A planet's a planet — size doesn't matter
EDGE OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM — Here’s a distance to consider: 7,750 miles.
That’s almost 300 marathons. About nine roundtrips from between Medford and Seattle. Just over 31 percent of the Earth’s total circumference. (I gave Google a workout to write this paragraph.)
It’s also how close an Earthling spacecraft came to Pluto Tuesday; a stone’s throw in space terms, “just down the street,” as they say in Texas.
The NASA New Horizons mission has been a decade in the making. Here’s its purpose, per the NASA website:
“New Horizons’ flyby of the dwarf planet and its five known moons is providing an up-close introduction to the solar system’s Kuiper Belt, an outer region populated by icy objects ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets. Kuiper Belt objects, such as Pluto, preserve evidence about the early formation of the solar system.”
“Dwarf planet.” (Why not call it Gimli or Sneezy, then?)
There is actual, concrete controversy over how to classify Pluto, much of it due to its size, orbit and location in the Kuiper Belt. In some ways the debate is the same as arguing about presidential candidates on Twitter or determining which of the original “Star Wars” films is the best, where a definitive answer is impossible and discussion dies a horrific death, replaced by a shouting match. Garbage discourse, fueled mostly by volume and caffeine and broken caps-lock keys.
I get it but I don’t. Science can be a fickle mistress when it comes to what’s what. Things that were definitive 100, 50, 10, 5 years ago have changed, maybe multiple times. Just look at nutrition, at whether eggs are good for you.
But think about what’s at the center here: whether one giant, meandering space sphere is different from eight other meandering space spheres because of blah blah and blah blah.*
* Rough translation
This is probably the curmudgeon in me talking, but leave Pluto alone, man. Don’t revoke its membership. We’re better than that.
Nostalgia and tradition have everything to do with my stance. Pluto was part of the full Solar System Package when I growing up, the cherry on top of the planetary sundae. He was the little guy, sort of weird and quiet and doing his own thing. Not really boasting about his violent red spot or beautiful rings or life-sustaining atmosphere, just content to exist and wander aimlessly.
Maybe Tolkien was talking about Pluto when he said that famous line about wandering and not necessarily being lost. (Go to Ashland and you’ll probably see the bumper sticker on at least three Priuses.)
Even when bored nerds wanted to strip its title, it didn’t fuss. Really it just seemed to shrug and kept on drifting through the icy dark vacuum of space, threw up a peace sign and just kept trucking when our expensive space probe surged past in the star-spotted dark at 30,000 mph.
So, while New Horizons is certainly another scientific feather in NASA’s cap, I hope the stunning images taken as the probe approached and passed remind the know-hows that even though the far-flung ball of rock and ice is a little different, it deserves to keep its “planet” status.
The meek shall inherit the Solar System.