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The beauty of Pluto

Every now and again, on a day which comes out of nowhere, when we’ve slipped into taking for granted the fact that we live in an age when beautiful new images of distant planets, moons, star clusters and galaxies are available for us to enjoy almost every day, the universe gives us a serious; hard kick up the backside by showing us something… remarkable. Then we all sit back in our chairs, stare at it in genuine shock and awe, and all we can do is shake our heads and mouth a silent “Oh wow…”

Yesterday was one of those days.

I’ve managed to watch all the previous New Horizons media events from the comfort of my sofa, with my laptop on my knee, Peggy purring beside me, and the new pictures displayed in all their widescreen glory on my laptop’s Big Screen. It has been like being in the front row of a cinema showing the NASA TV feed live, and I’ve loved it – and a huge thank you, again, to the New Horizons team for sharing their images, their thoughts and their sheer joy with us.

Yesterday, however, I was unable to do that. After a mid-day funeral over in the north east, as the press conference began I found myself in a buffet restaurant, with my laptop and cat the best part of seventy miles away, and only my phone to take me to the latest media briefing. Of course, the wifi signal in the place was dodgy, so i had to use my phone provider’s web access, which was little better than dial-up speed and so not fast enough to le me actually watch the NASA TV coverage, and to just squirt cream on the top of the cake I was down to 11% battery charge left too. Great. But of course I took a look anyway, too impatient to wait until we got home to look at the latest images. Unable to watch the media briefing itself I turned to Twitter to follow the event as it unfolded, which is almost as good because people attending and watching the briefings – not just reporters or bloggers or space enthusiasts like myself, but scientists involved in the New Horizons mission and others – report on them in real-time via Twitter, and it’s almost as good, actually better in some ways, as it’s so much fun and so educational to read the delighted/baffled/giddy tweets from experts seeing the pictures for the first time and doing “instant science” with the.

So,  anyway, there I was, attacking a plateful of lasagne and garlic bread, when someone (can’t remember who now) posted a link to a pic on Twitter, saying something like “OMG! OMG!!! PLUTOOOOOOOOO!” in the Tweet. Intrigued I tapped the link on my touchscreen –


…and I just sat there in stunned silence, fork hovering in mid-air halfway to my mouth, literally struck dumb by it.

That was… Pluto… seen from behindeclipsing the Sun.. its hazy atmosphere a glowing halo all around it…

Pluto’s atmosphere.

Sitting there I was hit by the fantastically ridiculous absurd thrill of the moment. I started sky-watching as a very young kid, stealing glimpses of the Moon and its craters through borrowed binoculars and then my first cheap toyshop telescope. Growing up I got deeper and deeper into the hobby, bought telescopes, cameras and computers, all of which dragged me deeper down still. Now here I was, all grown up (ha!), a children’s astronomy book author and editor, proud Secretary of my local astronomical society, sitting in a noisy, heaving restaurant, in Gateshead, surrounded by hundreds of people feasting on pizza, burgers, salads, ice cream and more, and I was looking at an image of Pluto taken from behind, by a departing space probe, on my phone

When i got home I fired up the laptop and caught up with the images release properly. The caption beneath the released HQ version of the photo says:

Backlit by the sun, atmospheric haze rings Pluto’s silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15. This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across. The image was delivered to Earth on July 23.

Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

…but that doesn’t do justice to it, does it? That is a stunning, stunning image. Just take a moment to drink it in, to savour it, to roll it around your heart and mind like the last sip of a glass of fine wine. That’s Pluto, that’s the “dwarf planet” thought for so long to be a boring, dull, ball of ice way out there at the classical solar system’s edge. We’ve thought for a long time that it has an atmosphere, that comes and goes as it orbits the Sun, but I never expected to see it so vividly and beautifully on an actual photo. did you? It’s a grossly over-used term, but I think it’s fair to say that that image is now one of the iconic images of the space age, and you will be seeing it in every astronomy text book published from now on, every single one, now that Pluto has been transformed from a small disc with vague markings to a real, vibrant world with craters, plains, mountains and more.

More images were released yesterday, including this new (new, that is, unless you’d already seen it on Brian may’s blog) high resolution view of Pluto…


…and this beautiful new “false colour” view of Pluto…


…and this landmark image, which shows glaciers on Pluto… yes, GLACIERS!!!

04_McKinnon_02c…but I keep going back to that wonderful back-lit Pluto image… I wonder how the New Horizons team felt when that appeared on their screens? I wonder how many couldn’t breathe for a moment, or actually shed a tear? Probably more than one, because it’s clear from watching and listening to them during their media briefings that they are loving every single moment of this, relishing it, and the joy they’re feeling shines out of them. And of course, best of all, they are letting us share their excitement and joy by releasing their images and talking to us about them, so we feel involved in the mission, a part of it, not outside of it looking in.

pluto behind2

They didn’t have to do that. Following the example of another science team, they could have whined about the threat of people stealing their science, and, shouting “Proprietary period!!!” retreated behind their doors, slamming and locking them behind them, allowing no-one in, reluctantly sliding a picture or two under the door every now and again just to do the absolute bare minimum.

Thankfully, Alan Stern and the New Horizons chose not to follow that example, and as a result their mission has ignited the public’s imagination. Pluto images are everywhere, everywhere, and both NASA and the New Horizons team are riding high on the crest of a wave of public admiration and support. No-one is questioning the expense of it all, they’re just caught up in the joy of the exploration, and it’s wonderful, it really is. So, again, thank you to the New Horizons team for letting us accompany you on your voyage of discovery. And if anyone from that other team is reading this, i just hope that when you were watching the New Horizons media briefings, devouring the beautiful images like I was, seeing the excitement and passion of the team, and reading the gushing blog posts, Facebook reports, Tweets, newspaper editorials, and watching the generous TV news coverage of the New Horizons mission that followed you suddenly thought “Oh ****, we’ve done this all wrong, we’ve made a huge mistake…” because yes, yes you have. You could have done it the right way, you were encouraged and asked to do it the right way, but you chose not to. Congratulations.

In the meantime, there will probably be something of a pause in image/science releases from the New Horizons team now, as they focus on science and safely downloading more data from their spacecraft, but I reckon they won’t be able to contain their excitement if anything spectacular comes back and they’ll let us see. So, keep checking back here for new images.