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.

Bárðarbunga erupts!

Bárðarbunga on 4 September 2014. Credit: Flickr/peterhartree.

As the co-author of a book about an Icelandic fissure eruption, I couldn’t have been happier when the Bárðarbunga volcano began erupting on 29 August. Especially because so far, it hasn’t caused any serious damage.

That could still change. But so far, the biggest problem with Bárðarbunga has been the air pollution it spewed across eastern Iceland. Which is just one reason the eruption has me thinking back to 1783, and the Laki eruption that is the subject of our recent book. Like Bárðarbunga, Laki ripped the ground open in a long, straight fissure punctuated with fountains of fire. Like Bárdarbunga, it spewed out sulfur dioxide and other choking gases.

The big difference is scale. The Laki eruption persisted for eight months and generated one of the biggest lava flows seen in historical times. Here’s a map showing just how pipsqueak the current eruption (also known as Holuhraun, for the plain where it erupted) is compared to the Laki lava flows. More broadly, Laki sent a toxic gas cloud all the way across the North Atlantic and over continental Europe, where people choked and sickened on it.

So we wait, and watch, and see what Bárðarbunga has in store. In the meanwhile, here are a couple pieces I’ve written about the ongoing eruption: a Last Word on Nothing post that’s heavy on Norse mythology; a Nature explainer on the science of the eruption; and a National Geographic News Q&A about why Icelandic volcanoes can be so fearsome.

UPDATE: In October 2014 I flew to Reykjavik to see if I could see the eruption for myself. Unfortunately, winter had set in and the weather was just too bad for a tourist overflight. I did, however, write a piece for Nature on the sulfur pollution from the eruption, and how it has surprised scientists at almost every turn. You can read that piece here.

UPDATE 2: As of March 2015, the Bárðarbunga eruption has ended. Your Icelandic volcano correspondent is a little sad.

Hunting Einstein’s waves

Technicians install portions of the Advanced LIGO detector at Livingston, Louisiana. Credit Michael Fyffe/LIGO.

This spring I traveled to Baton Rouge to visit a gravitational-wave hunter named LIGO. It’s one of the biggest and most expensive facilities the National Science Foundation has ever invested in, and it still hasn’t produced what it was built to do.

LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, and its job is to hunt for gravitational waves — ripples in spacetime predicted by Einstein but never seen directly. It’s a tricky job, involving an elaborate system of lasers and mirrors to measure the infinitesimal changes in the machine as a gravitational wave passes through it. In 1999 I went to the inauguration of the Louisiana-based LIGO detector (there are two — the other is in Hanford, Washington) and listened to physicists talk about what it might mean to finally detect gravitational waves. Astonishingly, scientists knew at the time that the first generation LIGO detector might not be sensitive enough to snare the waves, and that they would need to build a more advanced version in order to announce a discovery.

That’s where LIGO is now. Over the past few years engineers have been ripping the guts out of both the Louisiana and Washington detectors and replacing them with more sensitive equipment. My Nature feature reports on how they have finished the construction work and are gearing up to test the upgraded system, in hopes of capturing Einstein’s waves once and for all.

Evolution of a river

The Colorado near Page, AZ. Credit: flickr/Trodel.

I live in the state of Colorado, but on the eastern side of the Continental Divide — and thus on the wrong side of the mountains from the storied river that bears the state’s name.

The Colorado River arises on the western slope of the Rockies and wends its way south and west through five states and Mexico before trickling into the Gulf of California. It is one of the world’s most famous rivers; its deep canyons facilitated the early explorations of the Southwest, and its waters are fought over by millions living in desert landscapes.

In late October I spent a couple of days tracking the ancient history of the Colorado with some of the region’s top geologists. They are working to unravel the story of when and how river drainages linked up to form the mighty Colorado as we know it today. Along the way I explore a bit of the controversy over how long ago the river carved the Grand Canyon; surprisingly for such an iconic landscape, the age of the Grand Canyon’s formation remains something of a debate.

My piece appears in the January 25 issue of Science News, which has moved many of its features behind a paywall. Subscribers can read it here; others who are interested can email me for a copy.