Tuesday, July 14, 2015
To Pluto With Love
The iconic heart-shaped bright area on Pluto's surface that has captured the imaginations of people around the world is in many ways the emblem of its host planet--a world that has had a powerful, mysterious grip on humanity for the 85 years since its discovery, a grip of both heart and mind.
On the eve of New Horizons' historic encounter with the ninth planet that is really the tenth planet (as Ceres is a planet too, according to the geophysical planet definition), I am honored to be here at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, covering the event for "Spaceflight Insider" as well as "The Space Reporter" and this blog.
The place is swarming with Pluto-lovers overwhelmed with anticipation alongside a surreal sense that this is somehow a dream, that it cannot possibly be happening.
But it is happening. Tomorrow, July 14, 2015, we will, as Alan Stern has often said, "storm the gates of Pluto" as revolutionaries in France stormed the Bastille on the same day in 1789.
Pluto has already begun to reveal its secrets. A major one is its size. Pluto is the largest Kuiper Belt planet after all. It is 1,473 miles in diameter, larger than previously thought and slightly larger than Eris.
Pluto and its binary companion Charon are far from dead rocks. They are geologically active worlds, and we have only begun to unveil their secrets.
In a public interview, Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, the daughter of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, surprised many by saying the controversial 2006 IAU vote changed her life.
It motivated her to fight back, to attend the Great Planet Debate held here in 2008, to speak publicly defending the planet status of the world her father discovered back in 1930.
She is not the only person whose life was changed by that vote.
Mine was changed as well, and I suspect many others' lives were also changed.
Some grieved. Some accepted it. I chose to fight it. In the process, I met some of the most amazing people I have ever known, people who have become good friends, who have enriched my life, yet who I otherwise never would have met.
I joined a local astronomy club in central New Jersey. I attended public events such as the Great Pluto Debate at the Clay Observatory, the Great Planet Debate here at APL, and the What Is A Planet debate at the American Museum of Natural History.
I found a new passion through which I bonded with my family. We watched planets and stars together in all seasons. We shared the wonder of the night sky and dreams of worlds out there even though we are different in so many ways.
I wrote this blog. I reached people, who reached other people. We formed bonds based on our love of this small, mysterious world and conviction that small planets are planets too.
I went back to school, studied astronomy, and became a science writer.
And I am far from alone. This is the kind of hold Pluto has on so many. Words ultimately fail when we try to explain it. Pluto inspires art and music in addition to science, much as do those other things we hold to intensely, such as spirituality, religion, love, political convictions, people close to us.
Pluto has captured my mind and my heart, as it has those of so many around the world.
And now, the underdog planet, the world wrongly scorned, the world so many of us instinctively knew that four percent of the IAU didn't get, is ready for its moment in the Sun. Yes, it will be brief, but it will change history and make its mark upon generations.
"The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." That is Planet Pluto.
What will be learned tomorrow will be unveiled over the next 16 months. That is the time it will take to send back all the data that will be taken by New Horizons' seven instruments of Pluto, Charon, and four small moons.
Eighty-five years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, the discovery of a new planet gave people rare good news. It reminded them of the great things people can do even in the face of poverty and war. It brightened their world with a ray of light and hope.
Today, once again, in a world with frightening violence and abject poverty, Pluto brings us hope, excites our imaginations, allows us to once again believe that we can do great things.
Godspeed, New Horizons. So much is riding on one little probe.
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."