back to article WHAT ARE the 'WEIRD' SPOTS seen on far-flung PLUTO?

Astroboffins remain baffled by four mysterious dark spots captured in images buzzed back to Earth from NASA's New Horizons probe as it dashes towards its fateful rendezvous with dwarf planet Pluto. In particular, scientists have been fascinated with the size and spacing of the spots, which face Pluto's largest moon, Charon, …

  1. schlechtj

    Pluto spots?

    Hummmm, why are there so many cats on a planet named after a dog? And spot is a dogs name too. Makes you wonder....

  2. tempemeaty

    Need another mission...

    We need to get a probe into orbit around Pluto so we can really get a good evaluation of it's environment.

    1. Christoph

      Re: Need another mission...

      It would be much easier (but still very difficult) to orbit Uranus or Neptune. You could even use aerobraking.

      About the only way to stop a probe at Pluto would be to use lithobraking, which tends to limit the amount of returned data.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Need another mission...

        You could then put an orbiter around Neptune, and have it launch a far slower probe to Pluto. Just it would need Neptune and Pluto be close enough, and given the glacial pace of their orbit, the right configuration could take many years to be available....

    2. Angol

      Re: Need another mission...

      "its" not "it's"

      1. VeganVegan

        Re: It's and it's

        At the risk of severe down-voting due to excessive pedantry, please take the following as a public service message.

        I learnt from my grammar teacher too many years ago that that apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter, often 'i', but can also be 'a'.


        it's == it is, there's == there is, etc.


        they're == they are, we're== we are.

        This makes it easy to apply the correct words. When in doubt, ask yourself if it's sensible to say "Pluto and its spots", versus the incorrect "Pluto and it's (==it is) spots".

        1. bep

          Re: It's and it's

          Oh well, at the risk of etc., your grammar teacher should also have explained that apostrophes are also used to indicate possession, as in "Pluto's moon Charon." This applies to Tom's car and Pluto's moon, but it doesn't apply to 'it' for reasons which remain obscure to me but others can no doubt explain. So it's its, not it's after all.

          Sorry about that.

          1. VeganVegan

            Re: It's and it's

            You are absolutely correct that apostrophe-s is used to indicate possession. The confusion is between the contraction and possession, that the rule of thumb I was taught helps.

            The additional source of confusion is that " its " seem strange not to have an apostrophe, even though it indicates possession. The 'explanation', more of another rule of thumb (isn't English marvelous?): possessive pronouns do not use an apostrophe, witness his (his true spots are showing), or hers (those spots are hers), and theirs (the spots are theirs).

            And let's not even get started on all the other forms of contractions, like I'd, haven't, could've (the mother of could of), etc..

            Some languages are so orderly that one can easily remember the small number of exceptions to the rules. English is one where the number of exceptions just might exceed the number of rules.

            1. Martin Budden Silver badge

              Re: It's and it's

              could've (the mother of could of)

              ARGHHH!!! NOOOOO!!!!! Could've is the mother of could have.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: It's and it's

                Could've is the *child* of 'could have' but has given birth the abomination 'could of' because that's what 'could've' sounds like in Essex.

                On the its / it's / possessives discussion, it's simple: in this case an apostrophe to denote a missing letter trumps a possessive apostrophe - therefore, since both it's (it is) and it's (as a possessive) look identical, there is a tacit rule that it's (as a possessive) becomes its.

                It's a pretty straightforward rule with only two outcomes, for a very common word. Learn it, people.

                1. Yugguy

                  Re: It's and it's

                  Could OF annoys the hell out of me.

                  Noone EVER says "I of had my dinner" yet these days everyone says "I could of had my dinner" because that is what they hear others say - they do not know it is "could've"

                  This is DIRECTLY related to the lack of grammar tuition in schools. If it was still taught properly they would know that it is simply the contraction of "could have" and that it is ALL just different tenses of the verb "to be".

                  IMO saying "could of" and "should of" makes you sound stupid and I am determined my own child will not suffer from this.

                  As for bloody apostrophes, the plural apostrophe is everywhere now, in print, signage, official government communications. We may have lost this battle frankly.

                  I just wish these morons would be at least consistent in their error. They put the apostrophe in some plurals and not others with no seeming logic as to which.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: It's and it's

              "Could of" is wrong and should not be used, ever; "could have" is correct.

              Martin, you beat me to it by two minutes!

            3. Ralph the Wonder Llama

              Re: It's and it's

              "isn't English marvelous?"

              No. It's marvellous. Pfft.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: It's and it's

            Maybe it does not apply to "it" because it would be hard to tell it from "it is" contracted form?

            Joke aparts, most ancient indo-european languages used "cases" which inflected the word itself to indicate its grammatical use. While in many modern languages this was lost (but many others still retains them), sometimes it still somehow survives in some basic language words, i.e.. "they" (nominative), "theirs" (genitive), "them" (accusative/dative/ecc.). The possessive 's is still a relic - AFAIK - of Old English genitive case, while other caseless languages fully use prepositions in this situation.

          3. Wilseus

            Re: It's and it's

            "your grammar teacher should also have explained that apostrophes are also used to indicate possession"

            I vaguely remember reading somewhere that using an apostrophe for possession is in fact a contraction of a construct that is no longer used:

            Pluto's moon is a contraction of Pluto its moon.

            Similarly, Tom's car is a contraction of Tom his car.

            I'm not sure how this would have worked for women though, e.g. Alison's car != Alison her car, perhaps it's a throwback to times when everything belonged to the man of the household!

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              I vaguely remember reading somewhere...

              Perhaps you really did read that somewhere. But it's completely wrong, as you could easily discover with the help of Google. So why repeat it here?

              1. Martin Budden Silver badge

                Re: I vaguely remember reading somewhere...

                I wonder how many commentards' heads explode when I mention less/fewer?

              2. Wilseus

                Re: I vaguely remember reading somewhere...

                "But it's completely wrong..."

                Perhaps I am wrong, I often am. But I'd rather be wrong sometimes than be a smug twat who hides behind the "Anonymous Coward" handle.

  3. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    That is a lofty goal, but I think the problem of slowing a probe down to get into orbit around a (relatively) light system is going to be a show-stopper in terms of fuel demands (as you have to get the probe+fuel up there and fast enough in the first place).

    An atomic powered ion-engine craft might be possible...

    1. Chris Miller


      According to the back of this-here envelope:

      Distance to Pluto = 7.5 billion km

      acceleration of 0.0003 m/s2 (this is what Dawn achieved)

      Time to half-way turnover = 3.5 years

      So 7 years for a voyage to a stop at Pluto, with peak velocity of 33 km/s.

      (All ignoring gravity wells, possible 'slingshot' from intermediate bodies, initial lift to escape velocity &c &c, but order of magnitude should be correct if I haven't slipped a decimal point ...)

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Re: Ion-engine

        In space, distance isn't measured in km, it's measured in km/s.

        It's all about the delta-V.

        Though a ion engine probably is the way to go, and I'd love to see it happen.

        1. Christoph

          Re: Ion-engine

          What will you use for power? Dawn's ion engine is powered by solar arrays. That's not going to work at Pluto!

          1. Six_Degrees

            Re: Ion-engine


            1. druck Silver badge

              Re: Ion-engine

              Well to get the Pu238 for any more RTGs, things will have to get tense enough with Mr Putin in order for the US to restart it's nuclear weapon breeder reactors. Although I suspect the UK might enough in used fuel rods waiting at Sellafield for reprocessing, to kit out a mission or two.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Ion-engine

          How could you measure distance in km/s? It doesn't have the dimension of a length at all.

          Unless you pair it with the time within the mission. Sure, maneuver A will happen at T + something, not at X km from point P, just it happens in any system where you can't measure position continuosly and accurately so you need to calculate it based on speed and time. It was called "dead reckoning", and in space works well because effects on speed and course are less "chaotic" than within Earth atmosphere.

        3. x 7

          Re: Ion-engine

          "In space, distance isn't measured in km, it's measured in km/s."

          utter tosh

          doesn't matter where it is, but distance is measured in units of distance, not units of velocity

          1. Chris Miller


            It's a tiny rocket scientists' joke - delta-v measures the change in velocity that a given rocket configuration of thrust and fuel is capable of delivering to a specified payload, and that (kinda) defines what you can do with it. A Δv of 8 km/s will get you from the Earth's surface to orbit, for example and 11 km/s (escape velocity) will get you to most places in the solar system, eventually. It doesn't tell you how long it will take to get there - Voyager has accumulated enough Δv (>42 km/s) to reach another stellar system, but it may take some time ...

            Wikip article.

            1. x 7

              Re: Δv

              "It's a tiny rocket scientists' joke......"

              is a tiny rocket scientist one who specialises in dwarf planets?

        4. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

          Re: Ion-engine

          "In space, distance isn't measured in km, it's measured in km/s."

          Wow. Have you been doing Kessel runs lately? They're dangerous, may foul your sense of units.

      2. L2Bis55

        Re: Ion-engine

        Guy's, can we get back to the discussion about grammar, I'm finding its particularly fascinating. ;-)

        1. Bernard M. Orwell

          Re: Ion-engine

          "can we get back to the discussion about grammar, I'm finding its particularly fascinating."

          I'm finding it particularly fascinating. FTFY!

          You're welcome.

  4. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    This looks suspiciously like a dormant infection by The Blight.

    1. Six_Degrees

      I'm curious about the "pebbled" appearance of this image. Is it natural, or is it a result of image processing? It has the look of an over-aggresive sharpening filter.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obvious explanation

    This is a bowling ball for very large creatures with 6 fingers. Be afraid.

  6. TheOtherHobbes

    If you read the dots as binary you get a location close to Alpha Centauri.

  7. MD Rackham


    Are those Cthulhu's tentacles coming up from the dark south?

    Or maybe Cthulhu's cousin's?

    I demand a response from NASA!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Tentacles?

      Hi, this is NASA. The answer to your questions are:

      1. No.

      2. No.

      We hope this helps.

  8. Filippo Silver badge

    Fungi from Yuggoth should be a safe assumption.

  9. Captain DaFt

    Ah, the early days of exploration!

    Everything we learn only raises new questions, and new opportunities to learn.

    The Universe is vast, and humanity will never know all of its mysteries, but it'll be fun trying!

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Well, that goes and puts a dampener on all those Mass Effect fans.

    Great one Nasa!

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Not yet!

      Maybe the dark spots are the shadows of a mass-effect relay?

      1. MrDamage Silver badge

        Re: Not yet!

        Or the impact scorch marks left by those who figured out how to activate the mass effect relay, but not how to brake successfully once on the other side.

  11. Geoff Campbell Silver badge


    Who the hell is down-voting all these posts? Whoever you are, you are a real dickwad.

    (And yes, I'm pretty sure I know what is about to happen...)


    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. iLuddite

      Re: WTF?


  12. Mystic Megabyte


    No parrots involved. It would be incredible that if over millennia that the surface has frozen into hexagonal shapes.


    1. Martin Budden Silver badge

      Re: Polygon

      OK, here's a quick discussion. Where convection cells exist within a liquid you'll see polygonal (mostly tending towards hexagonal) surface temperature gradients, with the hotspots at the centre of each cell, cold lines at the boundaries of the cells, and fluid flowing from the central hotspots outwards towards the cold boundaries. See figure 6 on this page. So it's credible that a planet with a once-liquid water layer could freeze and some of that cell structure might still be visible (amazingly, some of the water may even still be liquid below the surface!).

      The same process also occurs with thermals in our lower atmosphere, which is why glider pilots like to seek out cumulus (these clouds sit on top of a rising thermal in the middle of a convection cell) and avoid the "blue sink" of clear-sky areas between the cumulus. Sometimes a prevailing wind can cause the cumulus to form near-continuous lines, gliders can use these "cloud streets" to travel long distances.

      1. Mystic Megabyte

        Re: Polygon

        I've seen the Basalt columns on Staffa and Mull but they are tiny compared to the shapes on Pluto. That's if they are really there and not some sort of image processing artefact.

        A better image of basalt columns here:

        1. Martin Budden Silver badge

          Re: Polygon

          Basalt columns look very similar but they are caused by contraction fractures when cooling, not by convection cells.

          The best basalt columns I've seen personally are at Sawn Rocks in New South Wales, Australia.

  13. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

    a dark belt circling its equatorial region.

    Well, where else would you locate all the ion cannons?

  14. Charles Manning


    It's going to look like 1970s wallpaper.

  15. Johnny Canuck

    Its obviously evidence of alien intrusions into our solar system. Or less obviously a chain strike, similar to the "string of pearls " strike on Jupiter by Shoemaker/Levy. Or liberals - damn liberals.

  16. paulc

    Compression artefacts...

    so much excitement over the slightest differences...

  17. arctic_haze

    Regularly spaced dark spots?

    It's almost like the definition of a series of letters, in short script.

    I wonder what's written on Pluto...

    1. Francis Boyle

      Re: Regularly spaced dark spots?

      Hello Sweetie?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Regularly spaced dark spots?

        we've found the Iron Chicken boys!!!

  18. hatti

    They are = they're

    The weird spots are probably grammatical and punctuation errors.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Am I

    Am I the only one hoping that as the probe gets too close a Migo death beam shoots it down? We can only hope.

  20. clayusmcret

    They are launch platforms. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!

  21. Chris Evans


    Maybe Slartibartfast has moved on from doing crinkly bits!

  22. x 7

    when we send the next one, why not fit it with bungee cords and grappling hooks so it can get trapped by Pluto and slowed down enough to land. Bit like an aircraft carrier. With no atmosphere you don't need to worry about the probe burning up, so you could use a mile-long bungee tether with a giant treble fish hook on the end, and aim about a quarter of a mile off the surface. Gives plenty of room for error. The probe itself might need blowup bulgarian airbags to absorb the impact of landing, but that technology is simple enough

  23. montyburns56

    Is it just puberty?

    Are you sure that Pluto isn't just going through The Change now that it's 13 billion years old? Next it will refuse to come out of it's orbit and will be surrounding itself in black clouds.

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