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Thursday, July 16, 2015

New Horizons Probe – In a Pickle Over Pluto

First appeared on Blogcritics.

pluto 2 nasa I will never forget many things I learned in school, but one was a way to remember the names of all the planets in order – “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles.” The first letter of each word in the sentence stands for a planet – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I had even planned to share this with my own kids, but in 2006 the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto should be reclassified as a “dwarf” planet.

pluto 4

Alas, how could they do this to all of us who grew up thinking Pluto was a planet named after our favorite Disney dog? How could they take the word out of that lovely sentence and make it useless in the process (moms do not just serve kids a number, right)?

Well, I am hoping that the amazing journey of the New Horizon’s probe reaching Pluto; and sending back stunning images will help change that. We are seeing for the first time what it is like in the nether reaches of our solar system, and a human-made object has captured what is the edge of our known existence – and shouldn’t Pluto be considered as the last of our sun’s planets, the final stop before heading out into the great unknown?

NASA’s accomplishment with New Horizons is nothing to take lightly, but in case you are too busy with more important news about Donald Trump’s net worth or what Kim Kardashian is wearing, you should take note of this moment for a few reasons.

Perhaps most important of all news coming from the probe is that Pluto has water – potentially lots of water. Besides mountains as big as the Rockies, flat plains, and distinct polar regions, it is also snowing on parts of the planet and there is ice.

On a very thirsty planet like earth, that’s as welcome as a rest stop after you have been driving 100 miles. Yes, of course, Pluto is not around the corner, and we are not going to be setting up a Poland Springs bottling plant any time soon; however, water is a very precious and rare commodity in our solar system. Also, the salient fact is that water is essential for life as we know it, so the implications are exciting and there is more to learn from New Horizons data regarding Pluto in the months ahead.

pluto 1 bbcBeside these things there is the accomplishment of realizing that something made here on earth went 3.6 billion miles to take these amazing photos and is now moving onward in a journey into the Kuiper Belt and, after that, beyond what is known in space, boldly going where no probe has gone before.


pluto 3 cnn  On board New Horizons (which is about the size of a grand piano) is a vile of ashes belonging to Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. While this seems more than fitting, Mr. Tombaugh certainly would be less than amused by the assertion that Pluto is not a planet after all but a “dwarf” planet, as claimed by the IAU.

This gets us back to the pickles and whether or not Pluto is a planet. There are going to be many debates by those more knowledgeable about space and planets and the like, but I am reacting from emotion (and on behalf of the seven year old that still lurks somewhere inside me). In my mind Pluto is a planet and always will be and, though I learned later in life that it was not named after my favorite Disney dog, I am sticking with that story too for all seven year olds who look up into space and dare to dream about the planets just as I did.

So members of the IAU, you should reconsider Pluto’s status, and while you’re at it, please pass the pickles.

  Photo credits: bbc.com, nasa.com, cnn.com, ioffer.com


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