Saturday, October 01, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt - October 2011

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • Humans to Mars: How and Why - Douglas W Gage, Ph.D.
  • SkeptiCamp DC 2011
  • Torn from Today's Headlines: Reentry of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite: a Case Study for UFO Reports?
  • November Lecture: Brian J. Gorman
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically

Humans to Mars: How and Why - Douglas W. Gage, Ph.D.
Saturday, October 15, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Bethesda Regional Library
7400 Arlington Rd
Bethesda, MD [map]
Near Bethesda Metro
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

Now that the space shuttle program has ended, what should be the next step for human space flight?  There appears to be broad agreement that Mars should be our ultimate goal, but some say that first we should go back to the Moon or to an asteroid, and many question whether we should be spending our scarce resources to send humans anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit any time soon.

While the focus of the current debate reflects the "center of gravity" of the NASA budget -- building and launching rockets and spacecraft -- orbital physics dictates that human travelers to Mars will spend more time on the ground there than in space en route, and this ground segment is where the real challenges lie.

The Apollo program demonstrated that NASA can design, build, and fly big rockets in a decade or so, but the real challenges lie in developing the technologies, systems, and operational processes that will keep our explorers safe, secure, productive, and happy on the surface of Mars.  We need to provide shelter, energy, air, water, food, health care, communications, IT support, ground transportation, and much more.
  • The initial development of these technologies is much less expensive that designing and building rockets.
  • The more time we spend preparing to support humans on the surface of Mars, the more successful our mission is likely to be.
  • Most of the technologies required can be used or adapted for use on Earth.
So, regardless of when we decide to actually go to Mars, we should be preparing now to live on Mars.  It's not rocket science!

Douglas Gage is an independent technology consultant based in Arlington, Virginia.  In the early 2000s, he served as a Program Manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), managing programs in robotic software.  He served as a reviewer for the NASA's Mars Technology Program for several years, and in 2005 he served as External Cochair for NASA's Capabilities Roadmapping Team for Autonomous Systems and Robotics.

The Bethesda Regional Library has free parking on Saturdays. It is also located about 2 blocks from the Bethesda Metro.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

SkeptiCamp DC 2011
Skeptics are invited to Greater Washington, D.C., area’s 2nd annual SkeptiCamp. SkeptiCamp DC 2011 -- an informal conference focusing on skepticism, science, and critical thinking -- will be held Sunday, October 16, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Prince George's Room of the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park. This grassroots event consists of a series of short talks on various topics (chosen by the presenters), with opportunities for questions after each talk to encourage the circulation of ideas among participants. Those interested in attending SkeptiCamp DC must visit to register.

The first SkeptiCamp took place in Denver, Colorado, in 2007. The SkeptiCamp concept developed as a method for local communities of skeptics to gather and discuss issues of importance, without the investments of time and money required of involvement in many formal skeptical conferences. Organizers of local SkeptiCamps encourage openness, participation, and collaboration, in an attempt to foster the skeptical movement and to take its ideas to a wider audience. Since 2007, locally organized SkeptiCamps have been held across North America and, recently, in the United Kingdom. SkeptiCamp DC 2010 was the 18th event in this growing phenomenon. SkeptiCamp DC is being sponsored locally by the Society of Inquiry at UMD, National Capital Area Skeptics, and the Center for Inquiry DC.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Reentry of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite: a Case Study for UFO Reports?
NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), a 6-ton unmanned spacecraft deployed from shuttle Discovery in 1991, made an uncontrolled reentry into Earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean near the island Kiritimati (Christmas Island) on September 24, 2011 at about 0400 Universal Time.

Media coverage over the preceding few weeks focused on the unusual mass and size ("school-bus sized") of UARS, the number and weight of pieces expected to reach the ground (26 components weighing a total of about 1,200 pounds), the chances of causing a human casualty (1 in 3,200), the extent of the debris field (a swath extending about 500 miles), and where in the world it might come down (anywhere between latitudes 57 degrees north and south, due to the uncertainty of reentry date).

Understandably this generated some excitement among the worldwide public.  As the uncertainty of its reentry date narrowed first to September 23-25 and then to within a couple of hours (roughly a single UARS orbit of Earth), purported reentry photos, videos, and reports began to appear on internet sites, including those of professional news media outlets.  For example, CNN and its web site carried the story and photos submitted by Kris Rakowski of Maple Grove, MN, showing a starry night sky with strangely "wiggling" glowing trails across part of the field of view.  (These images appear inconsistent with a satellite reentry, and probably so for any other atmospheric or celestial phenomenon.)

The reentry of UARS provided a rare opportunity to mimic and test key aspects of many UFO reports.  First, the news media "primed" much of the public, informing them that a large object was going to burn up visibly in Earth's atmosphere.  This would be likely to spur interest in witnessing the spectacle, just as initial reports of UFOs cause many people to start watching the sky in hopes of spotting one.  Second, the uncertainty in reentry timing, even when narrowed to within a couple of hours, left an enormous potential viewing area across Earth's land and sea surface.  This would encourage a large part of the world's population areas to hold out some hope of seeing UARS reenter, just as might be expected to someday sight a UFO (i.e., there are no parts of the world seemingly excluded from UFO reports).

But unlike many UFO reports, the authentic location of the reentry spectacle could be fairly well determined after the fact.  Any sightings/videos/images obtained from elsewhere could be readily categorized as a hoax, mistaken identification (e.g., a much smaller satellite reentering), or a meteor or other phenomena that might be misconstrued as a satellite reentry.  Although much of the public probably has an accurate expectation of what reentry should look like, based on videos of the Columbia shuttle accident (2003) or the controlled reentry of the Mir space station (2001), there might still be widespread misconceptions about what to expect.

For example, CNN broadcast images from a video produced by Robert Jeffcoat in Paia, Hawaii.  Jeffcoat considered the contrail he videoed to be unusual in appearance and probably associated with UARS.  But the video was shot about an hour after UARS had already reentered far to the southwest of Hawaii.

In another case, Johnny Garcia, a TV news videographer in San Antonio, TX, appeared to have videoed an uneventful passage of UARS (or perhaps another satellite) on what would've been one of its final orbits.  A CNN anchor describing the video images seemed to misconstrue the stars passing through the field of view (as the camera remained fixed on the satellite's motion across the sky) as pieces coming off of the satellite.

By September 27, US Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center provided the coordinates of UARS reentry in the mid-Pacific.  Clearly the Minnesota photos and almost certainly the Hawaii photos were not related to UARS reentry.  (In fact, to date there have been no eyewitness reports or imagery from the reentry zone.)

I propose that the following lessons are learned from UARS reentry:
1) Similar to Philip J. Klass' "6th principle of UFOlogy," which states, "Once news media coverage leads the public to believe that UFOs [or, in this case, UARS] may be in the vicinity, there are numerous natural and man-made objects which, especially when seen at night, can take on unusual characteristics in the minds of hopeful viewers. Their UFO reports in turn add to the mass excitement which encourages still more observers to watch for UFOs. This situation feeds upon itself until such time as the news media lose interest in the subject, and then the 'flap' quickly runs out of steam."  In this case, the media eventually announced that UARS had reentered, which dissuaded would-be witnesses from making further efforts, limiting the potential "flap" to only a matter of hours.

2) News of the pending reentry probably spurred efforts by pranksters and hoaxers to "get in on" the media attention devoted to anyone with a story or images.  Some of the images purported to show UARS reentry may be hoaxes.  Internet search engine results show a multitude of dubious images and videos.  In a number of cases that I reviewed, earlier videos of Mir reentry or of fireballs (extremely bright meteors) were being recast as recent UARS video.

3) The professional news media, although in some cases demonstrating laudable restraint, did not engage the services of on-air aerospace consultants over the course of the Sept 23-24 reentry window.  This oversight diminished the quality of their live news coverage, which otherwise would've benefited from qualified assessments of submitted images and video, and to some extent for satellite ground track evaluation.

I close with an acknowledgment that just because a video or image was shot of something other than UARS around the same time as UARS reentered doesn't necessarily mean the video or image shows nothing truly strange.  Any such claim cannot be rejected on "a priori grounds, antecedent to inquiry," to quote the mission statement of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the organization that helped found NCAS nearly 25 years ago.

(Full disclosure: I was flight software engineer for UARS from 2000 to 2005, when I and my colleagues shut down the spacecraft after exhausting its fuel, lowering its orbit as much as possible to expedite reentry following a critical battery failure that ended its science mission.)

CNN segment on UARS, several hours after reentry (includes mistaken interpretation of San Antonio video as a UARS-breakup)

Rakowski (MN) story
Rakowski photos:

Robert Jeffcoat video, Hawaii
Jeffcoat photos:

KSAT San Antonio video by Johnny Garcia.  Probably a genuine video of UARS passing through the starry sky hours before reentry.

Genuine telescopic video of UARS.  Taken days before reentry by astronomer Thierry Legault.

November NCAS Lecture
On Saturday, November 12 at 1:30 pm at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, Brian J. Gorman will discuss the educational and legal ramifications of "facilitated communication."  (Facilitated communication is described by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) as a technique by which a "facilitator" provides physical and other supports in an attempt to assist a person with a significant communication disability to point to pictures, objects, printed letters and words, or to a keyboard.)

Brian J. Gorman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Towson University.  Prior to joining the Towson faculty in 2006, he taught law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  He also worked for several years as a trial lawyer and health care administrator in New York. His research interests include scientific evidence, homeland security, and bioterrorism. He holds a B.A. from Stony Brook University, a M.Sc., from Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and a J.D. from New York Law School.

Shadow Light
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Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and  VA!
On Wednesday, October 12 at 7:00 p.m., please join fellow NCASers at either of our simultaneous DC-area Drinking Skeptically events:
Jackie's Sidebar
8081 Georgia Avenue (entrance on Sligo Avenue) in Silver Spring, MD

Chevys Fresh Mex
4238 Wilson Blvd (Ballston Common Mall) in Arlington, VA

The February issue of Washingtonian magazine features the Sidebar on its cover, for a story on the best bars in the DC area.

Drinking Skeptically is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals. There's no cover charge and all are welcome. Don't drink? Don't let that stop you from joining us! Some of the world's most famous skeptics are teetotalers, and we are happy to have you! Remember that drinking skeptically means drinking responsibly. If there's one thing science has taught us, it's the effects of alcohol on the human body.

Time to Renew?
Be sure to check your renewal date above your postal address on the Shadow Light postcard. Send any queries to