Tag Archives: new horizons

On Seeing the First Pictures of Pluto

I came out of retirement for this.


pluto

 

It was then that humankind realised Pluto is a rather uninteresting potato-hued thing.

I’m not entirely sure what we thought it would look like. The images I recall from my childhood present it as this poor little purple or blue circle, always considerably less impressive than its other heliocentric companions, sometimes with stripes of different color like a morose Easter egg, picked last from the basket because Jupiter is huge and Saturn has a ring! I’m not going to pretend as if I ever gave a shit one way or another about this overlooked planet but I think some part of me understood its relative lonerism and appreciated it, in a very small way. Never enough for me to actually sit back and go “Ah yes, Pluto, my celestial equal”,  but I never had any negative opinion on it, either. It was tiny, extremely far away, a billion degrees below zero—all the things you don’t put on travel brochures. Mars had appeal because it was attainable—still is attainable—and you could imagine what it would be like to walk on it, or terraform it, or whatever. It was exciting to watch Mars Rover documentaries, and even the pictures they sent back could be fascinating if you were able to get your head around the fact that when you see them you’re really seeing an alien planet, millions of kilometers away. A whole other planet. The other planets never had Mars’s accessibility, shall we say—but Saturn, being the coolest, appealed from a “I wish Earth had a giant ring of space dust” angle, and the moon, though old news by my time, was a thing you could also appreciate because people had actually walked around on that one. Difficult to imagine, when you look up at it on nighttime drives and see it seem to follow you, glowing, silent and eerie—but you could watch those old films of black-and-white astronauts bouncing black-and-whitely in that barren, colorless world and feel a surge of amazement, or pride, or pure wonder even at the idea of it, and the concreteness of its actually having happened.

But, Pluto, as the most distant and possibly least hyped-up planet, had none of these things going for it. Forget accessible—no real pictures had ever come back of it. Forget cool, except in the literal sense, of course. One teeny rock, out there apparently by itself, so insignificant that eventually they decided it wasn’t even a real planet, it was a dwarf planet. The poor thing.

Of course I think we tend to romanticise these things. We oughtn’t treat Pluto as if we’ve hurt its feelings, because a lump of icy rock, unfortunately I must say, has no feelings. It’s natural enough to feel a pang of unfairness at the idea that, with what seems suspiciously like a stroke of pure arbitrariness, it was scratched out from the solar system model completely, to leave us with a rather unfulfilling eight planets, as opposed to the nine that I had gotten used to as a little kid—but let’s end the drama there, please. Besides that, people get so excited about the idea of traveling into space; and yes, that is exciting, but let’s not forget it’s taken New Horizons since 2006 to travel this far. That’s nine years—that’s a long time. You can go from a stupid ten year old to a fully functioning, car-driving adult in nine years. And it’s hardly encouraging to consider that getting to the edge of our own solar system takes an entire decade, when everything actually interesting out there is millions of light years away, and that even traveling at the speed of fucking light it’d take millions of years to get to those places. Is it exciting to have sent a probe that far? Yes, it is, but you should remember that it’s getting nowhere fast. The distances it’s covering are miniscule, really. Voyager passing out of the system is cool, but mostly arbitrary—we won’t suddenly discover aliens the moment we pass the “edge” (wherever the hell the edge is supposed to be. I guess it’s where the sunlight doesn’t reach?) My point is don’t get unduly excited. Yeah we’ve got some pictures of Pluto now. And guess what—it’s a potato ice-rock. Hurrah.