Pluto & the Fading Thrill
of the Great Discoveries
Little engine that could. Ugly duckling. Nine-day wonder. Pictures that the New Horizons satellite took of its arrival at Pluto, after a nine-year trek, have stunned the world by their unexpected beauty, and even jaded space buffs have marveled by what’s been revealed to humanity.
The going has been rough for the heavenly body that sits at the edge of our Solar System. Not long after the probe’s departure from Earth, Pluto had already lost its planetary status and been downgraded to a dwarf planet. Other indignities could have followed it as well.
But the striking images still arriving from Pluto may change all that, at least in part, igniting a new found curiosity about the universe in the process. The last time that happened was arguably when the Pioneer twins brought us closer to the wondrous realm of Saturn and its ring system, in the 1970s.
Still, whether newly acquired knowledge radically speeds up our current understanding, Pluto’s planetary arch, from Mythology to joining the brotherhood of the Solar System, and then falling precipitously from grace, is already a rare and impressive saga.
Pluto was eagerly anticipated to be discovered since Antiquity, way before Clyde Tombaugh spotted it in 1930. Venetia Burney, 11 at the time, suggested its name, ‘because it hadn’t been used,’ as if unaware of the Greeks, who called it the God of the Underworld.
Known as the ninth planet orbiting the Sun for 76 years, Pluto‘s ride as such came to a crashing halt when the International Astronomical Union redefined the concept of what it means to be a planet. Despite heated arguments, Pluto failed to pass the new classification.
As for Tombaugh, who died in 1997, one may say that he was spared the embarrassment of seeing Pluto’s status demotion, but is somewhat sharing the glory of its resurgence to the eyes of the world: his ashes are entombed on the New Horizon capsule.
In Brazil, there used to live a German astrologer who believed that every time a planet would be in evidence, its attributed psychologic characteristics, and impact on humankind, would be enhanced. Thus, she linked the Saturn flyby, for instance, to the great oil crisis of 1973.
As the majestic Ring Master is related, in Astrology, to pain and self-restrain, Emma de Mascheville thought it as a perfect metaphor for those times when, suddenly, people realized that gasoline was a finite commodity, subjected to the vagaries of world trade.
Beliefs aside, it’d be inspiring to guess her insights now about Pluto, which is astrologically linked to nuclear power and consciousness – the surgeon, who uses the scalpel to cure, not to slay – and the just-signed nuclear agreement between Iran and a U.S.-led group of six nations.
As for the planet that sits in the outskirts of the Kuiper Belt, a land far, far away indeed, it may help us understand a bit more about the universe, moon formation, atmospheric and geological phenomena, and, yes, probably even invent a new, better mousetrap.
Pluto, the proto-planet, the ancient promise that failed to fulfill its destiny of becoming a full fledged heavenly body, still holds lasting thrills, to slowly unfold as data about it lands on Earth. And it royally concludes NASA’s catalog of new worlds sharing our Sun.
Whatever lays beyond it will only be conquered if we answer its Sphinx-like riddle. Will mankind be granted access to its mysteries, just like Hades conceded it to Orpheus? Or will we be devoured by its infinite depths and trip over our own gumption? Call us back in 50 years.
* Plato & Pluto