As a space mad kid, who much preferred to lurk in shadowed corners of dimly-lit school libraries rather than kick a ball around outside in the sunshine, I grew up in a world, and in a time, where the Earth was one of nine planets orbiting the Sun. The books I read in those libraries, and read again, and re-read over and over in the following years, all referred to a ninth planet. This most distant world from the Sun was always “faraway Pluto”, or “mysterious Pluto”, or “enigmatic Pluto, lurking at the edge of the solar system,” or something like that. And it fascinated me.
One of the very first astronomy books I ever read was this one…
And boy, was Patrick Moore ahead of his time (as usual) when he wrote this, with classic understatement…
And although that particular book didn’t, other books usually featured illustrations of Pluto as Pluto as either just a circled dim star, or an artist’s impression of an icy landscape lit by a bright star. For most of my life Pluto has simply been a dot on a page, next to a few lines of vague text.
Here in Cumbria, surrounded by high green fells and countless vast, cold lakes, I grew up watching Star Trek, Thunderbirds, Blakes 7, The Sky at Night and COSMOS, with eight planets in my sky, up there, out there, and I ached to see them all.
And as the years passed, I did. Not personally, obviously – I never had the “Right Stuff” required to be an astronaut – but through the breathtaking images returned by Vikings, Voyagers, Magellan, Galileo, and the rest of the Earth Exploration Fleet. One by one the Earth’s sister worlds were visited, and re-visited, by space probes, and they became real places. The rocky inner worlds, Mercury, Venus and Mars, were all revealed to have their own mountains, valleys and plains. The outer worlds, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were revealed to be enormous bloated gas bag worlds, circled by myriad moons, each with their own mountains, valleys and plains too. As I grew up I marveled as these worlds were revealed, one by one, as discovery followed discovery.
After becoming an amateur astronomer and learning the sky, I tracked down and looked at these worlds myself, either with my own naked eye, standing in a lonely park or lay-by somewhere on a clear night, or staring into the eyepieces of telescopes. I must have stood in my garden thousands of times, staring at the phosphorous spark of Venus blazing in the purple twilight, lantern-bright above the silhouetted church steeples of my town. I crump-crumped across the snowy playing field across the road to stand in a tree’s shadow, shaded from light pollution, to look at the ruddy spark of Mars glowing like a distant, hot coal above the faraway rooftops. I smiled as Jupiter and Saturn returned to my sky after long absences, yellow and gold stars crawling up from behind the fells.
In time, I had telescopes of my own. Only small, low power instruments, but they were more than good enough to show me the phases of Venus, the ice caps of Mars, Jupiter’s raging storms and largest moons and Saturn’s beautiful rings. And although I couldn’t see them through mine, other, more experienced astronomers let me look through their far larger telescopes and see the dim green and blue stars of Uranus and Neptune too.
But in all those years, Pluto, that faraway, enigmatic, elusive ninth world from those library books, spinning slowly and silently out there on the solar system’s edge, has remained unseen.
Of course, I’ve seen pictures of it – the Hubble telescope has taken photographs showing vague but very real markings on Pluto’s surface (above) – but in the pages of all the books crammed onto my straining shelves over there, and in all the copies of ASTRONOMY, SKY & TELESCOPE, SKY AT NIGHT and ASTRONOMY NOW magazines have piled up here there and everywhere, Pluto has remained an indistinct, blurry… something. And through all the years and decades of my life, even as Pluto was reclassified as a “Dwarf Planet” (which I was furious about at the time but am over now), I’ve never seen it with my own eyes; no telescope I have ever owned has been powerful enough to resolve it, and somehow I’ve never managed to catch a glimpse of Pluto through any of the monster telescopes I’ve been around at the star parties I go to – wrong time of year, or their owners were busy looking at other things.
So, I’ve never seen Pluto. And it is a godawful itch I cannot scratch.
But in just under two weeks time now that itch will be well and truly scratched, when the New Horizons probe whooshes past Pluto, and arrows through its system of moons in a close encounter of the truly awesome kind. Then I, you, and everyone else will see Pluto in all its icy glory, and its long exile in ignorance and mystery will finally be over.
New Horizons’ encounter with Pluto has been a long time coming. The probe left Earth a decade or so ago and is only now approaching its target. Excitement is really building now as, with less than a fortnight to go until its flyby, the probe is finally sending back images of Pluto, and its largest moon Charon, far superior to the best photographs taken by Hubble. In fact, every picture of Pluto sent back now is The Best Picture Ever Taken Of Pluto. And best of all, the New Horizons team – following the example set by the teams behind the Mars rovers, and CASSINI – are releasing new images into the wild every day, allowing the world to join in with the mission, to share in the excitement of this historic event and to watch Pluto be revealed. As I said recently in an email to someone:
It’s fantastic for people like me to be able to join in with this incredible time of exploration and discovery! We all have, thanks to the generosity of the NH team, a front row seat for this event, and will see Pluto revealed as a new world almost in real time. It’s really like being a passenger on Columbus’ ship as he reached the New World, or walking beside Lewis and Clark as they crossed the United States, seeing new things, making discoveries every day.
And yes, of course I have to say it: this is in stark and shaming contrast to the attitude being taken by the OSIRIS team on the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P, which continues to horde its images, effectively sticking two fingers up at the public who paid for their images to be taken, at everyone interested in science, young and old, who wants to follow the mission, and at ESA itself, which would no doubt love to have some of those images to promote the mission with. It’s ridiculous. While the rest of the world celebrates one of the most exciting years in the history of planetary exploration, delighting in almost daily new views of Ceres and Pluto, the OSIRIS team continues to skulk in its gloomy bedroom like a moody teenager, refusing to join the party.
Oh well. It’s their loss. History will judge them very badly for what they have and haven’t done.
Meanwhile, out here in the bright sunshine, where the rest of the world is partying like crazy, the same image enthusiasts who take the published images taken by the Mars rovers, Cassini and the NAVCAMs of ROSETTA are working their magic and sorcery on the New Horizons images and teasing tantalising details out of them. Some people are going a bit nuts, and pushing and processing the images until they beg for mercy, in the process artificially creating detail which isn’t actually there. But others, such as Bjorn Jonnson (first image below) and Ian Regan (second image below), are more restrained and responsible, and thanks to them we now know that the Hubble images were accurate: Pluto is definitely a world of contrasting areas of light and dark.
The raw images being released by the New Horizons team show this to be the case too, but the “image enthusiast” processed versions are showing a lot more detail than the “official” versions. One important note of caution tho: it’s tempting to over-analyse what these images show and to talk yourself into believing they absolutely show Pluto has features on its surface which you *want* it to have. Many people on seeing these images have cried “craters!” or “ice plains!” Some have even seen a polar cap topping the faraway world. But it’s way, waaaaay too early for NH to be able to pick out craters, even huge ones, and anyway the lighting angles are wrong at the moment too, so all we know for sure is that Pluto has light bits, and dark bits, and we’ll know soon what they are. As for that quartet of round features around Pluto’s equator, while many people are confidently declaring that’s a chain of craters, no-one actually knows what they are yet, or even if they are totally real and not, at least in part, the result of over-pr0cessing the publicly-released images. We’ll know what Pluto really looks like – and how real these features are – soon.
So, here we are, a week and a half away from seeing Pluto properly for the first time, ten days away from seeing a whole new world swim up out of the inky blackness of space and Be Known. This is actually a first for me, I think – having a front row seat as a world is properly revealed for the first time, I mean. I was only 11 when the Vikings landed on Mars, just starting out in the crazy world of amater astronomy and space exploration, and caught up with those missions a few years later. When the Voyagers flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune I was a lot more interested but like everyone else I had to rely on the limited media coverage at the time, which meant looking at a few images in the newspapers and on the TV news at the time, and months later buying special “image-packed” issues of SKY AND TELESCOPE and ASTRONOMY and watching special episodes of “Horizon” on BBC2, which I taped on a VCR and later used to make slides with for my Outreach talks by photographing the TV screen…
By the time the Mars rovers arrived at Mars, Galileo arrived at Jupiter and Cassini arrived at Saturn we knew those worlds pretty well, very well in fact. We had detailed maps of their surfaces, and to some extent their moons too. But this encounter is genuinely different. New Horizons will be showing us a whole new world in beautiful, breathtaking detail. And before anyone says “But what about Vesta, and Ceres, and <insert comet or asteroid name of choice here> ?” they’re fascinating, yes, but let’s face it they’re basically rubble, the builder’s mess left over from the construction of the solar system. Pluto is a world, a proper world. Some would say… still say… planet, but that debate has moved on I think, and while I would once have raged about its reclassification (and did!) I know just think “Pluto is Pluto…” and am just pleased it is being visited finally.
As I write this, 85 years after Pluto’s discovery, we have no idea what its surface looks like. The latest New Horizons images are confirming Hubble’s discoveries of light and dark areas, but what is actually DOWN there? Will New Horizons send us back images of ice-capped mountains casting shadows over plains of ice, dark as frozen coffee? In two weeks will we have pictures showing valleys meandering around and past craters with bright rays splashing away from them? Will we soon think of Pluto as an ice capped world, a world with wind-blown feathery streaks painted on its landscape, or even ice volcanoes on its limb? SO frustrating we don’t know yet, but so exciting too!
It’s hard not to feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, lying in bed in a silent house, wondering what’s beneath the tree downstairs, waiting for you in the morning…
And this is why I love astronomy so much – it fills me, every second of every minute of every hour of every day with a sense of absolute could-almost-cry-with-the-grandeur-of-it-all wonder at the size, the scale, the sheer beauty of it all. And that’s something only astronomers can “get” I think. Take last Tuesday night for example. After sunset on that evening, Venus and Jupiter could be seen close together in the twilight, barely <—– this —–> far apart. To see and photograph it, Stella and I stopped by the side of the road on a gravel patch between Cockermouth, where I’d been giving a talk, and Kendal, where I live. As the sky darkened the two planets came more and more clearly into view, a pair of stars shining so close together above the faraway hills you couldn’t slide a sheet of paper between them, it seemed. Through my telescope they were twin jewels dancing and shimmering and flashing with a hundred shifting shades of gold, silver and emerald as they sank slowly towards the horizon…
And as we looked at them, smiling like Cheshire Cats, car after car drove past, oblivious to the stunning beauty just to their left, just above the hills. I wanted to jump into the road, flag them down, drag them out of their cars, spin them around to face the west and say “Look! Look at that! They’re worlds! The fainter one on the top is Jupiter, it could hold a thousand Earths and it has 63 moons…! And the brighter one, that’s Venus. Earth’s “evil twin”, a hell planet…” But I didn’t. The cars sped on, every one’s occupants unaware that the universe was putting on a show for them right outside their window.
I sometimes wonder, and worry, if my passion for astronomy has made me miss out on other things. I wonder, as I stand outside at 2am on a frosty night waiting for a shooting star to dash itself across the sky above me, if other people, “normal” people, who sleep 8 hours a night, are closer to their families than I am… if they enjoy sport, or films, or literature more than I do… I sometimes wonder, as I’m waiting in vain yet again for a noctilucent cloud display to begin on a balmy summer’s evening, if I’ve missed out on other things because of my infatuation with the cosmos. Even my partner laughingly… I hope… describes me as an “alien”…
But then I realise that all the “normal” people tucked up in their beds will never see the sky like I do, will never sense or appreciate their place in the universe like I do. If I have given up other things to fall in unrequited love with the universe, well, that is a fair price to pay, for I have stood laughing, turning around and around, laughing like a child, beneath a sky painted scarlet, crimson and ruby by the curtains, streamers and beams of an auroral storm so bright it cast shadows; I have sat in the centre of an ancient stone circle and watched a comet rise, tail first, behind snow-dusted mountains; I have stared up and seen fireballs falling from the heavens like shells in an artillery bombardment, flaring and flashing as they fell; I’ve taught probably tens of thousands of children about astronomy and space, opening their eyes to the wonders and the beauty of the universe, hopefully igniting sparks of inspiration and excitement in them that will stay with them forever, and maybe even lead to them becoming scientists themselves, making discoveries themselves; I’ve had my heart melt like chocolate as I knelt beside my telescope as a young girl, balancing on her tiptoes, peered into its eyepiece at a faint comet and turned to me, smiling, and whispered “It looks like a fairy… thank you…”. I go out on a clear night and I can *feel* the glories of the Cosmos all around me. That’s what “being into astronomy” has given me.
It’s like the ninth Doctor said in “Rose”…
- Rose: Who are you?
- The Doctor: [turns around] Do you know like we were sayin’? About the Earth revolving? [walks towards Rose] It’s like when you’re a kid. The first time they tell you that the world’s turning and you just can’t quite believe it ‘cos everything looks like it’s standin’ still. [looks at Rose] I can feel it. [takes Rose’s hand] The turn of the Earth. The ground beneath our feet is spinnin’ at 1,000 miles an hour and the entire planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and I can feel it. We’re fallin’ through space, you and me, clinging to the skin of this tiny little world, and if we let go… [drops Rose’s hand] That’s who I am.
Now, I’m not comparing myself to a Time Lord! But it doesn’t matter where I am, or who I’m with, or how tired or anxious I feel; when I look up at a clear starry sky, while other people are just seeing a load of dots scattered above their heads I am looking out into an ocean of suns, great beacons of light. I can lift my hand to the sky and almost feel it tingling as the light and heat of galaxies billions of years old and billions of light years away brushes my skin, their faint starlight and radiation tanning it, just a little, just a little…
That’s what astronomy gives me. I Know what’s out there, and billions don’t. I know my place in the Universe, and billions don’t. I know and can feel the cosmos around me, stretching off in all directions, and billions don’t. And that’s why I want to know about Pluto. That’s why I NEED to know about Pluto. It’s one of the last pieces of the puzzle left to slot into place. It will make one more dot in the sky a real world, just like Mercury, Venus and all the others have done over the years. And that’s why this mission means so much to me.
It took a decade of hard graft, determination, stubbornness and sheer bloody mindedness for the New Horizons team to get to Pluto. They faced budget challenges, criticism from their peers, and more. Yet somehow, against all the odds, they got their beautiful golden spacecraft into space and hurled it towards Pluto and its date with destiny. As I write this, the New Horizons team is facing a new challenge – recovering their spacecraft from a glitch of some kind which put into “safe mode”, briefly cutting communications with Earth. Contact was re-established after more than an hour, but it must have seemed like years to the team. I’m sure all will be well – they’re amazing people doing incredible things with a wonderful machine – and the probe will make a full recovery. This was the scenario which was haunting me – NH going into Safe Mode as it swooped through the Pluto system, losing all the close approach data, so maybe it’s a good thing this has happened now. What a diva NH is… retreating into her dressing room and slamming the door behind her, insisting she needs some time alone before striding on stage and dazzling all her fans..!
As I said earlier, I’ve never seen Pluto, and I hate that. Hate it. I hope to see it in the summer – I’m crossing my fingers and toes and everything else that when I go to the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomy Society’s starcamp in Dalby Forest in August, someone there will kindly point their big Dobsonian cannon towards Pluto and show it to people, with a handy finder chart to compare with the view in the eyepiece – and I’m planning on attempting to photograph it with my iOptron star tracker once the nights get a bit darker, too. Until then, all I can do is stare at the sky to the left of the handle of the “teapot” of Sagittarius, and wonder what Pluto is like, just as I did (cough cough) years ago when I sat in that shadowy library corner, devouring that already-battered copy of the Observers Book Of Astronomy, reading Patrick Moore’s words over and over again.
What is Pluto really like?
We’ll all know soon.