Runt in Orbit

Pluto and Humanity Do the Long Distance Thing

by Lance Gloss

Illustration by Layla Ehsan

published September 18, 2015

The interplanetary space probe New Horizons arrived this July in the Pluto system, marking both a new milestone for astronomy and the climax of its journey. Since 2006, the probe has hurtled through space on NASA’s dime, its trajectory carefully calculated from the outset to make its date with Pluto. Today, it still drifts through Pluto’s neighborhood, the Kuiper Belt, some four and a half billion miles away, happily snapping photos while Pluto remains in sight. For the next year, New Horizons will send data back to Earth, awaiting a possible reassignment in 2016. It will then proceed indefinitely, outbound, silent.

While pure science may be NASA’s prerogative in this matter, the New Horizons mission has a poetic aspect that the average expedition lacks. The life of any interplanetary space probe is one of cold solitude, punctuated only by a brief moment of glory as it fulfills its investigation. New Horizons, uniquely, seems to have been granted another mission: to enact the next episode of melodrama between humans and that iciest, most distant rock. Though it must also pay the price of eventual abandonment, it is the only one of five hundred NASA probes that has been hurtling through space with emotional baggage. And with an urn.


Strange luggage

The urn contains the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who first spied Pluto in 1930. Tombaugh, an Illinois native who first achieved repute as a builder of telescopes, was hired by the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to handle the painstaking task of reviewing thousands of images for minute changes in light patterns—the kind of task offered today to college students, not to PhDs. 

This hunt was thus an eccentric business from the start, influenced by an acute longing for a new frontier. The astronomy community had debated the existence of a mysterious Planet X beyond Neptune from the mid-nineteenth century, and had held up various and sometimes contradictory mathematical proofs for its presence. Percival Lowell, the Lowell Institute’s founder, developed one Planet X hypothesis, and when he died in 1916, the Institute carried on his mission. Checking Lowell’s work later on, the folks at the Institute found that their search had been motivated by an error in calculating Neptune’s orbit—but the ninth planet was still there.

Tombaugh, bent over a stack of photographs, discerned Pluto with the technology at hand only because its surface is extraordinarily bright; other celestial bodies of roughly the same size and distance from Earth went undiscovered for decades following. Broadcasting itself as such, it seems that Pluto meant to be found.

Those mysteries that evaded others seemed to seek out Tombaugh in particular. In the 1940s, he reported having witnessed rectangular prisms of light while monitoring Mars, and, later, green fireballs in the skies over New Mexico. These he attributed to extrasolar aliens, arguing that the tremendous scale of the universe gave some statistical support to the possibility that life exists on other planets. While this sullied Tombaugh’s reputation for a time, he was remembered largely for his other work when died of a heart failure in 1997. NASA obtained permission from his family to pack his remains aboard New Horizons; this July he was granted his heartfelt reunion. The act recalls the dedication of the Institute to Percival Lowell’s work, and the use of his initials in selecting Pluto’s name. 

These may seem strangely emotional turns for a scientific team investigating the most alien reaches of the solar system. On what grounds was this sentimental canister included on a thousand-pound spacecraft, outfitted to the inch with the best equipment 2006 had to offer, and with its fuel capacity carefully calculated down to the minute’s flight time? The answer lies in an extension of that profound human impulse to carry on tradition and to follow through on promises.


We’re projecting

The urn is, perhaps, rather less important to physicists than New Horizons’ pictures. The images reveal ice flows, mountains, maculas, dunes, and craters. The ice flows and dunes are the most interesting thing, Ian Dell’Antonio, PhD and Professor of Physics at Brown University, told the Independent: “If you asked scientists before the New Horizons missions, they weren’t predicting this movement.” It was thought that Pluto was too cold for much motion to occur on the surface, which would have made Pluto a relic of the earliest period in our solar system’s formation. New Horizons is prompting physicists to reexamine their thinking about geological motion, and to recognize in Pluto a greater depth of character.

Even in the case of the hard data, an emotional element slips in. As the first of the images came in, parts of the mission team at NASA quickly set to work pasting names across Pluto’s surface. The team reached out with online polling to help nickname the newly visible geographic features, producing a set of temporary toponyms that await ratification by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Among them is the heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio. Other names include Mayan, Igbo, Buddhist, and Mesopotamian underworld divinities. Cthulu, an aquatic deity of the apocalypse and a Providence native, was granted title of a massive tar field, the Cthulu Regio. Skywalker and Vader are in the running, and the Sputnik and Challenger missions were honored with features of their own.

To the extent that Pluto is an extension of the human imaginary—its earthly presence limited as it is by it being invisible to the naked eye—its characterization evolves through our own thinking. The names of planets discovered in an earlier era reflect an archaic obsession with Classical Western mythologies, but we are no longer reading Plutarch with the same passion that we anticipate the upcoming extension of the Star Wars trilogies. So it is that the heroes and beasts now colonizing Pluto’s surface in name are of a modern provenance. Lovers on Earth, when separated by state lines or oceans, speak of a blurred distinction between the distant and the imaginary. Soon, each finds it hard to recall the other’s a face; forms and ideas are distorted, and we start projecting. It is times like these that inspire the devotee to drive across the country, chasing the briefest encounter to revivify the object of the mind.

Magnified by the immense distance between Earth and the Kuiper Belt, a similar crisis ensues; the distinction between Pluto, the distant rock, and Pluto, the mapped figment, breaks down, and we are thrown into confusion. For our sanity, we send an emissary. This is how a canister of ashes becomes an arrow from Eros’ bow.


Shrunken in name

The launch of New Horizons drew little in the way of popular attention. Many more people will recall the news in 2006 that Pluto had been demoted after 76 years as a planet, to the status of dwarf planet. This caused some stir, as a disgruntled Earth updated its maps and rewrote its solar system mnemonics to accommodate the change. “Plutoed,” a verb, was voted word of the year by the American Dialect Society, to mean demoted. Pluto, already diminutively framed by its atomity and its association with a Disney character that neither walked upright nor spoke, had achieved a new low. Suddenly, those who had teased Pluto felt a pang of pity. But there is reason to consider the status well-deserved. 

For many years, Pluto was thought to be similar in size to the Earth, with a roughly equivalent mass, and a diameter nearly half that of Earth. That was until 1978, when the discovery of its largest moon, Charon, allowed for new calculations of Pluto’s size—it turns out to be roughly the volume of Earth’s moon. Imagine, if you will, meeting a cutie on an online chatroom, only to discover that this cutie is an inch tall, and weighs in grams. Scientists itched to redefine the relationship, and their excuse came when the IAU published their three criteria defining a planet. While Pluto complies with the first by orbiting the sun, and the second by being round—it is, in fact, rounder than the Earth—it fails to clear the third hurdle. This is because it does not ‘clear the neighborhood’ of its orbit. That is to say that there are planets of similar mass within the influence of its gravity that it has not pulled into orbit. This a function of maturity and of size; though it is old, faraway Pluto is just too little.  

The ruling has been called into question, but is unlikely to be overturned any time soon. Alan Stern, leader of the New Horizons mission team, lately dissented the dwarf planet distinction, arguing that other so-called planets have not cleared their neighborhoods. Earth is among them. But the IAU is not making any moves, pointing to the increasing count of other planetary forms similar to Pluto in size. Dell’Antonio thinks that the classification is of minor importance. “Calling something a planet or a dwarf planet is mostly a political decision,” he explains, and to claim the discovery of a planet in 1930 was an important move for the Lowell Institute and for the United States. The technical decision of 2006 arguably demonstrated scientific purity in the ministrations of an international body. Yet, if Pluto’s status is a chastely technical issue, why are Alan Stern and his colleagues still making the case? More importantly, why can’t we just do this without labels? 


A second opinion

Pluto’s demotion at the hands of physicists has not been corroborated by astrologers, who were already working within their own, much older parameters for defining a planet. Before the night sky was understood as space in the modern scientific sense, planets were recognized celestial bodies moving out of concert with the stars. To the casual observer, they still are. That Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are invisible to the naked eye long kept them out of celestial studies of all kinds. 

Pluto’s astrological significance varies for individuals, based on its position in one’s natal chart. This diagrams the positions of the planets at one’s birth into the houses and zodiacs, each an actual set of locations in the night sky, and the function of relationships in space. Generally, Pluto is associated with the traits of power and transformation, including transitions between life and death. Pluto also lords over relationships and orgasms, and brings them into combination with the houses through which it moves. It is considered the native ruler of the Eighth House, the house of sex, death, and rebirth. Perhaps this explains why even science has been swayed by its aching heart.

Where do these associations come from? Classical Western and Vedic astrological schemes are rooted in ancient and medieval texts. These schools resist elaboration, and have retained the archaic understanding of planets features of the shifting heavens, rather than of space. But New Age astrologers managed to divine Pluto’s role in the 20th century using deductive reasoning based on the historical record. It turns out that significant Plutonian activity coincided with an anomalous surfeit of wars and treaties, and such snafus d’amour as the American Declaration of Independence and Britain’s entry into the EU. It is also possible that two of the investigating astrologists went through a breakup of their own whilst Pluto transited to the moon, and angrily coined the association in a haze of comfort food and tears. 

There is certainly something extraordinary about Pluto’s relationships with other bodies in space. It is locked in a curious pattern with Charon. Charon’s comparative mass means that it does not orbit Pluto itself. Rather, each orbits a point between the two, locking them both in a dance. As the entire Pluto system performs its oblong orbit, it passes through Neptune’s orbital path, but the two never collide thanks to what scientists term a stable orbital resonance. This rests on a perfect ratio of 2:3 in their respective orbital periods—that is, if they are dancing, they are doing it in perfect meter.


When to walk away

The motivation for these faraway missions has long been in question. Earthly applications for New Horizons’ discoveries are not immediately apparent. Dell’Antonio says that the onboard communications system, which incorporates a “tremendous amount of amount of technology” has “fairly good applied uses” on Earth for compressing data signals. But for the most part, this is a victory for physics, and a costly one at that. Though NASA’s share of the federal budget has fallen considerably since that the Cold War era, it still takes up half a penny on the tax dollar today. Expensive missions with abstract benefits recall Gil-Scot Heron’s poignant critique of the NASA’s moon landing in 1970. He contrasted conditions of suffering and oppression on Earth, with “taxes taking his whole damn check… no hot water, no toilet, no lights” with the costly effort to put “whitey on the moon”. The comparison remains bitterly relevant as the space program extends its physical reach. What professional scientists do to fulfill their aching curiosities, populations have paid for rather dearly in the way of less bread.

So, as some fix their eyes and hearts on New Horizons, it may also be wise to keep a telescope trained inward. Pluto, ruler of relationships, might approve some terrestrial soul-searching. The sage have long advised that in any relationship, each partner must also take care of herself. In the game of interplanetary amour, the same rules apply.


LANCE GLOSS B’18 has a burial plot reserved on Uranus.