Something happened this week. Something that hasn’t happened since I was 10.
I geeked out about space.
But I didn’t just get excited. I got emotional. I found myself wiping tears from my eyes at the sight of a big, cream-colored ball of ice. Perhaps you did, too.
NASA’S New Horizons probe performed its historic flyby of the planet Pluto, snapping the first hi-resolution pictures of the planet and its moons.
If you’re like me, you grew up in a 9-Planet Solar System, and you could visualize each world with full-color images. What we probably didn’t realize, at the time, was that we were only looking at photographs of 8 of those planets, not all 9.
Artists painted Pluto blue, like the North Pole at night. The Hubble telescope painted it swamp-slush brown, unable to capture more than shadows and blobs.
I was too young to realize that we simply hadn’t been there before.
And then, in 2006, Pluto got demoted, a decision that I still haven’t accepted. Pluto will always be the frontier of my Solar System. It is the frozen boundary between our neighborhood and the black nothingness of the cosmos. The tiny, bold, stunningly cold sentinel.
Pluto will always be the 9th planet from the sun.
Yet Pluto is the place of our wildest dreams and darkest mythology. It is so far away, so dark and unchartable until now, that we’ve named those blobs and shadows after our monsters: Cthulhu, the “whale”, is a black region in the southern hemisphere. Two notable features have been dubbed Vucub-Came and Hun-Came, the names of two Mayan death gods. There are also formations with underworld designations from Buddhism and the Ibo tribe of Nigeria.
And we can’t forget about Balrog, the title given to another dark region of Pluto. Taken from the fiery, evil monsters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s mythic Middle Earth, Balrog reveals that a mythology need not be “real” to earn itself a name on another world.
Hell, even Pluto’s moon, Charon, has a charred bald spot known as… wait for it… Mordor.
Where the shadows lie.
Pluto is not Hell itself. Rather, it is the inverse of Hell, a planet where the temperature is a nippy -380 degrees Fahrenheit. There are no demons or creatures of nightmares on it. It is merely a sphere of rock, captured long ago by our sun in an oddly shaped and tilted orbit.
Pluto is the farthest our probes will likely go, at least in the lifetime of anyone who reads this. Despite our dreams, we will not build the USS Enterprise, nor will our manned ships possess the speed and power to do the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.
At least not past Mars.
I truly hope that because of New Horizons, Pluto will be reinstated as a full member of our planetary neighborhood. Living in a post-Pluto world may be, by the strictest standards, scientifically accurate.
But it’s not culturally accurate. For Pluto has held our dreams in its icy hands, and still will after this mission.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Pluto is some kind of savior or that it’s planet-hood has a tremendous impact on our daily lives.
But Pluto is the kind of planet we, as human beings, get excited about.
Pluto is a loner.
All by itself, billions on miles from the sun, it’s the odd-man out. Four massive glowing balls of gas separate it from its rocky brethren. Why it wasn’t 5th from the sun, tagging along on Mars’ red coattails? How did it end up so far from home? Why is it all by itself?
No one knows.
Pluto thinks for itself.
For reasons that only gravity and magnetism can explain, all of the planets rotate around the sun on the same plane.
Angled at 17 degrees, Pluto actually kicks its feet up on a space LA-Z-BOY and swings above and below the other planets.
No one knows why.
Pluto takes risks.
Its orbit is an off-center, oblong journey around the sun that actually dips inside the path of Neptune. While the odds against it are extraordinary, it is possible that their orbits could perfectly intersect, and Pluto would join Neptune as a moon, or the two planets would collide.
It’s a stretch, but cosmologically speaking, it’s incredibly risky. Hardly anything is mathematically impossible when you have billions of years to play planetary chicken.
Pluto has a voice.
No one knew about Pluto until 1930.
A series of astronomers observing Uranus and Neptune noticed that their orbits were disturbed by an invisible “Planet X”. Eventually Clyde Tombaugh of Kansas found and photographed the tiny new planet, making headlines worldwide.
Don’t miss the point here: Pluto was disturbing the orbit not only of Neptune, its nearest neighbor, but Uranus, a gas giant 21.5 times its size that was over 1 billion miles away!
This is the strange ballet of gravity. Even the smallest players have a voice that others must listen to. Even a tiny world like Pluto, an object smaller than our moon, has power that must be respected.
Indeed, as Pluto orbits the sun, it exacts a tiny but significant pull against it, so that they two of them may continue their dance. Even if the distance is microscopic, Pluto actually moves the Sun.
The truth is, we like Pluto.
What other planet is as beloved?
Mercury? It’s a roll of hamburger left on the grill for a few million years too long.
Certainly not Venus, the single deadliest and unexplorable warning against climate change we know of.
Mars is legendary, but not likable. In fact, Mars is – and should be – feared, especially as we plan our manned assault on it.
We admire the gas giants, Jupiter for its size, Saturn for its beauty, Uranus and Neptune for their jaw-dropping color palate. But we can’t explore them – they’re gas. It’s like flying through a cloud – exciting on approach, but foggy and confusing in the process. There’s much to appreciate, like art in a museum, but little to explore.
Pluto is an underdog, a lost puppy or ugly duckling, just trying to find its way in the universe. Its distance only adds to its mystery, hence the terrifying and awe-inspiring choice of names for its canyons and mountains and craters.
Pluto is the essence of the human imagination. Far away, but not too far.
Down, but not out.
It is the 9th planet from the sun, mystifying and enchanting as ever.