- - Wednesday, December 10, 2014


These are definitely not the glory days of the American space program, but we should be thankful that, as Daniel Webster said of Dartmouth College, “there are those who love it.” While many were busy protesting and rioting this week, mourning young black men shot by policemen by lying down in front of passenger trains, scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory turned their attention to a quieter and saner world.

Remember Pluto? Pluto was a planet only a few years ago, before it was demoted from “planet” to “dwarf planet” and then to “plutoid.” Sometimes even a chunk of rock and ice spinning through space can’t get proper respect. But now Pluto is back, and scientists are over the moon (Pluto has five) with giddy anticipation.

A NASA spacecraft expects to fly past Pluto next summer to take detailed measurements and photographs at the end of a 3-billion-mile journey. NASA scientists woke up the spacecraft from hibernation Saturday, after a nap of nine years, to get it ready to go to work. The photography probe is called New Horizons, and Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, a principal investigator of New Horizons, tells Forbes magazine that “this is a watershed event that signals the end of New Horizons crossing of a vast ocean of space to the very frontier of our solar system.”

“Technically, this was routine, since the wake-up was a procedure that we’d done many times before,” Glen Fountain, the mission’s project manager, told Time magazine. “Symbolically this is a big deal. It means the start of our pre-encounter operations.”

What the scientists want are sharper, more revealing pictures of Pluto than the Hubble space telescope could get and transmit in 2006. They’re not sure what to expect, which is what makes the wait so worthwhile. They’re hoping to see craters, mountain ranges or even liquid on the surface.

Surely Pluto, named for the mythic god of the underworld, deserves the chops of a planet, even if a “dwarf.” Pluto has been slighted, demoted and disparaged almost from the day it was discovered in 1930, and astronomers have never known quite what to make of it, hence the New Horizons probe. Pluto was originally classified as the ninth planet from the sun, but subsequent investigations called into question its status as a major planet. Pluto occasionally spins closer to the sun than Neptune, but their orbits keep them from colliding.

The discovery of Pluto was made from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which had the right to name it. The discovery, which created a buzz across our own planet, led to more than 1,000 suggestions for a name. They ranged from Atlas to Zymal, and included Constance, Percival and Zeus. Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England, the granddaughter of a librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, suggested Pluto. She was keen on mythology. The list of names was reduced to three — Minerva, Cronus and Pluto — and the staff at the Lowell Observatory, each allowed one vote, chose Pluto unanimously.

The name was quickly adopted in the popular culture. When Walt Disney drew a canine companion for Mickey Mouse in 1930, he was inspired by the discovery and named the dog Pluto. The new element plutonium was named for Pluto in 1941 and, best of all, the dwarf planet Pluto is climbing back into the good graces of astronomers. Mickey would be pleased.

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