Last month CBS News, Huffington Post, The Daily Texan, USA Today and The Guardian all published an artist’s illustration of a planet in a binary star system as a photograph. A brilliant scientist/graphic artist created the realistic image for NASA–and said it was an "Artist Concept." Are fact checkers an endangered species? This article includes a video "The Art of Exoplanets."
Public Domain Picture from Wikipedia
NASA’s Caption “PIA14724: Where the Sun Sets Twice (Artist Concept)”
I was upset to see the above picture presented as a photograph in a photo gallery in The Guardian. The paper’s attribution of the picture reads: “Photograph: JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt/NASA.” I searched to see if other sites on the Internet made a similar mistake. They had.
I found that CBS News, Huffington Post, The Daily Texan all made the same mistake. CBS News captions the photo: “A family portrait showing the two Kepler-16 suns and a planet discovered by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. (Photo: NASA).” The Huffington Post’s Timothy Stenovec’s article, labels the image “NASA/JPL-Caltech/R.Hurt,” and identifies a different picture, an obvious illustration, as ” An artist’s illustration of Kepler 16b.” The Guardian, whose picture caption mistake I mentioned earlier, has a related article by Ian Sample that goes so far as to say, “Images captured by Kepler’s camera showed two stars orbiting each other and producing eclipses as they moved in front of one another.” (I present a screenshot of the scientific data below.) To be fair, USA Today did not identify the image as a photo or an artist’s conception; the publication leaves the reader to guess.
Why does this misidentification matter?
Confusing photographs with artist’s depictions misleads the reading public about telescopes. Any possibility of space travel in the future depends on the general public understanding what can be done from Earth and the capabilities of unmanned probes.
What does the real data look like?
Laurance R. Doyle (and 26 co-authors) reported their discoveries in a scientific paper titled ”Kepler-16: A Transiting Circumbinary Plane.” To detect the planet and the companion star, they analyzed minute variations in the brightness of the light received by the Kepler satellite’s telescope. In the paper they summarize the information from the space probe in graphical form, but the data are too technical for the general audience served by journalists.
Graphical Presentation of Photometric Data
Who created the illustration?
R. Hurt, the creator of the illustration, is Dr. Robert Hurt, the visualization scientist of Caltech’s Spitzer Science Center. See his profile here: http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/mission/profile/50-Robert-Hurt. He writes, directs, and produces a series called the “Hidden Universe” for NASA. His recent episode, “The Art of Exoplanets,” discusses why we need to use visualization techniques to interpret exoplanet data.
Scientists create very realistic images to understand data and to make effective presentations. The realism of the images does not remove the responsibility of journalists to investigate their sources.
“The Art of Exoplanets.” Dir. by Robert Hurt. Hidden Universe. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/video-audio/1365-hiddenuniverse-034-The-Art-of-Exoplanets?autoplay=true&limit=20 (Accessed October 24, 2011).
Doyle, Laurance R., et al. ”Kepler-16: A Transiting Circumbinary Plane.” www.arxiv.org. http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1109/1109.3432.pdf (Accessed October 24, 2011).
Harwood, William. ”Kepler spacecraft discovers planet orbiting binary star system.” September 15, 2011. www.cbsnews.com. http://www.cbsnews.com/network/news/space/home/spacenews/files/c215305c3ced4760d5fbb5efd5c1b857-338.html (Accessed October 24, 2011).
Hurt, Robert. ”Robert Hurt.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/mission/profile/50-Robert-Hurt (Accessed October 24, 2011).
“PIA14724: Where the Sun Sets Twice (Artist Concept).” Photojournal. http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14724 (Accessed October 24, 2011).
Sample, Ian. ”‘Star Wars’ planet discovered with two suns.” The Guardian. September 15, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/15/star-wars-planet-kepler16b-tatooine?intcmp=239 (Accessed 24, 2011).
Smith, Benjamin. “Scientists discover Tatooine-like planet.” The Daily Texan. September 22, 2011. http://www.dailytexanonline.com/life-and-arts/2011/09/22/scientists-discover-tatooine-planet (Accessed October 24, 2011).
“The Star Wars planet, Martian puppetry, a forbidden star and a falling satellite – in pictures.” The Guardian. October 21, 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2011/oct/21/star-wars-planet-pictures (Accessed October 21, 2011).
“Stenovec, Timothy. ”Kepler 16b: NASA Discovers ‘Star Wars’-Like Planet With Two Suns (PHOTOS, VIDEO).” Huffington Post. Spetember 15, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/15/kepler-16b-planet-two-suns_n_964799.html (Accessed October 24, 2011).
Vergano, Dan. ”Kepler spots world with two suns.” USA Today. September 15, 2011. http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2011/09/kepler-spots-world-with-twin-suns/1 (Accessed October 24, 2011).