I can’t get Pluto out of my mind. Tiny speck of light that it is, it sticks. I keep thinking about it. What’s there? What a fantastic distance this little rock gleams in the black void of eternity. My obsessive checking for images at Google News has partly to do with a sick cat and escalating veterinarian bills. There are other anxieties but for now this one is pretty big. And so I keep checking those NASA images. The first one to appear shows a faint ball of funny splotches and a black band across its equator the crew at NASA are calling The Whale. It’s not a perfect sphere, a big gash appears at the bottom. Or is that the eternal dark nibbling a part away?
It’s Pluto’s phenomenal distance that so captivates my imagination. At approximately 3.1 billion miles from Earth, give or take a few miles depending on its moderately eccentric orbit, it has taken the New Horizons space probe nine years at 36,000 mph to come within a few million miles of the planet, close enough to gather data about its surface, mailing address, and who lives there.
It’s doubtful that anyone lives there. Pluto is the very epitome of cold isolation. I imagine it as a place of magnificent desolation, high jagged crests of rock, bizarre ice formations, and an indescribable stillness. It’s a place that so resembles death that it is death itself. It’s exceptional in its inhospitable terrain. Not that Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Uranus offer appealing real estate. Those planets are all balls of gas. Who wants to live in a ball of gas? Pluto, strangely, has a solid mass. My imagination can cling to it. Climb on it. Jump on it. Walk on it.
Pluto offers a place I can go in my mind to find relief from the anxieties of daily life. Mars performs this function to a large extent, but Pluto offers something different than Mars, which is a seclusion so perfect in its remoteness and so supreme in its stillness it’s a summons to the imagination. I can see myself walking on Mars. It’s unlikely that I have enough years left to train for an actual mission to Mars, not to mention a crippling inadequacy when it comes to math, but it’s doable on some level. Pluto is not. Pluto is strictly for the imagination. Like death, or the afterlife.
The New Horizons spacecraft, which is the size and shape of a baby grand, contains a portion of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer. Tombaugh grew up on a farm in Kansas in the 1920s. He made his first telescope in 1926 after plans to attend college were ruined by draught and crop failure. He ground the lenses himself. In 1928, he put together a 23-centimeter reflector using the crankshaft of a 1910 Buick and parts from a cream separator. He discovered Pluto in 1930 after noticing the movement of a tiny speck of light among a pair of photographs containing over 150,000 stars.
The latest image (July 9th, 2015) shows a planet that looks like a reddish marble with swirls of white, or the clouded, cataracted eyeball of an old wizard. Off to the side is its moon, Charon, a mottled little ball of brown and grey with a few bright spots towards its bottom, which may be impact craters.
Saturday’s image (7/11/2015) shows Pluto from a distance of 2.5 million miles looking a little like an orange that’s been sitting in the refrigerator a bit too long. It has black splotches on the bottom and a surface that looks porous, perhaps riddled impact craters.
Today’s image (7/14/2015) taken yesterday from 476,000 miles away, reveals a sphere of ocher and burnt crimson with a heart-shaped splotch toward the bottom. Impact craters are visible. It looks like an impossibly isolated place. Lonely it is not. How can anything be lonely if nothing inhabits it? As soon as something is discovered, human emotion rushes in to define its features, its atmosphere, its character and soul. An entity as isolated and remote as Pluto baffles and excites the imagination. To think that it exists at all is cause for wonder.