Pluto Gone? Our Rocket Passes Pluto, But It’s No Longer Pluto

Pluto cartoon by Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

You know the feeling you get when something new comes out? It’s exciting. Last year it was the fitness tracker. This year, so far, it’s the iWatch. What will they think of next?

I remember the first time I got that exciting feeling. It was Pluto. I was six years old at the time, and that day, for the first time, my parents took me to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. They had this big exhibit of the solar system at that time on the ceiling in the lobby just outside the main theater. There were little tracks attached to the ceiling from which hung small spheres that spun around very slowly and at the same time moved in gentle circles around the “sun,” a big beach ball affair in the center. The third one out from the sun was the Earth. Beyond the Earth were Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. And then there was, way out near the edge of the ceiling, a new planet.

“That’s Pluto,” my dad said. “They just discovered it out there. It was found just ten years before you were born.”

Imagine that. We learn something new every day. There were new, stronger telescopes. And there was Pluto, a beautiful new planet. What would the planetarium do if there were even newer telescopes discovering further planets? They’d have to make a bigger room for the planetarium, is what I thought.

Well, the exhibit is no longer in the Hayden Planetarium, and the planetarium, rebuilt, is now called the Rose Center for Earth and Space. As for the solar system, there were no more planets discovered. In fact, nine years ago, Pluto got thrown out of the solar system. I couldn’t believe it. There was this big meeting of all the scientists and it was discussed and discussed and on September 15, 2006, an article appeared in The New York Times declaring that the conclusion had been reached that Pluto was not a planet at all. There were lots of other “bodies” in the Kuiper Belt where Pluto was. Many of them became comets and got hurled dangerously in the direction of Earth. Pluto was now just to be called number 134340. And you couldn’t call the earlier 134339 “bodies” planets either.

There were several things wrong with this. By 1978, it was known that a moon called Charon was circling Pluto. In 2005, scientists discovered two more moons, Nix and Hydra. Very impressive. And then, very dramatically, on January 19, 2006, NASA fired a rocket ship off from Cape Canaveral headed for this busy planet and its herd of moons. It was not intended to crash land on Pluto. It was intended to fly by this far distant planet at 7,800 miles from it—about the distance from New York to Hong Kong and probably too high for anyone there (on Pluto, not Hong Kong) to see it. It had a camera, and it would take thousands and thousands of pictures at this closest point during a span of about 23 minutes, send them back to us (it takes 4.5 hours at the speed of light), then skitter off out of the solar system and off into who knows where.

What a sorry business. Billions of dollars are spent. They fire the thing off. Six months later the planet is delisted. And now, nine years later, last Tuesday at 7:49 in the morning, traveling at 10 miles a second, it passes what is just considered a “body” known as 134340.

And they make such a big deal about it. Here’s how The Times rhapsodized it a week before it passed.

“This first-ever spacecraft visit will bring Pluto into focus, illuminating mysterious dark regions on its surface and possibly erupting ice volcanoes. Weather patterns could swirl in Pluto’s thin atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, with haze and snowfall.”

Frankly, it’s time that our left hand knew what the right hand was doing.

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