A First Look at Pluto, A Last Look at Solar Impulse (This Year), and Two Fails in One Day| Vol. 2 / No. 38

A flyover of the Norgay Mountains (center) and Sputnik Plain (appearing on the left) from the New Horizons press conference Friday; Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
A flyover of the Norgay Mountains (center) and Sputnik Plain (appearing on the left) from the New Horizons press conference Friday; Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto Week 1

The downlink from New Horizons continues as we speak, silently streaming data from the Pluto flyby down to Earth for weekly release to the scientists and general public. On Friday, NASA scientists held a press conference with the (very) preliminary data they’d managed to recover so far, which they estimated to be about 1-2%. Photos of two areas of interest were released: the Norgay Montes, named after Tenzing Norgay, and the Sputnik Plains (named for Sputnik, of course) of Tombaugh Regio — the heart-shaped region named after Clyde Tombaugh. Let’s look at what they tell us:

The Norgay Montes (mountains); Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The Norgay Montes (mountains); Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The Norgay Mountains are of primary interest — like the whole surface of the planet — because they appear to be so young. There are very few craters on the planet’s surface, so few that the current estimates place the peaks and valleys of our distant relation at no more than 100 million years. That means that Pluto is geologically active, a hell of surprise given that we have no idea how that could happen. See, the Earth is geologically active because it’s big enough to still retain a lot of the heat from its formation (plus, it’s got a lot of radioactive stuff in it, which doesn’t hurt). Smaller bodies, like the moon for instance, are cold and geologically inactive because they’re too small, just like Pluto. But the moons of Jupiter are geologically active and small, you say. But that’s because they’re constantly being squished and pulled and irradiated by Jupiter’s gravitational field and magnetosphere. Pluto… well it doesn’t have a Jupiter to keep it warm by bashing it about. So what’s keeping Pluto active? We’re not sure, but we hope to find out as more data comes down.

The Tombaugh Plains; Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The Sputnik Plains at “the heart of the heart,” the Tombaugh Region; Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The plains of the Tombaugh Region are, again, really odd. They’re huge, flat, and again, young. What’s causing this landscape? Right now there seem to be two options: those flat areas are being pushed upward by some process beneath the surface, or else they’re made of some tougher material and are being worn away at a slower rate than the channels by some surface process. Given that the planet seems to be giving off something on the order of five hundred tons of atmosphere a day to space (that’s roughly five hundred times the rate at which Mars does) and that that atmosphere has to be coming from the solids on the planet sublimating (turning to gas), I’m betting on the latter, but what the harder vs. softer materials are is less clear to me, even if the whole region is very rich in carbon monoxide (unlike the rest of the planet). Pluto is, to me, the most alien world, and in that sense the most interesting one — after, of course, our own.

New Horizons will be sending more data down every day, and there will probably be press conferences on the order of once a week for a little while yet. So stay tuned, as the photos get released in higher resolution and the scientists have more time to interpret the “new” data they’ll be getting for the next eighteen months. It’s going to be a great year for Pluto fans. In the meantime, here’s a rundown on all the Pluto that’s fit to print over at io9, and of course a link to the New Horizons website.

Solar Impulse 2 coming in to land after the record-breaking Japan-Hawaii trip; Photo: © Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.ch
Solar Impulse 2 coming in to land after the record-breaking Japan-Hawaii trip; Photo: © Solar Impulse | Revillard | Rezo.ch


If you remember last week, I wrote about how Solar Impulse was temporarily grounded due to battery overheating. At that time they were working hard to repair the damage so as not to miss the window for completing the round-the-world trip inside 2015. Unfortunately this week the team has announced that the solar plane will be staying grounded in Hawaii until the spring of next year. The damage appears to be too great to even make the next leg of the journey. According to a post on their website:

The damage to the batteries is not a technical failure or a weakness in the technology but rather an evaluation error in terms of the profile of the mission and the cooling design specifications of the batteries. The temperature of the batteries in a quick ascent / descent in tropical climates was not properly anticipated. Irreversible damage to certain parts of the batteries will require repairs which will take several months. In parallel, the Solar Impulse engineering team will be studying various options for better cooling and heating processes for very long flights.

A little disappointing, but it’s not like they were going for a non-stop round-the-world trip to begin with. Here’s hoping they can make the repairs and make their way back to Abu Dhabi some time next year.



Fail Day

July 15 saw not one but two massive failures by internet companies, but of differing types. Netflix made the serious blunder of trying to cash in on “The Day Without Sports” (apparently there’s only one day a year in America without professional sports of some kind taking place) by sending out a sexist e-mail. In it, it advised men on how to “survive” the day when they won’t be able to use sports as an excuse to monopolize control over the television and thereby avoid watching… well, I don’t know. Here, read this part:

“Men be warned… girlfriends and wives around the U.S. are going to take ‘no sports on TV’ as an invitation to gain some serious TV power—whether by recommending a favorite rom-com or multiple episodes from a favorite drama series. And, women be empowered! Sports will not be there to save him this time.

I don’t even know what they were getting at, but just ugh. Meanwhile Amazon has decided henceforth that July 15 will be “Amazon Prime Day,” which is like Cyber Monday but, you know, only for Amazon Prime customers, and only on the items it sells directly, of which there were apparently too few. As TechCrunch reports, their sales were up, but so were a lot of negative mentions due to sheer disappointment, so it remains to be seen if they can sway people into actually making this a thing, or if it’s just not going to happen. It probably didn’t help that other online retailers were lowering their prices, too, only without a Prime membership. Check out TechCrunch for a more indepth roundup.

Satoru Iwata

Nintendo’s game-developer turned CEO, a man beloved by millions around the world, passed away on Saturday. He started as a game designer at HAL — so named because each letter was one up on IBM — where he brought Kirby to the mainstream, and moved on to Nintendo from there.It’s hard to overstate how integral he was to the company and to the way it relates to its fans. Thousands showed up to his two-day funeral, in the middle of a typhoon. Here’s a picture of him contemplating bananas.


And here’s a video of him engaging in battle with the head of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aime, just last year.

Here’s his obituary at the New York Times. He was only 55, but he left quite a legacy.

Still tasty; Photo: Flickr user Pete, CC BY 2.0
Still tasty; Photo: Flickr user Pete, CC BY 2.0

Ugly Food

This isn’t really news, because it happened in March, but I liked it so much when I found out about it this week I felt like I had to share. The largest Canadian food retailer, Loblaws, wants to sell you ugly food. Ugly fruits and vegetables, to be more precise. In an attempt to curb food waste in the country (and make a buck doing so) the company is using its “No Name” brand to sell visually unappealing fruits and vegetables for a discounted price. Want to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie, or want vegetables you’re just going to chop up and toss into a stew? Why not pay less for them? At least, that’s the logic. According to the CBC, the first “Naturally Imperfect” branded apples and potatoes went on sale in March. And if its second-quarter results next week are anything like its first-quarter ones, there might be a good chance they’ll keep the practice going. Here’s hoping it catches on.

Best of the Rest

As always, there’s more to see than I’ve got time to type, so here it is in no particular order.

That’s all for today. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. And if you’re in the mood, please consider dropping a little something in our digital tip jar to help keep this site ad-free. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.