The Pluto-shaped void in our hearts has yet to be filled by Planet 9, copious amounts of Ben & Jerry’s, or anything. Ever since the summer of 2015, when NASA’s New Horizons performed a six-month-long reconnaissance flyby study of Pluto and its moons, fans of the dwarf planet have wondered if or when we’d ever go back. According to New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, he and some other planetary scientists are already drawing up the blueprint for a return trip—and this time, it’d be much more than just a flyby.
“The news is not that we have a specific mission design,” Stern told Gizmodo. “The news is that the community is forming around the concept of going back to Pluto with an orbiter mission that would stay and study the planet for years, and do it in ways that we could not have in a simple flyby like New Horizons. It would have much more advanced instrumentation and the ability to map every square inch of the planet, and unravel all the complexity that we found.”
Still, many lingering mysteries remain. Pluto might have wind-blown dunes on it, features thought to be impossible before the flyby. Its mountains, which are made of frozen water, could reveal many secrets about geologic activity on the dwarf planet today. With so much left to learn, the only way to get answers is to go back. And unlike the New Horizons flyby, which didn’t spend enough time loitering to even map both of Pluto’s hemispheres at high resolution, much less monitor changes on the surface, an orbiter that remains in the Pluto system for several years would be able to do both.
“Going back to Pluto is becoming, in the scientific community, a real growing concern instead of just scattered conversation,” Stern said. And so, a few days ago, he and 34 scientists gathered in Houston, Texas to start mapping out what an orbiter mission would look like. Some of this new team is comprised of New Horizons members and seasoned pros in the field, in addition to scientists at the start of their careers.
“You won’t see it presented in the next few months, but I’m sure that by next year you’ll see it in many places,” Stern said. He added that this October, he and his team plan to have a workshop on their new mission concept at the49th meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences.
“We were so surprised by the level of complexity that we found,” Stern said. “If you would have asked me before we got there if I thought there was ever any real chance of going back, I would have said ‘not really.’ And yet, here we are two years later and thinking about all the mysteries we can’t solve except by going back.”
While the plans are still in their infancy, Stern and his team are hopeful that they can get their concept together in time for the next Planetary Science Decadal Survey, a massive report prepared for NASA and Congress by the planetary science community, which helps to set the space agency’s priorities for solar system exploration. The next Decadal Survey will start being compiled around 2020, Stern said.
Gathering enough support within the scientific community is critical to convince the space agency such a trip would be worth it. The good news for Stern and his team is that the public already has their back. As soon as hetweeted the news about the potential orbiter, Stern’s mentions erupted with well-wishers.
“Hundreds of people were getting involved and cheering it on,” he said. “It’s like the slightest hope of going back to Pluto…the public interest is amazing.”
By October, Stern expects that the team involved with the orbiter concept will have grown substantially, maybe with 100 scientists involved. He thinks another trip to Pluto has the potential to gin up public interest in the same way that Enceladus and Europa have. “Just like Ocean Worlds, it’ll catch fire,” he said.
The hunt for Planet 9—a hypothetical, Neptune-sized object beyond Pluto—has stirred the scientific community since last year year, when a pair of Caltech astronomers argued in favor of the idea. Those intrepid scientists—Mike Brown, best known as the guy who killed Pluto, and Konstantin Batygin—are currently spearheading a search for this elusive giant. Recently, a network of citizen scientists have followed suit. The problem, of course, is we still haven’t found it. So what’s it going to take?
Back in 2016, Brown and Batygin seemed pretty confident that we’d find the mysterious object sometime in the next few years. From the start, their assertion of a new planet was met with some skepticism, since astronomers (and a few quacks) had been peddling the idea of a “Planet X” for years. At a certain point, it kind of became the “fetch” of the solar system. Still, theresearchers’ demonstration that a massive planet could be responsible for the unusual orbits of six known Kuiper Belt Objects motivated the scientific community to take Planet 9 claims more seriously.
“If you say, ‘We have evidence for Planet X,’ almost any astronomer will say, ‘This again? These guys are clearly crazy.’ I would, too,” Brown told Science Magazine in January 2016 shortly after the paper detailing their hypothesis went public. “Why is this different? This is different because this time we’re right.”
Over the past year, Brown and Batgyin have expanded their search team, and are currently gearing up for observations in the fall. According to Brown, the “wrong side of the sky” is up right now, meaning the part of the sky where Planet 9 might be is only visible in the daytime, which is rather inconvenient when you’re trying to make a breakthrough in planetary science.
“What we spent most of the last year doing has been trying to do a combination of computer modeling and looking at the real objects in the solar system and really pinpoint where it is,” Brown told Gizmodo. “We have a modestly precise region where we know to look. It’s about 800 square degrees of sky, which is a pretty large swath of sky, but it’s better than having to look at the whole thing.”
Another boon for the planet hunters is that their support network is huge. In a new project called Backyard World, a network of citizen scientists can look through troves of “flipbook” movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission with the hopes of finding Planet 9, which astronomers say will look a little blue.
“I am very optimistic that we’re going to track this guy down soon because so many people are looking,” Brown said. “And we’ve done a pretty good job of nailing down where to look.”
Still, not everyone is confident that Planet 9 will be found any time soon—or at all. A new study from a team of scientists at Queen’s University in Belfast asserts that the discovery of a minor planet called 2013 SY99—which is, at its closest, 50 AU—might dash our hopes of ever discovering the world. After running computer models of the solar system, the researchers concluded that if Planet 9 did exist, it likely would have altered SY99’s orbit so much we would not be able to view it.
“Computer models do show that a Planet Nine would be an unfriendly neighbor to tiny worlds like SY99: its gravitational influence would starkly change its orbit – throwing it from the solar system entirely, or poking it into an orbit so highly inclined and distant that we wouldn’t be able to see it,” Michele Bannister, an author on the study, wrote in The Conversation. “SY99 would have to be one of an utterly vast throng of small worlds, continuously being sucked in and cast out by the planet.”
Bannister told Gizmodo that while her team’s findings don’t entirely disprove the idea of Planet 9, it calls the hypothetical world’s legitimacy into question.
“The planet 9 idea is a fun idea, it’s exciting, but it’s taking a bit of the oxygen at the moment,” she told Gizmodo. “We have this interesting problem…and the very shiny solution at the moment is called planet 9.”
Brown, on the other hand, read Bannister’s paper and said he and Batgyin had predicted that astronomers would discover objects just like SY99. He said that finding these objects actually reinforces the idea that Planet 9 is out there.
“The reason that we initially thought Planet 9 existed—there are a lot more reasons now—but the initial reasons were that the most distant Kuiper Belt objects were on these very eccentric orbits that are all pointing off in the same direction,” he told Gizmodo. “One of the things we said when we first announced this a year ago was that, ‘We predict that as you continue to find more and more distant Kuiper Belt objects, they too will be pushed off in this one direction. So we’ve been waiting for all these discoveries to come in—this one is exactly where it’s predicted.”
It’s so rare we get planetary drama as delicious as this one with Planet 9. But seriously, if this big guy is out there, it’s only a matter of time until someone finds him. Brown hopes it’ll be one of the citizen scientists.
“I love those,” he said. “Honestly, if I could control the future, I would have one of those citizen science projects find Planet 9. It’d be fun to find it myself…but it’d be cool if we could come up with new ways of finding these things like using the power of citizen scientists and data analysis. I would love that story.”
The depths of the ocean are festooned with the most nightmarish creatures imaginable. You might think you’re safe, because these critters live thousands of feet down in a cold dark abyss, but the vampire squid, which looks like a nightmare umbrella, and the frilled shark—a literal living fossil—will live on in the recesses of your mind long after you’ve clicked away. Enjoy these deep sea horrors and try to have a relaxing day afterward.
10) Goblin shark
Scientific name: Mitsukurina owstoni
Habitat: The goblin shark has been seen off the coast of Mississippi, Australia, and more, and can live as deep as1300 meters (4265 feet ).
Lifestyle: Look at this creature’s ugly mug and tell me it’s not out for blood. The goblin shark is clearly a predator, but other than that, we’re pretty much in the dark on its lifestyle. “They’re a species we don’t know much about at all,” Christopher Bird, a PhD Student in deep sea Shark ecology at the University of Southampton, told Gizmodo. “They’ve been found around the globe in rare cases. But the reason they protrude their jaw out in the characteristic fashion is because they’re hunting fast-moving fish and crustaceans in the middle of the water column.”
Spooky fact(s): These bizarre beasts are known for their long, boopable snouts and ferocious nightmare teeth. Their skin is translucent, so that pink you see is actually a direct look at their insides.
9) Dumbo octopus
Scientific name: Grimpoteuthis (this is the genus name, there are 17 known species of Dumbo octopi).
Habitat: These silly guys, with their flappy little ears, can live at depths of9,800 to 13,000 feet. According to Aquarium of the Pacific, Dumbo octopi have been found in many regions around the world, including the waters near Australia, California, Oregon, and more.
Spooky fact(s): Sure, they may look cute, but just imagine being swarmed by a bunch of these things. “Dumbo octopuses envelop their prey within their webbed arms to make a balloon around them, and then consume them,” Dr. Nicholas Higgs, Deputy Director of the Plymouth University Marine Institute, told Gizmodo.
It’d be like getting smothered to death by a horde of kindergarteners. While the dumbo octopus is only eight inches tall, anything that eats primarily jellyfish is not to be trusted.
8) Giant isopod
Scientific name: Bathynomus giganteus
Habitat: Giant isopods have been found off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in México, at depths of 359–1050 meters (1177-3444 feet). Hopefully we won’t find them anywhere else.
Lifestyle: These little monsters, which can grow to be anywhere from 1.7 inches to 14 inchestall, are straight up scavengers. According to a 2003 paperpublished in Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, giant isopods have no shame in feasting on squid and fish remains.
Spooky fact(s): Maybe what’s most unsettling about the giant isopod is that it can fast for up to five years.“Females that are brooding their young don’t eat, probably to avoid exposure to predation,” Higgs said. “These animals are scavengers and so they are exposed to other scavengers when feeding on dead carcasses. In order to protect their young and themselves while acting for their young they simply hide out in the mud.”
Honestly, I’m sure it has an important function in its ecosystem, but this overgrown cockroach-alien makes every cell in my body want to scream.
Spooky fact(s): Anglerfish are spooky little bastards. They use their weird biological headlamp—which is attached to their face—in order to draw prey in.
“The headlamp appendage is a specialized tissue that, in deep-sea anglerfishes, contains bioluminescent bacteria that the fish uses as a lure to attract potential prey towards its mouth,” Higgs told Gizmodo.
Scientific name: Chauliodus sloani
Habitat: Viperfish are found in tropical and temperate waters around the world and can live as deep as 2,800 meters (9,000 feet). Thankfully, you’ll never encounter one of these at the beach.
Lifestyle: Also obviously a predator. Look at that gnarly underbite!
Spooky fact(s): Viperfish are extremely elusive, but when these beasts reveal themselves, it’s always a bad time. The creatures have long fangs, which act like a trap. Unsuspecting fish wander into that mouth trap, and it’s game over.
“Larger specimens are believed to be exclusively piscivorous and may swallow fishes reaching 63% of their own body length,” a team of marine biologists wrote in a 2009 study about anglerfish teeth.
5) Ghost shark
Scientific name: Chimaeras (family name)
Habitat: Sightings are rare, but chimaeras have been spotted off the coast of California and Hawaii. They can live at depths of 500 to 3,000 meters (1,640 to 9,842 feet).
Lifestyle: Ghost sharks are predators that mainly subsist on worms, crabs, and mollusks. “You have different species at different depths,” Bird explained. “They’re absolutely bizarre creatures…they’ve got a rabbit-like jaw that helps them crush the shells on the sea floor.”
Spooky fact(s): I feel guilty including this one on the list, since it looks so miserable with its existence, but let’s be real—if you saw this swimming toward you in the ocean, would you greet it with open arms like Flipper? Like the frilled shark, chimaeras are living fossils, which means these dead-eyed creatures have changed very little over millions of years.
“They’ve really found there niche down there, which is eating stuff that nothing else can,” Bird explained. “They’re doing stuff that no other fish is doing, that no other shark is doing.”
4) Gulper eel
Scientific name: Eurypharynx pelecanoides
Habitat: The gulper eel can live at depths of1,000 to 2,100 meters, and has been found in temperate and tropical regions throughout all oceans.
Lifestyle: This beast is a predator. It eats mainly crustaceans and fish.
Spooky fact(s): It’s pretty obvious why the Gulper eel is also known as the “pelican eel”: its large jaw is very similar to that of the more pleasant looking bird’s. As Higgs explained, the gulper eel’s tremendous gape probably helps it swallow big meals—or do even stranger things.
“In gulper eels like Saccopharynx their strong jaws and large gape allow them to swallow extremely large prey,” Higgs said. “Others like the pelican eels (Eurypharynx) don’t have strong enough jaws to eat especially large prey. In this case it is thought that the the large gape unfolds like a huge parachute when within reach of the prey, engulfing the prey to prevent escape.”
Damn, what a way to go.
3) Vampire squid
Scientific name: Vampyroteuthis infernalis
Habitat: These little sea vampires lurk in both temperate and tropical zones, and can live at depths of 600 to 1200 meters (960 to 3940 feet).
Lifestyle: Vampire squid are detritivores. They eat lots of dead plankton, which feels very on-brand. “Vampire squid actually feed on tiny particles of dead animal detritus floating in the ocean (known as marine snow), by streaming two thin filaments in the water that are covered in mucus to capture the food,” Higgs explained.
Spooky fact(s): That unusual mucus Dr. Higgs just mentioned? It can also be used as part of an elaborate defense mechanism.
“When threatened, the squid will wrap its arms over its head exposing long spines, but this thought thought to be a ‘bluff’ since the spines are actually soft and fleshy,” he said. “They also use bioluminescence to confuse potential predators, with huge glowing eyes, or by releasing glowing mucus into the water.”
2) Black swallower
Scientific name: Chiasmodon niger
Habitat: This horrifying potbelly has been found in tropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and can live as deep as 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) below the surface.
Lifestyle: The black swallower is a predator, even though it’s kind of bad at being one.
Spooky fact(s): Because these monsters live so deep, food is scarce, so they often resort to eating creatures much larger than them. Sometimes, these fucking geniuses eat things so big their stomach ruptures and they die in the least dignified way ever.
“This fish is able to swallow something bigger than itself because it has this elastic stomach that is able to open up and accommodate whatever it can get through its mouth,” Roberta Muehlheim, assistant curator of vertebrate zoology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History toldThe Morning Journal.
In case you were wondering, here’s what death by your last meal looks like.
1) Frilled shark
Scientific name: Chlamydoselachus anguineus
Habitat: Sightings of the frilled shark are extremely rare, but they’ve been found off the coast of Australia. Of course they have.
Lifestyle: Predator. LOOK AT THAT THING AND TELL ME IT’S NOT.
Spooky fact(s): The frilled shark, which is referred to as a “living fossil” since it’s changed so little over thousands of years, is basically a vacuum with teeth—300 of them, to be exact. According to Bird, these teeth act like velcro. “It’s got all those hook[ed teeth] in there…if you’re trying to catch a squid that’s gonna be slippery and moving fast, you need these velcro-like teeth to come down and stop everything,” he explained. “As it grabs a fish or squid, [the prey] can’t escape.”
This nefarious garbage disposal has 25 rows of backward-facing teeth to eviscerate its prey, which really sounds like overkill—I feel like a few bites with these ridiculously sharp fangs would be sufficient, but hey, what do I know. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, I guess.
We can’t all be puppies—or even capybaras, for that matter. There’s a whole world of critters whose inner beauty goes unnoticed. Perfectly snuggly critters like naked mole rats have been mocked and called things like “the stuff of nightmares” or “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”
The truth is, so many of nature’s ugly animals have incredible qualities that deserve to be recognized. Below are just a few of the most hideous beautiful weirdos who deserve our love and respect.
9) Naked mole rat
Scientific name: Heterocephalus glaber
Habitat: For millions of years, these little cherubs have lived in large underground colonies, mainly located in central-east Africa. They can live with up to 300 individuals at a time.
Lifestyle: Naked mole rats eat roots and tubers, in addition to poop, according to the San Diego Zoo. I’m sorry.
Adorable fact: Naked mole rats are some of the most impressive creatures on the planet. In addition to the fact that they don’t age and are apparentlyimpervious to cancer, they can survive up to 18 minutes without oxygen, according to a recent study. By understanding how naked mole rats can survive so long without oxygen, we may be able to develop technology to keep victims of heart attacks or strokes alive longer.
On top of all of this, they’re actually quite lovable.
“What I’ve experienced over and over again is people will say, ‘Oh, they’re ugly, they’re gross,’ [but] every single person that I’ve taken to actually see the mole rats in person has come away saying they’re cute and they’re lovable,” Thomas Park, professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Gizmodo. “The most misunderstood thing is that they’re ugly. I can understand why people think so, because they’re so unusual looking, but if you get to know them, they’re actually very gentle, they’re friendly creatures.”
8) Tufted deer
Scientific name: Elaphodus cephalophus
Habitat: This small, vampire-looking species of deer is endemic to China and Myanmar (Burma).
Lifestyle: Tufted deer are herbivores. Their diet consists of fruit, grass, bamboo and herbs—not human flesh.
Adorable fact: Despite their bloodthirsty appearance, tufted deer are actually quite shy. “This species is very secretive, most active at dawn and dusk, and is a true creature of habit, often traveling the same trails,” Imogene Cancellare, a conservation biologist and PhD student in the department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, told Gizmodo. “When startled, the tufted deer emits a loud alarm bark.” Just like a dog, but you know, with fangs!
Lifestyle: Kenneth Catania, a biologist at Vanderbilt University, told Gizmodo they mostly eat small invertebrates, insect larva, and earthworms. “The nose is the whole shebang for its sensory system,” Catania said. “It’s a sensitive touch organ…it functions almost like an eye.” The nose, in case you’re wondering, is that crazy bouquet of tentacles on the mole’s face.
Adorable fact: Though their strange faces might seem like an impairment, star-nosed moles are extremely quick. “They are the fastest foragers,” Catania said. “They are in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest foraging mammal.” According to information provided by Catania to the records book, the average amount of time it takes for a star-nosed mole to identify food as edible and consume it is 230 milliseconds. The fastest is 120 milliseconds.
6) Pink fairy armadillo
Scientific name: Chlamyphorus truncates
Habitat: This sweet, shy little guy is native to central Argentina, where it lives in dry grasslands and plains.
Lifestyle: Not much is known about the pink fairy armadillo’s lifestyle, as it hasn’t been studied much. “We do know that its diet and habits are likely similar to other nocturnal armadillo species,” Cancellare said. “As a generalist insectivore, this 3-4.5 inch long armadillo likely uses its large, mole-like claws to dig in sand in search of insects, grubs, and worms.”
Adorable fact(s): We didn’t have a cute fact for this one unfortunately, only a terribly sad one. According to Cancellare, the pink fairy armadillo that looks like a “Furby covered with sashimi” is very popular in the illegal pet trade. “It dies quickly in captivity and does not make a good pet, like all wildlife,” she said. While the IUCN doesn’t technically consider the pink fairy armadillo endangered—it’s “data deficient,” due to how little its studied—the organization does note how at-risk it is due to the black market.
I guess the fact that it’s the smallest armadillo in the world is sort of cute.
Scientific name: Ambystoma mexicanum
Habitat: Axolotl are unusual in that they exist in one place in the wild—a lakecalled Xochimilco, just South of Mexico City.
Lifestyle: According to Stéphane Roy, a biologist at the Université de Montréal, the axolotl will eat basically anything that moves in front of it, but it mostly feasts on small crustaceans and fish. “They’re salamanders so they’re amphibians,” Roy told Gizmodo. “But the axolotl stays aquatic all its life. It doesn’t metamorphose to become terrestrial.”
Adorable fact: Overall, axolotls are pretty chill, arguably too laid back—they have no real way to defend themselves in the wild. “It’s basically a defenseless animal,” Roy said. “Its best defense mechanism is to stand still in the mud and not move in the hopes that it won’t be seen by predators.”
More of pathetic fact than a cute one, but it’s charming nonetheless.
Lifestyle: According to the Duke Lemur Center, the aye-aye is quite the picky eater. “The aye-aye’s diet is very specialized, consisting mainly of the interior of Ramy nuts, nectar from the Traveller’s Palm tree, some fungi and insect grubs,” the Duke Lemur Center says on its website. “The animals are also known to raid coconut plantations, and have been seen eating lychees and mangoes, which are also plantation crops.” Recent scientific research suggests that aye-ayes, like humans, prefer their fruity beverages with alcohol.
Adorable fact: “Aye-ayes are thought to be the only primate to use echolocation to find food,” Cancellare said. “To do this, the aye-aye uses those large ears and something called a toilet claw. Also called the grooming finger, the aye-aye’s third digit is much more slender that the other four fingers and is used as a hunting tool. The aye-aye uses this finger to tap on trees to listen for insect larvae. Once it hears something, the aye aye then uses its other claws to dig into the bark, then dig out invertebrates using its long toilet claw.”
While toilet claws don’t sound very cute, the aye aye is overall pretty adorable.
Scientific name: Psychrolutes marcidus
Habitat: This miserable cutie lives off the coast of Australia and Tasmania, at depths of 330 to 9,200 feet.
Lifestyle: The blobfish is unsurprisingly oafish. According to Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, the blobfish’s diet mainly consists of mollusks, crabs, and sea urchins—probably sadness, too. According to Mental Floss, it doesn’t really hunt, rather, it just sits at the bottom of the ocean and opens its mouth when something tasty swims by.
Adorable fact: The “mascot” for blobfish was found in 2003 by a team of researchers studying the waters around New Zealand. This specimen was affectionately named “Mr. Blobby” by the crew. Sadly, the very dead Mr. Blobby now resides in Australian Museum’s Ichthyology Collection, in Sydney.
“The fixation process tightened Mr. Blobby’s skin and collapsed his—or her—snout,” Mark McGrouther, the museum’s fish manager, told Smithsonian. “He—or she—now looks like an 85-year-old Mr. Blobby.” To be fair, at the bottom of the ocean (and alive), our frowny friend probably wouldn’t look so curmudgeonly.
Pour one out for Mr. Blobby, gone but never forgotten.
2) Black rain frog
Scientific name: Breviceps fuscus
Habitat: According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the grumpy frog only lives in the mountains of South Africa.
Lifestyle: These are burrowing frogs that spend most of their lives underground. We don’t know much about their eating habits, though.
Adorable fact: There’s actually a legitimate reason why the black rain frog looks like an angry lump. “Many people know rain frog species from the adorable viral videos circulating on the internet,” Nicole F. Angeli, a conservation biologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Gizmodo. “Inflating is a defensive posture effective when a predator tries to pull an individual from a burrow. These puffy little frogs are the product of millions of years of survival in a harsh world!”
Lifestyle: The Potoo is a nocturnal bird, as evidenced by its enormous eyes.“The large eyes of this bird help it find flying insects at night,” Cancellare explained.
Adorable fact: Sometimes, the Potoo likes to pretend it’s a tree. “During the day this species is entirely immobile, perching upright like a statue, closing its eyes, and blending in with the branches it hides in,” Cancellare said. Please imagine this goofy ass bird trying to blend in with anything and try not to laugh. Or cry.