NASA fires back in spat over asteroid data

Image: WISE spacecraft
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. WISE observations of near-Earth objects were analyzed for the NEOWISE mission. (Credit: NASA)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – NASA issued a statement today disputing Seattle tech icon Nathan Myhrvold’s critique of asteroid data analysis from the space agency’s NEOWISE mission.

The statement follows up on reports published this week by GeekWire and othermedia outlets. In those reports, Myhrvold said NEOWISE’s analysis relied on flawed statistical calculations, which resulted in incorrect or highly uncertain measurements for thousands of asteroids.

When GeekWire showed Myhrvold’s critique to scientists associated with NEOWISE and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they identified what they said were serious errors – including misinterpretations of NEOWISE’s methods and an apparent confusion between radius and diameter in one key equation. GeekWire’s report on Monday referred to those problems, as well as Myhrvold’s acknowledgment of mistakes.

Today’s NASA statement refers to those errors as “mistakes that an independent peer review process is designed to catch.”

“While critique and re-examination of published results are essential to the scientific process, it is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said. “This completes a necessary step to ensure science results are independently validated, reproducible and of value to the science community.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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