Sunday 12 July 2015

dwarf-planet or plutocrat

This week, the New Horizons space probe will have achieved its primary mission, after a journey of over nine years, powered by a plutonium reactor and carrying the ashes of its discoverer, and deliver the first detailed images and measurements of the planet that was downgraded after its launch, but will be traveling around fifty thousand kilometers an hour and barely have time to blink before it sails past. On its approach, it’s already beaming some amazing pictures back so astronomers believe that this one pass will afford them with a great trove of data to last for years. It is really remarkable that for the first time in decades, we’re going to be presented with an accurate portrait of another world—and not just an imaginative artist’s conception, with geographical features to be named. The hunt for Pluto began in earnest in the late 1920s when physicists grew fretful over the unexpected sideways orbit of Neptune that did not fit into the model of the solar system as described by the reliable, certain Newtonian mechanics that had been a sustaining grace for centuries.
The scientific community feared it would lend too much credence to that new physics of uncertainties and probabilities. Not wanting more revolt and upturning just yet—what with the age and world affairs and the ideas of Darwin still being fully masticated—astronomers hypothesised the existence of a yet unknown Planet X beyond that could account for Neptune’s odd behaviour. Fortunately (for Newton since the fate of scientific thought hung in the balance) the hunt yielded Uranus and it did mostly explain the outer planets’ orbits—however, there was a need (and public excitement to forward the cause and exploration) to call for a second scavenger hunt in the night skies for a consolation prize. The competition was fierce—since the discovery of yet another planet and immortality to be gained lay in the realm of immediate possibility, and interestingly as the hunt was on, science-fiction and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft captured it in his own mythos, calling it Yuggoth, before the planet was ever sighted (though naming-conventions were strict and there was probably no movement to name it as the Cthultu author had done). Planet X´ was first spotted by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930—while working at an observatory in Arizona—endowed by a wealthy Bostonian by the name of Percival Lowell expressly built to save the Newtonian system (as above, the naming-conventions were strict and one could not very well call a planet after a benefactor, no matter how generous—although it looks pretty sly how the astronomical symbol ♇ adopted was basically a monogram of Lowell’s name, once Pluto got its designation, suggested by an eleven year old from Oxford, Venetia Burney, grandniece incidentally of the Eton professor who named the moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos), whose ashes are being ferried to his discovery. That this mission even got off the launch pad at all is also a story of coincidence, timing and politics—more on these plutocrats at the link above. Afterwards, for as long as its plutonium battery lasts, New Horizons will pass into the Kuiper belt and study some of the nebulous, icy objects in this mysterious hatchery for comets.