Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the Sun. In 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status. Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.
Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label. Still, it’s an intriguing object. It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it. Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.
That’s about to change. Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone. It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto. For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.” Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its first pictures of Pluto. It’s closest pass will come in July.
As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before. I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system. Who knows? Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001. Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.