You can name Pluto’s moons of the Underworld

By Ian O’Neill

Published February 11, 2013

Discovery News

  • pluto moon full.jpg

    The artist’s concept shows some of the Pluto system from the surface of one of its moons, Nix. Pluto itself is the large disk at center, right. Charon is the smaller disk to the right of Pluto, Hydra the bright dot on Pluto’s far left. (NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI))

  • pluto system.jpg

    The Plutonian system detailing the orbits of Charon, Nix, Hydra, “P4” and “P5.” (NASA)

  • Pluto Hubble 1996.jpg

    Photos of far-off Pluto taken by the Hubble telescope aren’t sharp enough to see craters or mountains, if they exist on the surface, but Hubble reveals a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange, and charcoal-black terrain. (NASA, ESA, and M. Buie)

  • Pluto has a fifth moon.jpg

    July 7, 2012: NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured an image showing five moons orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. The green circle marks the newly discovered moon, designated P5. (NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter)

  • Pluto system 2006.jpg

    The moons of Pluto as scientists thought of them in 2006, when the Hubble telescope picked out the third and fourth moons. (NASA, ESA, H. Weaver (JHU/APL), A. Stern (SwRI))

Pluto may have been demoted, but its family is getting bigger and bigger. Now, two of the dwarf planet’s tiniest moons need names — but rather than leaving the Plutonian satellites’ naming ceremony to astronomers, that honor has fallen to you.

The discoverers of Pluto’s smallest moons — measuring only 15 to 20 miles across — have designated the moons “P4″ and “P5,” but it’s about time that they grow up and get some real names. Discovered in 2011 and 2012 by the Hubble Space Telescope, this tiny duo joins Charon, Nix and Hydra in a very close-knit family of objects orbiting Pluto.

ANALYSIS: Pluto Now Has Five (Yes, Five) Moons


‘The Greeks were great storytellers and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with.’

– Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute


All of the objects were named after Hades and the underworld in ancient Greek mythology. Hades, god of the underworld, who was also known as “Plouton” (meaning “Rich One”), was Latinized by the Romans to, simply, Pluto. And the ninth planetary body from the sun was given that name by 11-year old schoolgirl Venetia Burney shortly after the small world was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell Observatory in 1930. The mythological name for the dark and cold world on the outskirts of the solar system has now been inherited by Pluto’s satellites.

So, the SETI Institute has launched a new website called “Pluto Rocks” to decide new names for P4 and P5. Of the possible mythological names, the following can be selected: Acheron, Alecto,Cerberus, Erebus, Eurydice, Hercules, Hypnos, Lethe, Obol, Orpheus, Persephone and Styx. You can also make your own suggestions.

ANALYSIS: Pluto: Not a Planet; Still Very Interesting

“The Greeks were great storytellers and they have given us a colorful cast of characters to work with,” said Mark Showalter, Senior Research Scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., in a press release.

Voting will remain open till Feb. 25, when the P4/P5 discovery team will take the winning suggestions to the International Astronomical Union so the satellite pair can officially be named.

On Monday (Feb. 11) at 11 a.m., two astronomers involved in the P4/P5 discoveries — Mark Showalter and Hal Weaver, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland — will be available live to take your questions about the naming of these moons via a special Google+ hangout. If you want to get involved, be sure to use the #PlutoRocks hashtag on Twitter, the SETI Institute Facebook page and the Google hangout.

ANALYSIS: Pluto May Live in a Rough Neighborhood

The naming of P4 and P5 may seem frivolous, but this more than a public outreach project. As NASA’s New Horizons probe flies through interplanetary space toward Pluto, in July 2015 the world will be awestruck by the first close-up photographs of dwarf planet Pluto and its largest companion Charon. The Plutonian moons will likely become household names (and the debate as to the planetary status of Pluto will likely be reignited).

But like any story from the underworld, there is a sinister back-story.

Last year, when Hubble spotted P4 and P5, concern mounted for the possibility of more, sub-resolution debris that may be hanging in Pluto orbit. The current plan for New Horizons is to fly straight between Pluto and Charon (only 6,200 miles from the surface of Pluto, pictured top), but if there’s a cloud (or ring) of debris or many smaller moonlets, there could be a substantial collision risk. This has prompted the NASA New Horizons Team — headed by Alan Stern — to formulate a “bale out” plan should the risk be deemed too great. This means mission managers may opt to command New Horizons to carry out its much anticipated flyby further away from Pluto and any potential dangers that lay in wait.

So, for now, astronomers are carefully surveying the volume of space around Pluto, looking for any hint of the hypothetical debris that may be hiding there.

Read more:

The hypersonic spaceplanes of yesteryear

By Amy Shira Teitel

Published February 11, 2013

Discovery News

  • spaceliner of of yesteryear.jpg

    A scan of the original Dornberger spaceplane.

Last month, the German Aerospace Center announced its SpaceLiner.

This still-on-paper hypersonic suborbital spaceplane is theoretically capable of taking up to 50 passengers at a time to destinations halfway across the world in a few hours. It’s an exciting prospect, seeing the curvature of the Earth during a business trip.

But it isn’t a new idea. A host of science fiction writers have explored this, as did Walter Dornberger, former director of the V-2 program at Peenemunde in Germany, in 1956.

In 1952, Dornberger was a new immigrant to the United States working as a guided missile consultant for Bell Aircraft in Ohio. He pitched the idea of a hypersonic manned glider to the Air Force as an efficient and reusable precision bomber. The Air Force, intrigued, pursued the idea; it became the basis of the failed Dyna-Soar program. But for Dornberger, a hypersonic gliding bomber was a step on the way to suborbital hypersonic air travel.

ANALYSIS: When the Dyna-Soar Went Extinct

Inspired by the rapid growth of aviation – from the Wright brothers’ first flight to Mach 2 in half a century – he imagined a future where hypersonic passenger flights would be commonplace in another 25 years. But the first flights could be sooner. Writing in 1956, he saw that the nation had the technology to start exploring the world of hypersonic air travel with glider mounted on boosters. He called them Ultra Planes, and imagined them taking off from commercial airports around the world.

A glider would be mounted on the “back” of a booster such that the flat, gliding bottoms of both vehicles faced the same way. Once mated, the 90-foot tall pair would be turned vertically and loaded on a train that would carry it, by rail, to its underground launch canyon – image a missile silo big enough for crews to access both vehicles for things like fueling and maintenance. Passengers would arrive at the canyon, which would have an ordinary gate number, by bus since it would be too risky to connect a launch canyon to the terminal by jetway.

With the vehicle ready, the crew and passengers would board, the latter sitting in swiveling chairs that would keep them upright throughout the journey. Once their seat belts were firmly fastened, the booster would roar to life and launch, carrying the glider aloft with it.

ANALYSIS: How Neil Armstrong Saved the Dyna-Soar

For the first minute and a half, the glider’s pilot would be in control of both vehicles; the booster’s skeleton crew would be on standby. Then the stages would separate. The glider would slide off guide rails on the booster’s “back” and the pilot would ignite its engine. The glider would rocket up to 140,000 feet at a top speed of 8,400 miles per hour. At the same time, the booster’s crew would take control of their vehicle and return to the airport for refueling and launch with another glider in tow.

Pilot-controlled sun filters on the window’s would ensure passengers had a safe view of the curvature of the Earth as the glider reached its peak altitude. Then, as dictated by the flight plan, the glider’s pilot would shut off its engine and begin a steady glide his designated airport. The remaining ride would be silent and pleasant with stunning views unhampered by clouds out of every window. Stars that we never see from Earth would be as bright as the moon.

The glider would land, unpowered, like a traditional airplane on a runway. Passengers would disembark by a rolling stairway right onto the tarmac then the glider would be towed to a launch canyon where it would be mated to another booster and fueled for its next launch.

ANALYSIS: NASA’s Next Capsule to Land Like a Helicopter?

The few details on the SpaceLiner suggest it will follow more or less this idea laid out by Dornberger in the 1950s. The SpaceLiner will launch passengers up to 50 miles high at Mach 24 (roughly the design limit of Dyna-Soar) before gliding in at 15,000 mph for a runway landing. SpaceLiner’s project coordinator Martin Sippel expects to start gathering funds in 10 years an to have full operations up and running by 2050.

Sippel’s timeline is about the same as Dornberger’s was in 1956, but hopefully the SpaceLiner will have more luck than the ultra planes. Because traveling through (near) space as a regular airline passenger would be absolutely incredible.

Read more:

The blimps are back! Massive airship off to a flying start

By Jesse Emspak

Published February 06, 2013

Discovery News

Blimps and Zeppelins plied the skies in the early part of the 20th century, carrying passengers and cargo and even serving as military aircraft during the World Wars. But it didn’t take long for airplanes to replace dirigibles for commercial and military flight and by the middle of the 20th century, airships were mostly used for advertising, sightseeing and surveillance.

But blimps may be back. Montabello, Calif.-based Aeros is working on a rigid airship that can fly like a plane and float like a balloon. If realized, the 500-foot-long Aeroscraft would greatly alter the way cargo is shipped. The craft is designed to take off vertically and cruise at up to 130 mph at an altitude of 12,000 feet. It will be able to travel thousands of miles on a single tank of fuel, carrying 66 tons of cargo — that’s three times the capacity of a C-130 and half that of the C-5, the largest military aircraft flown by the United States.

“This vehicle doesn’t need infrastructure,” Munir Tojo-Verge, the flight control systems engineer at Aeros, told Discovery News. “It could even land on water.”

PHOTOS: Blimplike Craft Hauls Tons of Cargo Anywhere

The Aeroscraft could serve both military and humanitarian efforts, delivering extremely heavy loads to areas without transportation infrastructure, such as roads, train tracks or airports.

Aeros recently tested a 230-foot-long prototype and has received $35 million from DARPA and NASA to get a full-sized version off the ground.

The Aeroscraft has a rigid shell made of a lightweight, carbon-fiber composite and has special honeycomb-like chambers designed to hold helium. The helium is housed separately in compression tanks. To fly, the compressed helium is released into the chambers. To sink, the helium is pumped back into the tanks and replaced with air. That eliminates the need for ballast. And because helium is nonflammable, there is no risk of a Hindenburg-like explosion.

The gas pressure inside isn’t much different from the outside air, so even if one were to put a hole in the skin of the Aeroscraft, the gas wouldn’t escape very fast. Blimps, by contrast, are under high pressure, so they deflate much faster.

A set of turboprop engines like those on a plane provide thrust, combined with another type that Tojo-Verge said he could not discuss. The airship’s arrowhead shape keeps it stable at higher speeds and helps give it lift.

NEWS: Schools of Sleeper Drones Could Swim Future Seas

All this makes the Aeroscraft much different from blimps, which are basically flexible, helium-filled balloons outfitted with propellers to move and steer, or zeppelins, which have rigid frames containing lots of small, helium-filled balloons called ballonets. Both types of airship need ballast and are difficult to maneuver in rough weather. The zeppelins of the 1930s also needed ground crews with ropes to wrangle the craft to the ground. The Aeroscraft won’t require that.

For cost and capability, the Aeroscraft compares well with helicopters. The biggest helicopter available now is the Sikorsky Skycrane, which travels at 126 mph and is able to carry 10 tons. These copters are often used in rescue missions and to carry heavy equipment. But they cost a lot to operate and their range is only 230 miles with a maximum load of fuel. The Aeroscraft will have a similar speed, carry much more cargo and be able to travel much farther.

While the Aeroscraft is technologically advanced, the next step is making airship transport a viable business, which may be harder than it sounds. Jose Holguin-Veras, director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said it would take a lot of airships to make a dent in the service area they aim to fulfill and he’s skeptical that the market will be large enough to give way to that many vehicles.

He cited the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as an example. Some 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and about 1.8 million people needed immediate food and supplies. Getting enough supplies to Port-au-Prince would have required hundreds of Aeroscraft airships — each one capable of carrying enough cargo for only about 3,000 people. Most of the supplies were delivered by truck from the neighboring Dominican Republic because even with the airport out of commission there was enough roadway left to get the supplies in after they were flown to Santo Domingo.

Airships may have a role for disasters in remote locations, Holguin-Veras said. “Maybe for something like a blackout in Vermont in winter,” he said, where roads were impassable and the airport wasn’t working, and the amount of cargo needed was small. In that case an Aeroscraft might deliver a generator or two, or fuel for a small town.

In terms of cargo-shipping, the Aeroscraft may not be able to compete with ocean ships or trains, Holguin-Veras said. Shipping of any kind is a tradeoff between how fast cargo has to move, how much can be carried and the cost of moving it. A plane is an expensive way to send anything, but it goes fast enough that high-value, perishable cargo is worth sending. The flower industry is a good example of this: flowers need to get to their destinations quickly and aren’t shipped in high volumes. Meanwhile, a load of iron can sit in a cargo hold for a weeks-long journey, and a ship will carry tens of thousands of tons.

ANALYSIS: Ultra-Efficient Aircraft Wins NASA Prize

In order for the Aeroscraft to be competitive, it would need to carry cargo that wasn’t perishable or didn’t need to be delivered immediately. That limits the market it can service

And even though it doesn’t need a fully equipped airport, future versions of the Aeroscraft able to carry hundreds of tons will be hundreds of yards long, necessitating a big, clear area. So shipping to city centers is less realistic.

Other companies have tried to make airships viable. Northrop-Grumman has developed an airship for surveillance for the U.S. Army. Meanwhile Cargolifter, a German company, tried to design and build an airship that could carry 176 tons. The company declared bankruptcy in 2002. Cargolifter sill exists, but it is selling a balloon-based crane system rather than a cargo-carrying dirigible. Lockheed-Martin designed and built a prototype for the Army as well, the same contract that Northrup-Grumman won. Now called the SkyTug, the rights to the design were taken over by a Canadian company, Aviation Capital Enterprises.

Jojo-Verge said Aeroscraft isn’t trying to compete directly with other modes of transport, but to address markets that are more difficult for trucks or planes. Remote areas is one of those — there are many places, he said, that have poor road connections and where an Aeroscraft carrying 66 tons would be more efficient than a truck picking its way through a remote trail. If anything, the Aeroscraft might just be in the “sweet spot” that other cargo methods don’t handle well.

NEWS: New Navy Fighter Drone Promises Pilotless Future

In addition, Aeros plans to build bigger airships. “The thing is, our design gets more efficient as you get bigger,” Jojo-Verge said. A 200-ton Aeroscraft would not use much more fuel than the 66-ton version, and it would go just as fast.

And he sees disaster relief as a good initial market. “Imagine an earthquake in L.A.,” he said. “You could get one of these in anywhere in the city.” While it won’t ever be as cheap as a truck or train, it’s faster than a cargo ship. “We’re trying to fill a gap,” he said.

Read more:

What evil lurks in the brain? German neurologist says he’s found a ‘dark patch’


Published February 07, 2013

  • brain power

After studying the brains of violent killers, rapists and robbers, German neurologist Gerhard Roth claims to have found a “dark patch” in the center of the brain — he calls it the evil spot, a genetic source of violent behavior.

Roth, a professor at the University of Bremen, told Germany news site that he had shown short films to criminals and measured their brain activity. A small section at the front of their brains showed no reaction to violent scenes; it remained “dark” when shown dark scenes.

“Whenever there were brutal and squalid scenes, the subjects showed no emotions. In the areas of the brain where we create compassion and sorrow, nothing happened,” Roth said.

BioEdge, a blog dedicated to bioethics news, translated Roth’s German into English: “This is definitely the region of the brain where evil is formed and where it lurks.”

Not so fast. Human behavior, affect and emotion is likely a far more intricate thing, explained Dr. Steven Galetta, chairman of the neurology department at the NYU School of Medicine.


‘It’s probably not as simple as X marks the spot for a particular behavior.’

– Dr. Steven Galetta, chairman of the neurology department at the NYU School of Medicine


“People look at the blood flow to one area and they say, ‘aha, this is the evil patch.’ It’s probably a lot more complex than that,” Galetta told

“Certain areas are likely important for certain behaviors, certain attitudes. But it’s probably not as simple as X marks the spot for a particular behavior.”

Roth’s study, according to, was conducted for the German government on violent convicted offenders. He said the dark mass that he has identified appears in all CT scans of people with such records — and taking it out ended their “evil” behavior.

Roth did not respond to requests for more details on his study.

Terre Constantine, executive director of the Brain Research Foundation and the former director of the Jack Miller Center for Peripheral Neuropathy, expressed skepticism at the report, but agreed that brain abnormalities such as tumors can affect behavior.

“It absolutely can affect the brain and your personality and how you communicate. And it can make you aggressive — not all tumors, of course: it depends where it is,” Constantine told

Her foundation, which funds research into neuroscience seeking to understand the brain’s workings, has aided research similar to Roth’s with more advanced imaging techniques.

One recent study from a University of Chicago researcher studied parenting behavior. It found activity in the amygdala — a portion of the brain connected to the limbic system — correlated to parenting style. It “lit up” in the brains of normal mothers, while “harsh parents” didn’t react to scenes of bad parenting.

“There’s clearly differences in the brain depending on what sort of disease or abnormality a person has,” she told And many things can cause abnormal behaviors. “They’re either wired differently or there might be some disease that’s causing the brain to atrophy.”

But Constantine agreed with Galetta: Complex topics and behaviors are likely linked to other areas of the brain, rather than concentrated in one “evil area.”

“I would argue it’s probably not the only “evil” spot,” she said. “There are other areas in the brain, there are lots of … empathy areas or violent areas or just social reaction areas within the brain.”

“This may be one of the spots, but I’d be surprised if it’s the spot.”

Read more: