Planet Nine from outer space

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Hypothetical orbit (orange) of a hypothetical Planet Nine. Credit: Caltech & R. Hurt (IPAC).

By now you’ve probably heard of Planet Nine, the hypothesized super-Earth lurking in our solar system well past Pluto. But what you may not have heard is where the idea came from in the first place, and which teams are out there actively searching for such a world. For my latest Nature feature I tagged along on an observing run in Hawaii with Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo, who use some of the world’s largest telescopes to hunt for distant solar system objects. It was their 2012 discovery of a faraway world in the Kuiper belt — the part of the solar system that includes Pluto — that set off the current race for Planet Nine. Sheppard and Trujillo’s work shows that some Kuiper belt objects travel in extreme orbits that might — just might — have been shaped by the gravitational influence of an unseen super-Earth. Will we ever see a Planet Nine? Odds are against it. But we are sure to uncover weird and wonderful smaller worlds out there.

On the discovery of gravitational waves

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Black holes merging. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes.

Sometimes, when you wait long enough, a story that you never thought would happen actually does materialize. I’ve written before about the decades-long search to find gravitational waves. So I was thrilled a few weeks ago to be able to cover the story of the first direct detection of these ripples in spacetime. Ahead of time we’d gotten notice of a big media announcement from the LIGO team, to be held at the National Press Club in Washington DC. I flew in from Colorado, my colleague Davide Castelvecchi flew in from London, and together we wrote a package of stories explaining what was discovered, how it was discovered, why it’s important, and how the next generation of astrophysicists will take things from here.

A day in the life

Eyjafjallajökull Iceland June 2012

The Open Notebook is a terrific site that explains the the story behind the best science stories. You should check it out for their journalistic work (full disclosure: I’m on their board of advisors), but they have also featured me in their ongoing series A Day In The Life, which gives a behind-the-scenes peek at the daily work of science journalists.

You can check out the tale — including my favorite thing I ever stole from a hotel room in Iceland — here. (Pictured: on the north side of Eyjafjallajökull volcano, June 2012. Photo by Jeff Kanipe.)

The battle over Maunakea

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 3.12.49 PMPlans to build one of the world’s largest telescopes — the Thirty Meter Telescope slated for Maunakea, Hawaii — are mired in conflict. I traveled to Hilo, Waimea and Honolulu this summer to talk to a few of the many people who are deeply involved in the future of Maunakea. You can read the resulting Nature feature here. It profiles two Native Hawaiians and two astronomers, all of whom have unique perspectives on what should be done atop one of the world’s most significant mountains when culture and science collide. (Pictured is Alexis Acohido, who works at Gemini Observatory also on Maunakea; she is standing in front of the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, whose mission is to honor both Hawaiian culture and science. Photo by Kent Nishimura.)

Humanity visits Pluto

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On July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto. It was our first-ever encounter with the dwarf (and famously ex-ninth) planet. I’m not going to get into fights over planetary nomenclature, but wanted to flag a little of Nature‘s coverage of this historic event. It’s collected at our Flipboard site here.

I want to note a couple of personal favorites. First, a lot of people don’t appreciate how hard it is to fly to Pluto in the first place; I tackle the navigational challenges here. Then, 10 days before encounter, New Horizons temporarily and agonizingly lost contact with Earth; I wrote this story late on the Fourth of July, having read about the communications glitch on Twitter and left a fireworks display to write it up.

For those in need of a cheat sheet on what New Horizons actually did on July 14, see a graphics primer from Nature‘s ace art team here. Encounter day itself was a blur of coffee and adrenaline, reported from mission control at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Helped by my incredibly competent editor Lauren Morello, and our ace staff photographer Chris Maddaloni, we put together a live-blog of the morning’s events as they unfolded. Images from New Horizons got bigger and more exciting as the hours went on, culminating in the famous ‘heart’ image of Pluto.

Soon there was astonishing geology — those ice mountains! And who could have been happier than Marc Buie, who has probably spent more time than any other human being peering at Pluto?

On 16 July I drove to the Baltimore airport to fly home. As I was walking down the aisle on the Southwest plane, looking to grab the next available seat, there sat Annette Tombaugh. Daughter of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. Yes, I grabbed the seat next to her. And yes, we talked for the whole flight.

She just loved the idea that Pluto had a heart.

Manmade earthquakes

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I’ve been writing a lot recently about induced seismicity, a.k.a. triggered earthquakes. There’s been an extraordinary rise in the numbers of earthquakes in the central U.S., to the point that there are now more magnitude-3+ earthquakes in Oklahoma every year than there are in California. The culprit? Oil and gas operators who pull up huge amounts of underground water in their wells, then re-inject it into the ground. These “saltwater disposal wells” have been linked to quakes in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansa, and elsewhere. I traveled to Oklahoma this spring to talk to seismologists and geologists who are trying to explain the quakes, and residents who don’t care so much about the science and just want their houses to stop shaking, now. Here’s my Nature story from that reporting trip, and another shorter one that explains some of the most recent science underpinning saltwater disposal and induced earthquakes.

 

Hubble turns 25

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The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 this month, and I had the privilege of putting together an oral history of the telescope for Nature. I spoke with scientists and engineers from the project’s earliest days, when it was nothing more than a set of blueprints for a Large Space Telescope. I spoke with astronomers who diagnosed Hubble’s flawed vision after its 1990 launch, and astronauts who later flew to the telescope to fix it, when time after time it seemed on the verge of dying. But perhaps my favorite was speaking with the newest generation of astronomers — people like Jennifer Lotz and Jason Kalirai — whose rising careers depended on the very existence of Hubble.

Read their stories here. And for more Hubble goodness, check out the full Nature anniversary package here.