Here’s a distance to consider: 7,750 miles.
That’s almost 300 marathons. About nine round trips from between Medford and Seattle. Just over 31 percent of the Earth’s total circumference. (I was Googling A LOT this morning.)
It’s also how close an earthling spacecraft came to Pluto this morning; a stone’s throw in space terms, “just down the street,” as they say in Texas.
The NASA New Horizons mission has been a decade in the making. Here’s its purpose, per the NASA website:
“New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.”
“Dwarf planet.” (Why not call it Gimli or Sneezy, then?)
There is actual, concrete controversy over what to classify Pluto as, much of it due to its orbit and location in the Kuiper Belt. In some ways the debate is the same as arguing about presidential candidates on Twitter or determining which of the original “Star Wars” films is the best, where a definitive answer is impossible and discussion dies a horrific death, replaced by a shouting match instead. Garbage discourse, fueled mostly by volume and caffeine and broken caps lock keys.
I get it but I don’t. Science is a fickle mistress when it comes to what’s what. Things that were definitive 100, 50, 10, 5 years ago have changed, maybe multiple times. Just look at nutrition. Hell, just look at whether eggs are good or bad for you.
But think about what’s at the center here: whether or not one giant, meandering space sphere is different from eight other meandering space spheres because of *Charlie Brown teacher drone.*
This is probably the curmudgeon in me talking, but leave Pluto alone, man. You don’t even have to make it a planet. Who cares if it doesn’t blah blah and blah blah?* Make it an Honorary Member or something. Don’t revoke its membership. We’re better than that.
* – Rough translation
Nostalgia and tradition have everything to do with my stance. Like most early-30 and late 20-somethings, Pluto was part of the full Solar System Package, the cherry on top of the planetary sundae. He was the little guy, sort of weird and quiet and doing his own thing. Not really boasting about his violent red spot or beautiful rings or life-sustaining atmosphere, just content to exist and just wander aimlessly.
Maybe Tolkien was talking about Pluto when he said that famous line about wandering and not necessarily being lost. (Go to Ashland and you’ll probably see the bumper sticker on at least three Priuses.)
Even when bored nerds wanted to strip its title, it didn’t fuss. Really it just seemed to shrug and kept on drifting through the icy dark vacuum of space, threw up a peace sign and just kept trucking when our expensive space probe surged past in the star-spotted dark at 30,000 mph.
So, while New Horizons is certainly another scientific feather in NASA’s cap, I hope the stunning image above – actually taken Monday, July 13 when the craft was about 476,000 miles away – reminds the know-hows that even though the far-flung ball of rock and ice is a little different, it deserves to keep its “planet” status.
Either way, the meek shall inherit the Solar System.