Thursday, March 13, 2014

All Spaced Out

Shakespeare might have written:

Alas, poor Pluto, we knew him Horatio; when he was a planet full; though tiny icy sphere he had pedigree in the Heavens.  Though flung furtherest afar, a simple dot, a flea on Neptune's knee, nonetheless we paid homage to him and his five moons.  Now, Horatio, he dons the dress of the dwarf, a cuckolded planet, a plutoid if you dare, while us poor mortals who once claimed nine, must now make do with eight.

Sorry, Will.  I know you could have done a much better job giving notice of Pluto's ignominious delegation to a dwarf planet.  I'm not certain why we felt it necessary to strip Pluto of planet status.  You'd think the guy would have been grandfathered in after all these years.  Let's face it, he'd been around since 1930 and we were all quite content as fifth graders to triumphantly name him last as we recited the nine planets in our solar system.  Maybe it's just me, but there was something magic about nine.  (I've always been partial to anything divisible by three.)  Eight planets and the sun just doesn't do it for me.  And honestly, he was one of the easiest to remember in order of distance from the sun.  I always got hung up around Neptune and Saturn.

But I digress.

What we did to Pluto would be akin to removing Doc from Dwarf status just because he was the only dwarf who had a name that didn't describe a disposition or mood.  The original Snow White movie was released in 1938, so Pluto had seniority on Doc.  I happen to think that Walt Disney had better judgement and a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than the International Astronomical Union.  He knew that "Snow White and the Six Dwarfs" would be a day late and a dwarf short.  (Oooooh...that was bad...real bad.)

That said, Pluto will soon have a visitor.  The space probe New Horizons will reach Pluto in 2015.  July 14, 2015 if all goes as planned.  Interestingly, New Horizons was launched in 2006, just before the IAU decided to embarrass Pluto, and has zipped along at the pace of just over 36,000 miles per hour since launch.  Sort of a long way and a short time to get there, at least from the perspective of our 13.2 billion year old galaxy. I wonder if NASA had waited a few months to when Pluto was canned as a planet if they would have spent those billions of dollars to visit a plutoid.  I wonder if maybe they might have had New Horizons dip and weave through the belt of Saturn, do a quick flyover of Neptune, and then pull a u-ey and head back home?

We will never know.  I think it would be great if the probe got to Pluto and discovered that though it was small, the dwarf formally known as a planet had more character than Venus and more spunk than Mercury, hidden attributes to the point that it deserved to be reinstated to full planet status.  A formal apology would be issued by the IAU guys and NASA would be exonerated in its decision to send a probe about three billion miles to inspect a chunk of dirty ice.

I think that would be neat, don't you?  Exactly what the Doc ordered.

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