrvold’s research, knowing that NASA and JPL published erroneous data and stubbornly stood behind the bad data, I’m scared.
What’s Wrong with NEOWISE – by Nathan Myhrvold
An empirical examination of WISE/NEOWISE asteroid analysis and results – by Nathan Myhrvold