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


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


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

hubble 2009

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.

The Pluto siblings

Pluto siblings

Eliot and Leslie Young have spent their careers studying Pluto. Now the brother-and-sister team are gearing up for the biggest event of their professional lives: the New Horizons mission flyby of Pluto, on July 14 of this year.

I knew Eliot a little in college, where he was the grad student advisor who fed  homemade pizza to us ravenous undergraduates. But I hadn’t truly appreciated his contributions to Pluto science until I began working on this feature for Nature. Eliot helped build some of the first maps of Pluto’s distant surface. Not to be outdone, his younger sister Leslie helped discover Pluto’s atmosphere (and that’s just the start of her list of accomplishments).

Come July, the Pluto siblings will have a front seat to the best of Pluto science. Take a sneak peek with my feature, here. And if you’d like a primer on the history of Pluto science, see my slideshow here.

Let the river run

The remains of Glines Canyon Dam, on the Elwha River.

My latest Science News feature explores what happens to river ecosystems when dams are demolished. In it I profile the mighty Elwha River, on the Olympic peninsula of Washington state, where two major dams were brought down over the past couple of years — a change that is radically reshaping the landscape. Salmon are now swimming upstream again for the first time in more than a century.

The story itself is paywalled for magazine subscribers only, but you can watch a related video for free (including some video shot by yours truly). For more on the Elwha, I highly recommend the documentary Return of the River.

Desperately seeking plutonium

A storage drum for neptunium, before it is irradiated and transformed into plutonium.

If you want to fly to deep space, you need some way to stay warm and get power. For many spacecraft, that means carrying solar panels. But if you want to fly far from the sun, or rove around on a planet’s surface, you need more power than solar panels can provide. And that means nuclear power.

But there’s just one problem: NASA uses the radioactive isotope plutonium-238 to power deep-space missions, and the agency is worried about running out. There is only so much Pu238 available, and the Department of Energy stopped making the isotope in the waning days of the Cold war.

I recently traveled to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, to see where nuclear technicians are building a plutonium production line. They aim to manufacture 1.5 kilograms of plutonium oxide, all for NASA, by the year 2021. As I report in my latest feature for Nature, that’s not an easy task.