Today’s fake news in space


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In the past day we have had two space-related stories that sadly illustrate the shallowness of our modern press. Modern mainstream reporters literally know nothing of the subject they are reporting on, and expend zero effort to improve their knowledge.

First we have the story making the rounds about a Russian anti-satellite test. This BBC story,
UK and US say Russia fired a satellite weapon in space“, is typical. It takes at face value the claims of the military bureaucracies in the United States and the United Kingdom, and makes it sound as if the Russians were doing something new and unique that no one has ever done before.

This Russian test of what the Americans say is an anti-satellite weapon is part of a pattern of recent Russian space activity. In February, the US military said that two Russian satellites manoeuvred close to an American one, and in April Moscow test-fired a ground-based satellite interceptor.

Only four countries – Russia, the US, China and India – have demonstrated an anti-satellite capability over the past decades. Anti-satellite warheads have been carried aloft by aircraft or rockets, and satellites have also been illuminated by lasers.

But Moscow is also clearly looking at using one satellite to kill another. Interest in such weapons is growing given our reliance upon satellites for a variety of purposes such as intelligence gathering, communications, navigation and early-warning. [emphasis mine]

Oh my! Moscow wants to use one satellite to kill another! The false implication is that Russia is doing something new. It is not. This is what every one of these named countries has done, with the U.S. also testing (successfully) the use of a ground-based rocket to shoot a satellite down from the sky.

In this case the Russians appear to have been testing autonomous rendezvous between two satellites (something everyone has also been doing for decades) with the added component of the release of a secondary object from one of those satellites. The claim is that this second object was a projectile that if armed could have destroyed its target.

Maybe so, but releasing a secondary object from an orbiting satellite is nether revolutionary or unprecedented. Everyone has also been doing this for decades. It is hardly cutting edge space technology.

Moreover, even if this was a real anti-satellite test (which I do think is likely), it is also not unprecedented, nor is it something we can stop. All the news articles describing this test made the assumption that this signals the increased militarization of space, a false premise so absurd it is laughable. Everyone has been using space orbiting technology for military purposes since the early 1960s, including tests of satellite targeting and destruction, and will continue to do so as long as separate nations exist. And since competing nations and cultures will always be fundamental to human nature, they aren’t going away either any time soon.

What is really happening here is that we now have a new military bureaucracy in the U.S., the Space Force, and since its formation in late December it has been making a marked effort to use the press to justify getting more money for its own projects. One of those tactics has been the repeated hyping of foreign anti-sat tests, none of which are unique or new.

An independent and educated press would understand this, and would thus give the proper context when writing its stories on this new Russian test. Sadly, our press is neither independent nor educated. They appear to be in the pocket of this new government military bureacracy.

Next we have this typical mainstream story, also from the BBC, about the new American Mars rover Perseverance: “How Perseverance will hunt for signs of past life“. Like the anti-sat test above, it takes at face value the claims of the scientists, that Perseverance’s primary goal will be searching for alien life:

The Curiosity rover, which touched down in 2012, found the lake that once filled its landing site at Gale Crater could have supported life. It also detected organic (carbon-containing) molecules that serve as life’s building blocks.

Now, the Perseverance rover will explore a similar environment with instruments designed to test for the signatures of biology. “I would say it’s the first Nasa mission since Viking to do that,” said Ken Williford, the mission’s deputy project scientist, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Viking was the search for extant life – that is, life that might be living on Mars today. Whereas the more recent Nasa approach has been to explore ancient environments because the data we have suggest that the earliest history of the planet tells us that Mars was most habitable during its first billion years.”

The problem is that Williford is distorting the truth so much he is practically lying. For neither Curiosity nor Perseverance has the search for life been the primary goal. Both instead have been designed to study the Martian environment, on all fronts, and if they should get a hint of alien life in the process, all to the good. Looking for alien life however is not either rovers’ goal.

What Williford is doing is what every project scientist tends to do when talking to ignorant reporters. He is simplifying the project’s goals to a level that the reporter can understand. The reporter knows nothing about the rover or the state of Martian science, and thus can’t even ask intelligent questions. Nor has the reporter made any real effort to learn much. Instead, the scientist spoon feeds him info, and shapes it in the manner the reporter wants. “We must be looking for aliens, right!?”

Sadly, as with the military story above, this type of reporting is typical for the mainstream press when reporting on planetary projects. They always reduce everything to one of two simple goals, looking for life or looking for water. And they do this because they really know nothing about the actual cutting edge science behind each mission and the real questions scientists are presently asking, based on what they know, at that particular moment.

For Perseverance — and Curiosity — the fundamental science question still centers on the mystery of Mars’ strange geology, which suggests strongly to our Earth eyes that liquid water once flowed on the surface, even as no scientist has yet successfully devised a scenario where liquid water was ever possible, on that surface.

Providing information that might help answer that question is the fundamental scientific goal of Perseverance. Along the way it also has the fundamental engineering goal of learning as much as possible about the Martian environment, information that is essential for planning future manned missions.

It is tragic that so many modern science reporters have no understanding of this basic science and engineering, and thus cannot cover the subject properly.

Both of these BBC stories above illustrate the same fundamental lacks in all of our modern mainstream press. First, they know very little about the subjects they are report on. Second, they make little effort to find out more. Third, they have no skepticism, and always seem to accept at face value the claims of government officials.

The political mainstream press is no different, except that in politics it is Democratic Party officials with whom the press never exhibits any skepticism, and always accepts at face value their claims.

The result is a mainstream press that does not serve the public well, in any manner, a sad reality that might explain many of our political and cultural problems today.

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6 comments

  • pzatchok

    I hound out their new hypersonic missile is actually just a re-entry vehicle with side thrusters like their anti-aircraft missiles have.

    It doesn’t actually fly like a plain but plummets in hopefully dodging any anti missile missiles. Which it has a pretty good chance of doing. It still does not have a chance of changing targets once it starts its attack.
    But its still not faster than a laser.

    40 year old tech. For the US.

    But everyone is all worried about it.

  • pzatchok

    found

  • Gary

    Using lasers to destroy hypersonic targets might be our best defensive strategy, but short of a dramatically successful black program, this is a capability that we haven’t mastered.

  • Lee S

    Bob…. I think you have your opinion on the whole situation regarding the mainstream medias coverage of the current Mars missions back to front…. WE all understand the goals, instruments, capabilities and functions of these space craft, but we are all space nerds…. The headline “rover to search for life on Mars” generates more excitement than “mass spectrometry on the Mars rover will search for traces of carbon-hydrogen molecules on Mars”… Perhaps 1% of the readership of the news sources you quote would understand the second headline… But they equate to pretty much the same thing, and the first headline generates much more interest in the general public, and more importantly the purse string holders.
    The public should not be misled, but neither blinded by the science.
    I recommend having a listen to the latest Guardian science podcast
    Are we in the midst of a new space race? – podcast

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2020/jul/23/are-we-in-the-midst-of-a-new-space-race-podcast?
    For an interesting perspective…. Skeptical of very much regarding the current situation… I disagree with very many of Professor John M. Logsdons opinions, but respect him non the less.
    As for comparing reporting of space matters to political matters…. That is just you projecting… I’m not happy with the mainstream presses reporting on the current situation, here, there, or in the UK, but it has nothing to do with the reporting in space stuff.

  • MDN

    What is missing here is the futile waste of Russian resources it is, if this is in fact an anti-satellite test. The reason is that as Bob has made clear on this blog, satellites are miniaturizing and migrating fast to swarms. So while the Russians are developing a weapon to kill a bee it will pose little if any threat to the hive. Classic Big Gov thinking, shooting behind the duck.

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