1551: Pluto

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After decades of increasingly confused arguing, Pluto is reclassified as a "dwarf Pluto."
Title text: After decades of increasingly confused arguing, Pluto is reclassified as a "dwarf Pluto."

When the image is clicked the latest NASA post opens up.


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This comic was posted on Tuesday, July 14th 2015, in honor of the New Horizons deep space probe making its flyby at Pluto. It thus breaks the regular Monday/Wednesday/Friday cycle for the xkcd comics. Randall has taken the largest released image by this day and drawn humorous pareidolia on top of it.

It can be compared to preliminary descriptions by geologists, e.g. New Horizons' best look at Pluto before close approach | The Planetary Society.

The comic probably winks at Percival Lowell whose observatory photographed Pluto (then "known" as Planet X) in 1915. Unfortunately the things Percival Lowell is most famous for are his drawings of the Canals on Mars.

The title text refers to the debate as to whether Pluto should be classified as a full or dwarf planet. This debate was particularly brought into the public eye, and came to be seen as a matter of controversy, following the 2006 IAU definition of planet. The text may imagine that this debate winds on, with definitions being created and revised until a ridiculous state is reached whereby Pluto has a special class of celestial body named after it (called a 'Pluto'), but fails to fulfil the (arbitrary) criteria set up for it, and hence is called a 'dwarf Pluto'.

(There actually exist the terms Plutoid and Plutino, that relate directly to groups that Pluto belongs to, but see those pages for details of their use and usage.)

Table of objects

Description Explanation
Candy shell Suggests Pluto is a confection.
JPEG plumes The JPEG image format has the common issue of slightly distorting an image with Compression artifacts. The artifacts shown here do not appear in the official version of this image, and may have been added by Randall (or edited out by NASA). But there have been tweets about people seeing plumes associated with active volcanoes and the like, which were explained as being artifacts.
Frontal bone Interpreting Pluto as a head, the frontal bone could be the light-colored region next to the darker top (the north pole).
Grease stains The darkened area of Pluto's north pole is attributed to grease.
Bugs Could refer to possible extraterrestrial life on Pluto in to form of insects, or "bugs". (In the animated TV series Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, an adaptation of Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, the first battles with the alien "Bugs" took place on Pluto.)
Bullet holes A string of small round features which Randall suggests were the result of Pluto getting shot repeatedly.
New Netherlands Reference to 1519: Venus and also a what if? about draining the Earth's oceans onto Mars. In that What If?, the Netherlands issued forth from the portal that drained the oceans to claim Mars as New Netherlands. Presumably something similar happened on Pluto.
Disputed territory Since the base photograph is identified as "today's New Horizons image," this indicates that a section of Pluto has immediately become the subject of some controversy, possibly a territorial claim or one of several references to the fact that Pluto was demoted from full planet status in 2006.
Snake pit A generic map hazard.
Full text of the Wikipedia article on pareidolia Pareidolia is the human brain's tendency to see patterns where they don't exist. While probably a reference to the famed Face on Mars, the joke is also recursive: You'd be seeing the text of a Wikipedia article explaining to you that you couldn't actually be seeing the text of a Wikipedia article.
Tadpole One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined.
Kuiper Belt loops The Kuiper belt is a region in our solar system that contains a large concentration of icy bodies, including Pluto. Randall jokingly refers to Kuiper Belt as the same kind of belt that's used to fasten clothing, and identifies features on Pluto's surface as loops for the belt.
Serenity An outline of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, which was the titular vessel from the 2002 TV series Firefly. One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined.
Dinosaur One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined.
The good part A random, arbitrary selection of Pluto that is somehow better than the rest of Pluto.
Moon bud This could be interpreted as a moon growing/emerging out of pluto, as a bud is "a compact knob-like growth". A round growth is seen at the location marked, resembling a small, emerging moon.
Ghost A reference to the classic video game Pacman, wherein the primary antagonists are one of four Ghosts. The Ghost on Pluto appears to have a mouth, however, unlike most depictions of the Pacman Ghosts. One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined.
Pluto dinosaur extinction crater Suggests Pluto had dinosaurs and lost them the same way Earth did.
Heart One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined, and the only one (currently) also informally named as such by NASA.
Coronary artery disease Also known as ischemic heart disease, which causes degradation of heart tissue. The region identified in the comic looks less 'healthy' (is darker and more ragged) compared to the rest of the 'Heart', which Randall suggests is caused by the disease.
Mount Mons Referring to the general practice of naming extraterrestrial mountains "X Mons" (e.g. Olympus Mons, a mountain on Mars and the largest mountain in the Solar System), as well as naming terrestrial mountains "Mount X". Since "mons" is Latin for "mountain", the feature's suggested name translates as "Mount Mountain".
Charging socket A terrain feature suitable for connecting an outside source of electricity for the benefit of implied internal batteries. Compare "dock connector," below.
Cracks (beginning to hatch) Implying that Pluto is some manner of giant egg. Possibly a reference to the Doctor Who episode Kill the Moon, in which the Moon is revealed to be an egg from which a monster is hatching. An 2014 article from The Onion, "Moon Finally Hatches," makes the same joke. Also possibly a reference to The Light Fantastic, a Discworld novel in which similar objects are revealed to be the eggs of the world turtle.
Scars from predator attacks Since it's all-caps, we can't tell if "PREDATOR" is a proper noun, but this is possibly a reference to the movie series Predator, about a race of aliens who hunt other beings for sport. Alternatively, a planetary predator may have previously scarred Pluto.
Reset button The structure indicated is a small black dot (at least at this distance this picture was taken). Reset buttons on home electronics are often small buttons or holes used to reset the software of the electronic device.
Megaman One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined, this one in the shape of a popular video game protagonist.
Debate Hole

Where we're putting all the people still arguing about Pluto's planet status

Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet rather than a planet following the latter term's controversial redefinition in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union. Arguments about the classification continue to pop up. The same argument is referenced in the title text.
Area missed during ironing The area indicated is near the terminator and shows some intriguing topographic relief.
Probably Benign A neoplasm or tumor is an abnormal growth of tissue. Randall is suggesting that the abnormal region near the heart has been evaluated by a doctor and determined to be benign.
Chocolate frosting Suggests the discrepancy in color over Pluto's surface may be a function of what cake frosting was used where.
Vanilla frosting As above, suggests the discrepancy in color over Pluto's surface may be a function of what cake frosting was used where.
Border of pride lands A reference to the Disney animated feature The Lion King. In the movie, the Pridelands is the bright and prosperous region ruled by the Lion King while a dark territory beyond its border is controlled by hyenas. The border identified in the comic corresponds with a feature NASA calls the "whale's tale," with the rest of the whale being the large dark splotch.
Hyena country A continuation of the Lion King reference above.
Dock connector From the point of view of the photograph, this feature of Pluto is at the planet's "bottom," where iPod dock connectors are. Compare "charging socket," above.


Some of the features already identified in today's New Horizons image
[Many marks on the image of Pluto follow:]
Candy shell
Frontal bone
Grease stains
JPEG plumes
Full text of the wikipedia article on pareidolia
Bullet holes
New Netherlands
Disputed territory
Snake pit
Pluto dinosaur extinction crater
Kuiper beltloops
The good part
Moon bud
Scars from predator attacks
Reset button
Charging socket
Cracks (beginning to hatch)
Plug (inflating/deflating)
Mount Mons
Coronary artery disease
Debate hole
Where we're putting all the people still arguing about Pluto's planet status
Chocolate frosting
Probably benign
Vanilla frosting
Dock connector
Border of pride lands
Hyena country
Area missed during ironing
Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI - click for original

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Pluto is a planet. Period. Dwarf planets are a special kind of planets - small ones. Also Pluto is a full planet because it's not like a piece of a planet. OK?

I knew it! So my BOT was also running today. And don't miss the updates at WhatIf. --Dgbrt (talk) 19:28, 14 July 2015 (UTC)

Yeah, it's pretty amazing! What is it with XKCD and Pluto these days by the way? The Twenty-second. The Not So Only. The Nathan/Nk22 (talk) 19:36, 14 July 2015 (UTC)

New Horizons space probe flyby of the Pluto system! I can't imagine that a space probe finally reaching a hitherto unmapped planetoid like Pluto wouldn't be exciting to certain people, especially an ex NASA guy like Randall. -Pennpenn 06:27, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

Pluto is moving away from the Sun - and we've learned that as it does so, it enters the snowy part of its 248-year cycle. Hmm ... didn't Ned Stark say something about this? Cosmogoblin (talk) 22:11, 14 July 2015 (UTC)

Alright, the only one that's still got me stumped is "moon buds." The phrase has no stock meaning (Googling it turned up pictures of weed, naturally), but my best guess is this suggests moons reproduce through budding. Any thoughts? Captain Video (talk) 00:38, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

I have added something. Forrest (talk)03:21, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

"Border of pride lands" might also be an indirect reference to the "dark region" on Mars in 1504:opportunity, last panel, which is itself a reference to the Hyena Country of "Lion King." Taibhse (talk) 09:56, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

A couple of other possibilities for the reference to hatching: http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/82353/giant-bird-in-space -- 10:26, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

So Megaman needs no further explanation? -- 11:04, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

Where is the north pole? I like to play geohashing there. --GeorgDerReisende (talk) 12:12, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

The comment for Plug(inflating/deflating) is missing 13:30, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

Those aren't bullet holes... they're speed holes! -- 13:46, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

The current explanation has that Randall has drawn "humorous pareidolia on top of it". I may be wrong, but isn't pareidolia the psychological process of seeing faces/objects etc in patterns, rather than those objects themselves. E.g. "I saw a mans face on the moon because of a psychological process called pareidolia" rather than "I saw a pareidolia on the moon, which looked like a face". --Pudder (talk) 14:20, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

I agree, so I changed the word "drawn" to outlined." Captain Video (talk) 15:12, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

The heart reference may be related to this popular animated gif that showed up on Reddit: http://imgur.com/7C2GfIF 15:42, 15 July 2015 (UTC) turbotong

Not originally - I believe NASA were the originator of the "heart" label, though I could be wrong. -- Cosmogoblin (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

.jpeg compression only produces those artifacts on digital images. It was designed for professional photographers and did not take into account the effects of hard edges in the image since film images have no hard edges! It just got adopted by everybody else early on so we're stuck with it even though it can work very poorly on digital images. ExternalMonolog (talk) 17:30, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

That's... interestingly not-quite-correct. The JPEG/JFIF method is a good-but-lossy version of digital image compression that outperforms (on compression terms) non-lossy methods of defining a digital image but doesn't work well with hard-edges. Photographs taken in digital format, or converted into digital format from a 'analogue' original, are often put through lossy compression because (for a wise amount of 'loss') the artefacts are easily lost in the already noisy and flowing 'real life' image details, just like the compression of MP3 (MPEG3 Audio Layer, or whichever related standard) applied to audio loses some detail but is generally drowned out by what 'remains', to the casual listener. (Images like graphs and diagrams are replete with hard edges, and have far fewer needs for subtleties of shade, so using the non-lossless PNG or even GIF (now that it's out of copyright, if that was ever your concern) would be better... Depends on whether you want need more than 256 different colours or a humorous animation. If you want both, there are also solutions, but that's the usual decision I'd be making.)
I doubt that NASA uses .JPG images (at least between spacecraft and ground, although maybe for later web publication). There would probably be a (non-lossy) compression scheme (either inherently in the format of the image, or of the 'raw' image consisting of original arrays of bitplains, just to cut down on transmission time), so that as much exact science as possible could be extracted from the original pixels without 'smearing' and such artefacts. Professional (terrestrial!) photographers will often take RAW images (instead of/alongside the quick-and-dirty JPEG ones), for better quality (and no-artefact) images that might end up being blown up to poster-sized images, or from which a small segment will be blown up (e.g. ground-based amateur astronomical photography), that would otherwise so easily reveal the flaws.
Also, IIRC, recent Pluto pictures had notably been created by NASA based upon high-resolution monochrome and lower-resolution colour images from two cameras (usefully analysed seperately, in their own right, and doubtless also needing different exposure times to create) combined together to create the headline pictures we've been seeing.
Incidentally, noticable JPEG artefacts tend to be 8x8 pixel regions (most often seen when a small photographic region is digitally 'zoomed'). For those that need them, there are "artefact removal" tools in most decent image editing programmes that (with practice) can 'reverse' (or, rather, 'blend') the more obvious artefacts, after the fact. I suspect Randall's image's 'artefacts' are a selectively edited 'artefact addition' (easily done, with the likes of Photoshop and GIMP, and related to 'pixelating' method used to selectively obscure detail) on the original image. NASA never had to 'clean' the image, although some of its released images may have been 'dirtied' after down-conversion. 20:51, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

One of a number of pareidolic features Randall has outlined. 20:56, 15 July 2015 (UTC)

Is there anyone else here who (like me) thought that because of the flaring at the bottom the "heart" area looks more like a Heartless emblem? -Pennpenn 00:15, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

I thought the "whale tail" is to the left of the heart (http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/find-heart-whale-new-horizons-picture-pluto-n388816), what Randall has labeled "chocolate frosting", not "pride lands". If there's some image reversal I don't know about, revert my edit. Djbrasier (talk) 01:42, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

The "candy shell" may refer to commercials for M&M chocolates which were described as "milk chocolate wrapped in a colorful thin candy shell". The Dining Logician (talk) 04:10, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

To me, Snake Pit evokes politics, not topography ... Miamiclay (talk) 08:59, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

I wonder if the text on the surface updates every time the Pareidolia article is edited. Schiffy (Speak to me|What I've done) 15:49, 16 July 2015 (UTC)

I wonder if "the good part" is referencing "JavaScript: The Good Parts" 06:24, 15 August 2015 (UTC)

I wonder if Randall's putting the "complete text of the Wikipedia article on pareidolia" is also a reference to there always being someone who posts a link to the Wikipedia article on pareidolia when there is a discussion of seeing images within images. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Is it worth making a category for "photo comics"? This is one of the few Randall did not actually draw (only letter and annotate). Nitpicking (talk) 13:32, 7 January 2022 (UTC)