Planet, dwarf planet, and Kuiper belt object. These are just a few of the labels attached to that icy sphere at the end our solar system named Pluto. I must admit my favorite, a name Pluto held before its discovery in 1930, is Planet X. The name Planet X gives Pluto the proper sense of the unknown.
Mystery is the key when it comes to Pluto because what we don’t know is immense. A short summary will easily give you all the facts that science has been able to find out to date. Science is only part of the story, however. When Pluto was demoted to the status of dwarf planet in 2006 a huge outpouring of anger and emotion erupted among the public. It seems that icy Pluto has a lot of friends.
There are two great new books about Pluto that will initiate you into the controversy of just what to call the “object”.
The first is The Pluto Files: the Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, humorously chronicles the saga of Pluto’s demotion to Dwarf Planet status. The book is worth reading alone for the examples of grade school hate mail Tyson received when he took Pluto off the list of official planets at the museum.
The Case for Pluto by Alan Boyle tries to put a more positive spin on Pluto’s reclassification. Boyle argues that Pluto is the first of a new class of planets which, while never being part of the official eight planets, will usher in a new era of discovery. A bit of a sugar coating perhaps, but there actually is a lot to look forward to.
For the first time in the history of our planet, a spacecraft is on its way to Pluto. The New Horizons probe launched in 2006 and is set to explore Pluto, Charon and other objects beyond. New Horizons has reached the halfway point of its trip and is scheduled to meet up with Pluto in July of 2015. It has already sent back great pictures of Jupiter as it cruised on past.
I know five years might be considered a long time to wait for results, but why not spend it contemplating what might be found. Personally I’m hoping for the discovery of Ripley’s frozen escape ship from the Nostromo or perhaps a rebel base under attack from AT-AT walkers. Not likely, perhaps, but at this point it can’t be disproved. There are advantages to being the unknown Planet X.