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. [Update, summer 2016: I’m pleased to report this story won the 2016 David Perlman news-writing award from the American Geophysical Union.]


Hubble turns 25

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

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

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

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!

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.