Is Earth under attack by Google Sky glitches?

The “green asteroid” on Google Sky. All atlas photos in this article credit: Google Sky/DSS Consortium

Last June, a Web user happened to notice an artifact in Google Sky, a site that features several different star atlases you can drill down into to see closeups of nebulas, galaxies and stars. It’s a great tool even with its occasional foibles which we’ll explore in just a moment. Anyway, this guy claimed he found a new, green-glowing “asteroid” which no one else had seen before and posted it on Youtube complete with an ominous soundtrack. Claims later appeared that it was moving toward the Earth. As you’re no doubt aware, Youtube is nearly as good at disseminating nonsense as it is useful, funny and educational content.

The object’s appearance in Google Sky at left. Astronomical coordinates at lower left give its position or coordinates in the sky. Panel at right uses an original catalog, the DSS or Digitized Sky Survey. Nothing is visible at the same position. Click to learn more about the DSS.

A quick look at the “asteroid” will tell you right off it couldn’t possibly be a real object. First, asteroids move. During a time exposure, the green blob would have appeared as a line (or a series of repeated images depending on how the picture was taken), not a sharply-defined object. Even if by some exceedingly rare chance it was headed directly toward Earth and not off to one side or another, its edges would appear soft in the many minutes it took to expose the image.

Second, it’s too big to have been missed. Professional automated surveys as well as an army of amateur astronomers equipped to the teeth with big scopes and high-end electronic cameras would have picked up such a large object. You can measure the object’s apparent size by comparing its length to the known distance between stars on the atlas. I measured conservatively and came up with 30 arc seconds or 1/60th the diameter of the full moon.

The largest asteroid / dwarf planet Ceres photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s the next destination of NASA’s Dawn spacecraft mission in Feb. 2015. Credit:NASA / ESA

The dwarf planet Ceres, located in the asteroid belt, is 590 miles in diameter and measures about one arc second across. The green “asteroid” would be 30 times larger or 17,700 miles. That’s more than twice the size of Earth. Naaah … I don’t think we’d miss that one.

Of course, I’m assuming it’s located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. If it’s farther, it’s even bigger. But if it’s much closer, it could look bigger but in reality be much smaller. Ah, but there’s the rub again. If it’s closer, it would appear to move faster and make an even more obvious trail during a time exposure.

Finally, you can go back to check the original source catalog. When you do, you’ll discover there’s nothing at all at the scary green asteroid’s position. As for it moving toward the Earth, even if it was real, you’d need more than one image of it to know in what direction it was moving.

Another malevolent object on Google Sky? No, it’s a scratch on a photographic plate used to compile the interactive atlas.

So what is it? Probably a piece of fuzz or maybe a defect in the photographic plate used to take the picture or some sort of glitch that popped up when Google Sky was stitched together by digitizing and compiling photos from original catalog sources like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Digital Sky Survey Consortium.

Just for fun, I poked about Google Sky to see what else I could dig up that looked menacing and was delighted to stumble across a wonderful assortment of oddities, a literal zoo of weird flares, scratches, fuzz, blobs, overexposures and more that at first glance might be used by the overzealous to announce a new planet, UFO or world-ending asteroid. Sharpness was a dead giveaway in most of the artifacts. A real, extraterrestrial object would trail or show multiple images during a time exposure.

And that’s my point. Before jumping to conclusions and tossing out over-the-top “theories” about some oddity in a photo, it’s important to consider logical alternatives, gather background information and if necessary, go back to the original source. Google Sky has known problems with missing chunks of data during the digitizing process, over and underexposed pictures, flares and lots more, but for all its flaws, it’s fun and useful. Now on with the show!

The Attacking Space Spider. This is one of many internal reflections caused by a nearby bright star. It’s a silhouette of the outline of the diagonal mirror and its holder (called a ‘spider’) inside the telescope.

The Blue Amoeboid. Most likely a harmless piece of dust or fabric.

Attack of the Borg. Probably another kind of internal reflection.

Triangle UFOs. More flares caused by overexposure of the bright stars pictured.

Red Rectangle of Death. Not sure what this is but it’s another artifact, one of many in Google Sky.

The Fatally Flamboyant Flower Pot. More internal reflections / overexposure from a bright star.

Wheat Check Cereal Monster. Not sure (probably bad data) but yet another tasty artifact.

Piece of sky the government doesn’t want us to see.  Not really. There are lots of these little squares  of missing data scattered about Google Sky. It’s not a deliberate attempt to hold back information, just data lost in the complicated atlas-stitching process.

Dust is probably the culprit once again for this Figure 8.

I only spent about a half hour looking for artifacts. There are many more. If you do see something in Google Sky that makes you wonder, you can check it out by using the Aladin previewer, which uses maps from the original sources without the errors introduced through stitching. Type in the object’s coordinates – called right ascension (R.A.) and declination (Dec.) – in the target box and press Go. For instance, the coordinates of the featured asteroid glitch are R.A. 5 11 33.7, Dec. -12 50 30. You can also use the Simbad Astronomical Database to search a whole variety of original catalogs and atlases. More information on Google Sky glitches can be found HERE.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

38 thoughts on “Is Earth under attack by Google Sky glitches?

  1. Fun article. Especially the Borg cubes and the black rectangle, which may as well be a 2001 Monolith! Happy Halloween Bob!

  2. That first one appears to be the “Fourchette a Escargot” Nebula!
    All we need is a garlic butter anomaly and a fine Sancerre.
    Resistance. Is. Futile.

  3. Hi Bob

    Thanks for the blog and that you put everything in that could easily be understood. I think that guy that first made the article planetkrejci is a bit crazy as he made further videos on youtube but his findings were he found a huge UFO on google sky so a doubt that one lol also he claimed another asteroid he found was definitely real as it was in double exposure from camera so that proves its real and moving yeh right I just think this guy has to go and find a real job instead of trying to scare people with his YouTube videos found on google sky but i’m so glad your here with your logic understanding and never out to frighten people, your the one person I trust im what you say. Your a great guy Bob and thanks again as I would probably have believed the one he wrote about the double exposure from the camera so I presume thats just a load of rubbish as well. Thanks Bob your the main man lol :-)

  4. Off topic but I still have to tell you! It was my birthday yesterday and the highlight was coming home late from the festivities and pointing out Jupiter to my roommate. We were looking at the moon and saw our first fireball burn up above us! After seeing all the posts and news about the recent ones I was feeling jealous. What’s funny is I was just pointing my camera to the sky to take a photo of the moon but had I been quicker I would have caught the fireball! Neat!

    • Happy Birthday Roma! You may have received a Taurid fireball as a present. I’ve missed a few photos exactly as you’ve described, but seeing something that wonderful is compensation enough.

  5. Gee…I don’t know about this “artefacts” idea. The next to the last picture with the black rectangle looks an awful lot like the TMA-1 monolith. (tee hee hee)

    • Hi again Liesbeth,
      I may have misunderstood your question. I clicked on the sun to find it where it was on Google Sky but the search isn’t working. It should give the sun’s current location, which today at ~4 p.m. CST is 14 hours 53 minutes right ascension, -16 degrees 32 minutes declination.

  6. What a shame the search function is broken (and obviously they don’t care to fix it). I think clicking the sun should show the current location indeed. Thanks Bob!

  7. Sorry Bob im getting a bit confused with all this google sky as the comment left by liesbeth asking about seeing the sun on google sky well I thought google sky was not live images but images taken years ago according to Mr Morrison astrobiologist at NASA. Thanks Bob

    • Lynn,
      Yes, that’s true. The maps are at least a few years old and of course they’re of the night sky, so no sun. If you click on the solar system icon (lower left) you get thumbnails of the planets, moon and sun. I thought that by clicking on the sun you might get coordinates for its current position (R.A. and Dec.), images and other information, but none of the thumbnails work. Neither does the search – at least not on my computer. I just re-read the Google Sky help menu and it appears you’re supposed to link to picture galleries by clicking on the icons, so my assumption about coordinates might be wrong.

  8. Hi Bob
    Sorry that you wrote this a while ago but I wanted to ask you something if you can help as my friend is very worried about this now. Recently on David Morrison’s Ask an astrobiologist page, someone else has wrote to him about this too and other people saying it is turning into a red comet etc just nonsense, but he replied saying that nobody can find a moving object like an asteroid on Google sky its all a hoax, but away back in June I had wrote and asked Don Yeomans about it and he had said that there are over 600,000 asteroids so its not surprising that people can find them on Google sky, if they are real but that they know all the orbits etc of all the asteroids and none represent a threat, so myself and my friend is a bit confused as Mr Morrison is saying nobody can find an asteroid on Google sky but Mr Yeomans has said a different thing to me in an e- mail. Confusing Bob, can you help with this question, does it mean you can find them but not a moving 1 like that guy on youtube is saying. Sorry it’s a bit long Bob.

    • Lynn,
      No doubt there are lots of asteroids in Google Sky recorded during the many exposures required to make the atlas. Problem is finding them. Asteroids are constantly on the move. To find one, you’d need to know the time and date when that particular exposure was taken — highly impractical!

  9. Thanks Bob, in other words it can be possible but not in the way that guy has made it out to be, thats what would be impossible and his couldn’t be practical is that right, as it wouldn’t have been there as long as that exposure, I think thats right, confusing :-)

    • Lynn,
      Yes, it is possible but remember that any asteroid that you might find in Google Sky would appear exactly like a star. They all look that way. And you can’t use the atlas to track anything since the asteroids in the images have been photographed over one brief interval of time.

  10. I get it now, no such mass the size of that object he showed is possible, it would be just star like and it couldn’ t be traced as they move too fast, well that’s shut me up all I have to do is shut my friend up. Thanks Bob :-)

    • Lynn,
      Yes, that’s a great misunderstanding about asteroids – even the Hubble Space Telescope can only see the shapes of a few of the largest. Just remember their name – asteroid – which means ‘like a star’ as in their appearance through a telescope.

  11. Hi Bob
    I am so sorry it’s me again and I know you will be getting tired of this topic but I am just so scared x10 :-( , I had got everything you said and relaxed myself but it says on NASA website that in 2007 Hubble teams up with google and will show you Hubble images of objects, 125 Hubble images are included in the sky in google and that has scared me now as you said only Hubble can see only the shapes of the largest, and as that video you can see the bottom of the guy’s screen and it says on it 2007 just when they were going to team up with Hubble, I really hate all this at times Bob I just get so scared and don’t understand half of it? I know you said to remember star like but it got me worried as they had teamed up with Hubble which can show large objects, I am so sorry I know you have better things to do other than answer my annoying questions all the time, but I appreciate it very much. Thank you

    • Lynn,
      Hubble has countless photographs of galaxies, nebulas, planets, etc. just not many of asteroids because they’re too small. The only good pictures of asteroids Hubble has taken are of Vesta and Ceres.

  12. Hi Bob, I know you done this blog a long time ago, but I wanted to ask you what is a raw FITS file, as I meant to ask you this a long time ago when this article first appeared in Universe Today, as someone left a comment saying that it’s only on one of the red film plates, specifically it’s on film plate ER623 (A20P) in the equatorial red survey conducted by the UK Schmidt telescope and this is the picture from it http://i319.photobucket.com/al.
    But when I looked at this photo it looked to me what it show’s you above the one you put on from Youtube, so i’m completely confused now, the comment that person left is obviously in agreement that part of the DSS has caused this glitch, so do you think this photo still looks like a glitch or does that still not look like an object, also when I looked to find the red film plate as I have never done that before it say’s that EPOCH 1996 10-14, so is that when the survey was taken in 1996 or is that just when it was placed on the film plate, as I know the likes of DSS etc was dated from the 50′s, so I don’t understand the EPOCH date and I haven’t a clue what exactly a FITS is, thanks Bob if you can help again, and even though that’s a photo from the FITS and just one as the rest there is nothing there, is that image still just stationery for the hour as it say’s 60 minutes on it

    • Lynn,
      I’ll quote Wikipedia: “Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) is a digital file format used to store, transmit, and manipulate scientific and other images. FITS is the most commonly used digital file format in astronomy. Unlike many image formats, FITS is designed specifically for scientific data and hence includes many provisions for describing photometric and spatial calibration information, together with image origin metadata.” The link you provided no longer works.

    • Lynn,
      It is indeed a plate defect. If you remember my blog on Google Sky defects, this is one of numerous little glitches or defects in recording images of the sky. When astronomers created the atlas (and other ones too) they shot a series of photos through a red filter and another through blue. It gives them addition data about the stars and other objects pictured, since some things are brighter at one end of the spectrum (red) than the other (blue). Epoch refers to a particular time reference for coordinates used on a sky atlas. Epoch 1950 shows the right ascension and declination coordinates for the year 1950. Epoch 2000 shows the updated coordinates for the year 2000. The reason coordinates change over time has to do with Earth’s precession, a cyclical 26,000 year-long wobble of its axis that causes the stars to slowly change position in the sky.

  13. Thank you very much Bob, very appreciated and now I know about FITS and EPOCH all thanks to you, your like my very own little science paper :)

  14. Hi Bob, I didn’t want to write and ask you on tonight’s blog I will leave that to do with the comet, but I wanted to ask you a question to do with sky surveys not with the glitch that is mentioned, I had read that the images used in google sky and WWT and Wiki sky, date for the 50′s and 60′s for the visual band Palomar Deep sky survey, the 80′s for the Iras images in infrared and various other times for the UV and X- ray images but all are old and any object would of been tracked for years, so I was reading on the Palomar sky survey and gives you various articles on DSS and SDSS etc, and it says for the spectral observations should provide spectra of galaxies etc and this project started in April 2000 and to be completed by 2005 but in the course of the observations the processed data have become available via the web pages of the survey, by the beginning of 2005, around half of the survey was made available. These data include 6 TB of images and various other object’s, but it says that the final result of the SDSS will be in 2006 which of course has passed by, but that the SDSS is not yet completed but a great number of papers have been published and that the photometric survey is for point like objects and I remember you saying that asteroid’s would only show up as star like, but it also says about the survey that these studies include all fields of astronomy, from asteroid’s(more than several thousand dozen of them have already been discovered by the SDSS) to quasars and that the SDSS and 2DF data increased by hundreds of times the observational data on the structure, spectral characteristics, so did google sky use these images that was obtained above as its a bit worrying to do with the asteroid part, or even if they did use this would it still not be that mass it would still only be the star like object, and even if you zoom in on google sky it would still not show up as that still, I looked up Wiki but it’s a tad confusing as it says data collection began in 2000 and and the final imaging data released covers 35% of the sky and more release dates for data, but does that mean that only the data was released in 2000 its not the actual sky survey date is that still the old date for the Palomar survey as I’m getting worried that google is using the SDSS data which is only from the 2000 onwards range so that could of meant that the ‘asteroid’ could of been shown or been there. Thanks Bob for this one as it has been extremely long its that much easier to ask someone this face to face rather than writing it down, so I am very sorry.

    • Lynn,
      Your question is a little convoluted but in essence you’re asking whether asteroids would appear any differently in the SDSS vs. Palomar vs. any other survey, the answer is “no”. No matter what asteroid was photographed in these surveys it would appear as nothing more than a point (or short line depending on exposure and the asteroid’s speed and direction). Only the largest, closest asteroids like Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, Juno and a few others have discernible shapes using Earth-based or space telescopes like Hubble.

  15. Thanks Bob, and yes it was very convoluted, I could of made that a whole lot easier, sorry about that, but thanks again, very appreciated :-)

  16. The article is correct with facts regarding Google sky entities. However, there IS a perfect ufo shape in Orion. It’s a bit too hard to dismiss. I also found an object that looks like a ufo suspended in space. It shares no characteristics with any other stars, galaxies and so on.There is also a green round object not labeled by anyone yet. It is transparent and large. It looks like a green marble. Could be a nebula but is too round. Look on Google Moon, dark side. What’s up with the white rectangular and round objects inside the rims of several craters?

    • Hi Deb,
      These are artifacts like all the others. It’s common to think that because something looks like a UFO or whatever to think it must BE that object. We all do this, but the fact is that Google Sky has a bunch of artifacts that look like interesting objects like the ones I selected for the article.

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