What Is the Weird Black Cube on the Sun in This New NASA Image?

Tabloids and UFO enthusiasts have had a field day speculating about the strange photo, but the answer lies in the difficulty of sending data from space.
July 27, 2020, 7:15pm
The Sun. Image: SOHO/NASA/ESA​
The Sun. Image: SOHO/NASA/ESA

We are living in a golden age of Sun pictures. While our star is not particularly easy or safe to image, given that it is a blindingly bright ball of nuclear fusion, scientists have still managed to snap the closest pictures ever taken of it, as well as the most detailed shots of the solar surface, all within the past year.

These new missions follow on the success of veteran shutterbugs such as the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a spacecraft developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) that has been taking breathtaking images of the Sun since its launch in 1995.

If you were to search for SOHO’s latest Sun pictures this week, however, you might be surprised to find tabloid reports that the spacecraft has now taken a picture of an ALIEN CUBE SHIP that is TEN TIMES bigger than Earth.

Bernhard Fleck, SOHO project scientist and mission manager, has a simple response to this wild speculation of Borg-like UFOs in our solar system.

“This is of course complete and utter nonsense,” Fleck said in an email. “The black square is due to a missing (corrupted) telemetry block.”

In other words, the weird dark cube in the image is not an object, let alone a massive alien spaceship. It’s an image artifact—a glitch in the picture itself—caused by transmission errors between SOHO and Earth.

SOHO is located in a halo orbit about a million miles from Earth, and the images it sends to us across that distance understandably leak a few pixels from time to time. Those gaps are normally plugged when the spacecraft resends its data.

“Most missing blocks are indeed filled by our pipeline processing, but this doesn't always work, and not all missing blocks are filled correctly,” Fleck explained. “The final level-0 science data are not affected by this.”

NASA shares the “very latest” SOHO images with the public in a frequently updated gallery. These images are arriving fresh off of light waves from space, which is why NASA warns that the data is “intended just for visual inspection, not analysis as it is not of science quality” on the gallery website.

The missing blocks are common in new SOHO images, including the recent one, taken on July 15, that reignited the imagination of some UFO believers.

“I can send you tens, if not hundreds of similar images (with even bigger ‘UFOs’),” Fleck said.

“Missing blocks are multiples of 32x32 pixels, which is the smallest unit of a telemetry block,” he added. “So even if only one byte was corrupted, a whole 32x32 block is blacked out.”

The blank pixels are not the only imaging artifact from SOHO that has attracted the attention of alien hunters. In 2003, NASA posted an explainer called “How to Make Your Own UFO” that outlined why SOHO images of completely natural phenomena end up with features that resemble flying saucers, or can be enhanced to look like alien spacecraft.

“Ever since launch, there's been a number of people who've claimed to have seen flying saucers and other esoteric objects in SOHO images,” NASA said in the 2003 article. “Although some of these supposed pictures of UFOs can seem quite intriguing, they have always turned out to have a quite ordinary cause when examined by experienced SOHO scientists.”

Likewise, Fleck said he is not sure that “our tin-foil wearing conspiracy theorists will be convinced” by pedestrian telemetry gaps when it is so much fun to believe that extraterrestrial cubists are on the prowl.

Fortunately, all camps can agree on one thing: SOHO imagery is awesome, and checking out the mission’s photo galleries is well-worth your time.