Latest Posts

Wind stripes

ESP_039581_1520_1.0xA piece of Mars: Yes, I post a lot of pictures of martian dunes with striped patterns. They’re all distinct and beautiful. So here’s another one, 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) in size. These beasts moved from right to left across the scene, some of them leaving behind some stripey deposits in their wake. (HiRISE ESP_039581_1520, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Martian lace

ESP_040776_2115_1.0xA piece of Mars: This 300×300 m (984×984 ft) scene shows bright windblown dunes or ripples arrayed in a lacy pattern (the biggest ones are about 5 m, or 16 ft, across). This is near the landing site of Ares 3, a science fiction book called “The Martian”, by Andy Weir that’s being made into a movie. I’m betting these beauties won’t make an appearance in the movie, though… (HiRISE ESP_040776_2115, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


ESP_039902_1965_0.724xA piece of Mars: Below this ~550 m (0.3 mi) wide crater lies a ~1.3 km (0.8 mi) long “beard”, the wake of an ancient flow around the crater. Based on its location on Mars, I’m guessing the fluid flowing was lava. Inside the (interestingly dual) crater are bedforms, the remnants of more recent fluid flow – but in this case, the fluid is air. (HiRISE ESP_039902_1965, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

New Explorers on the OurPluto Ballot, April 2

We have added three new historic explorers to the OurPluto ballot today. Keep those great ideas coming in! I have been learning so much.

Map of Europe, Asia and North Africa by Al-IdrisiSeveral people nominated the renowned 10th-century explorer and cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. He traveled as far west as Ireland and as far east as China, mapping much of the known world in the process. His exquisite maps were still being used centuries later. The title of his compendium of geographic information roughly translates from the Arabic as The Pleasure of Him Who Longs to Cross the Horizons. How appropriate it will be for a spacecraft named New Horizons to memorialize his work!

We also learned about for Hyecho, a Korean Buddhist monk who lived in the 8th century. The nomination from East Asia reads as follows: Hyecho was the first man to travel across the Asian continent, from far east to far west, by sea and land and to record his journey. He wrote a travelogue, consisting of originally 11,300 characters, called Memoir of the pilgrimage to the five kingdoms of India during his journey. The work of Hyecho offers a full account of a long journey that lasted four years spanning 9,000 kilometers in distance by ship, and 11,000 kilometers by land. To this day, It is praised as a valuable archeological and anthropological reference for its unprecedentedly comprehensive scope and depth.

Looking back to the way home under the reflection of moonlight
I see only the clouds floating
Though a letter was sent on a cloud
a gusty wind blows away its answer
-Hyecho (704-787 CE)

Isabella BirdFinally, this is the nomination for a remarkable woman named Isabella Bird: Born in Yorkshire England in 1831 she holds a special place in history. Isabella was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Isabella battled with ill health all her life. However this did not stop her traveling the world and writing many incredible books about her travels. She visited Australia, Hawaii, America (where she traveled over 800 miles on horseback and met some very interesting characters including one-eyed outlaw Jim Nugent “Rocky Mountain Jim”). Battling ill health she went traveling to Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. At nearly 60 years of age she set off for India covering Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan and Turkey. In India, she worked with Fanny Jane Butler to found the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in memory of her recently deceased husband. The following year she joined a group of British soldiers traveling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit’s commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome’s company in London. By now Isabella was a household name in the Royal Geographical Society. Her final great journey took place in 1897 where she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers which are in China and Korea, respectively. Later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan. She died in Edinburgh within a few months of her return in 1904, just shy of her seventy-third birthday. She was still planning another trip to China. What an amazing achievement for a person who battled with severe illness her entire life. Horizons exploration of Pluto should give credit to this amazing explorer by having a piece of Pluto named after her.

We agree.

More Nominations for OurPluto

We continue to receive a fascinating collection of nominees for the OurPluto campaign. Here are a few that we recently added to the ballot.

doreSeveral wrote to remind us of the iconic prints by Gustav Doré, a French artist from the 19th century who illustrated an 1861 edition of Dante’s Inferno.




In the category of historical explorers, we learned about Michał Boym: “He is notable as one of the first westerners to travel within the Chinese mainland and his Flora Sinensis was the first description of an ecosystem of the Far East published in Europe. Boym also published the first dictionary to translate between Chinese and European languages.

1024px-AltamiraBisonAnother historic explorer reminds of the roles that serendipity and patience play in all of science: Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who discovered the first prehistoric cave paintings known to the modern world. “He was a Spanish amateur archaeologist and explorer of the Cave of Altamira. These caves provide a window into human development, much as Pluto provides a window into Solar System development. Although Sautuola’s discoveries were discredited by experts early on, he was later completely vindicated and his discoveries appreciated, albeit after his death.”

Finally, a New Jersey professor provided a very good reason for his endorsement of Krun, a monster of the darkness. “I’m trying to raise awareness of the Mandaean community of Iraq and Iran. They are one of the few communities from the Middle East that still preserve the ancient Babylonian tradition of divination by the stars and heavenly bodies (astrology), directly from the source (they even retain the traditional Akkadian names for the stars and the visible planets). [….] Unfortunately, with the Second Gulf War, their community (a minority faith in both Iraq and Iran) has become progressively endangered, and much of it has gone into a global diaspora. The lives of those that remain and their ancient culture are threatened by religious extremists, such as ISIS, who seek to eliminate anything pre-Islamic in the Middle East. I hope that OurPluto can establish a monument to them in the heavens, where these extremists cannot reach them.”

OurPluto Campaign, Day 6

The OurPluto naming campaign has been an exhilarating experience for me so far. The amount of thought that our site visitors have been putting into their nominations astounds me. You can visit the Site News page for regular updates. Today I would just like to highlight a few of the new names that we added to the ballot last night.

640px-Lowell_blink_comparatorOn the list of scientists and engineers, we have added Carl Pulfrich, 1858-1927. Although he died before the 1930 discovery of Pluto, he contributed in a critical way—he invented the blink comparator. This is a device that lets you switch back and forth between two sky plates, looking for subtle changes. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto using a blink comparator. The discovery would not have been possible without the device.



From Europe, we were reminded of the importance of the Soviet The Luna Program: “Luna was a series of robotic spacecraft missions sent to the Moon by the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1976. Fifteen were successful, each designed as either an orbiter or lander, and accomplished many firsts in space exploration. They also performed many experiments, studying the Moon’s chemical composition, gravity, temperature, and radiation. Twenty-four spacecraft were formally given the Luna designation, although more were launched.”

Two prominent women explorers were also nominated. For Alexandrine Tinné, who explored the Nile and the Sahara in the 1860s, the nomination reads, “It is rare that we take the opportunity to praise some of the women who have contributed to the exploration of our world. Ms. Tinné was courageous, dedicated, and passed on a legacy of adventure for today’s women to aspire to.”

Jeanne_BarreWe also learned about Jeanne Baré who, a century earlier, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She was naturalist studying the world’s plants. However, times being what they were, she had to impersonate a man for the journey.



Our fictional explorers now include several popular nominees. Among others, we include a pair of the great travelers in literature, Don Quijote and his patient squire Sancho Panza.


In the category of Underworld beings, we learned that the King of the Underworld in Vietnam has a Pluto connection. “Diem Vuong is the King of Hades. Demons obey and serve him. He is the ruler of the underworld and the judge of the bad souls after death. Diem Vuong once upon a time has been added to form “Diem Vuong Tinh” to name for Pluto in Vietnamese.”

In Inuit mythology, we learned that the realm of the dead has an astronomical connection. The souls of the dead first spend time under ground in Adlivun, but later ascend to a permanent home in Quidlivun, on the Moon.

The Mapping of Pluto Begins Today

Pluto is just 3.5 pixels across in the latest images from the New Horizons spacecraft. That’s nine square pixels. You can’t do much with nine pixels. You might be able to see crude patterns of light and dark, but you probably wouldn’t call it a map. Still, it’s a start.

In a few months, this will all change. Craters, mountains and other landforms will take shape before our eyes. When New Horizons flies past Pluto in July, we will see a new, alien landscape in stark detail. At that point, we will have a lot to talk about. The only way we can talk about it is if those features, whatever they turn out to be, have names.

Today we are beginning a campaign called “Our Pluto”. The goal is to gather together the names that we will eventually use to label the maps of Pluto and its large moon, Charon. After discussions with the International Astronomical Union (IAU), we have defined a set of broad themes for these names, related to mythology, literature and history.

The New Horizons science team is doing something unprecedented. Naming campaigns have been held before, but on a different scale. Today, the entire landscapes of Pluto and Charon is open to the public. We have called the campaign “Our Pluto” because we think that everyone should have a say in the names we use on those strange and distant worlds. At, you can vote for your favorite names, talk about them, and nominate names that we might have overlooked.

After the campaign ends, the New Horizons science team will select your best ideas and pitch them to the IAU. The IAU will have final say over the names on the maps of Pluto and Charon.

Let the conversation begin!

Melty dunes

ESP_039610_1150_1.0xA Piece of Mars: With all due apologies to followers of the show Coupling, I have to call these things “melty dunes”. This link shows what a crisp dune should look like. The dunes in this 600×450 m (0.37×0.28 mi) scene, however, have rounded crests and sand that seems to have ponded around the bottom of the dunes. These are common at high southern latitudes on Mars. (HiRISE ESP_039610_1150, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)


ESP_013785_1300_1.0xA piece of Mars: Ripples form endless chevrons in this 600×450 m (0.37×0.30 mi) scene. It’s really the crest of a dune that connects all the vertices in the chevrons, making that straight line that runs nearly vertical through the center. Wind from the south (bottom) is deflected by this crest and other local topography just out of the scene. This pattern has been there for at least 3 Mars years. How long will it last? (HiRISE ESP_013785_1300, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Debris Disks: Searching for Dust to Find Planets


A star system where gas and dust have formed into a disk around a newly formed star. The leftover disk will most likely form planets, comets and asteroids. Credit: NASA

No one is ever excited when the topic of “dust” is brought up. Usually dust is a hindrance – something you sweep away during spring-cleaning, or an annoyance because your allergies can’t handle it. But for astronomers, finding dust around another star – i.e., circumstellar dust – is like finding the next piece of an interstellar puzzle. That’s because circumstellar dust holds clues to understanding not only the origins of planets outside of our solar system, but also gives us a leg up in figuring out our place in the Universe. (more…)