Pluto has been in the spotlight for quite some time, literally and not. It is astonishing to finally see a picture of something 5.8 billion kilometers away from us. Then again, do we really know Pluto or did we just “ooh” or “ahh” at it but then moved on with our lives?
Despite all the attention given to it, Pluto is also still not a planet, but rather a “dwarf planet”,as NASA calls it. For a huge mass floating around space to qualify as a planet, it has to possess enough gravity to mold itself into a sphere, to circle around the sun in an orbit, and to have so much gravity to repel other objects away from its orbit. Pluto is pretty lenient with letting foreign objects into its orbit, which cost it its “planet” status. Moreover, Eris – a much denser (but not larger) mass lying around – was discovered, and scientists thought that if Eris is not a planet, then Pluto shouldn’t be one, too.
Though Pluto can be tiny (according to NASA, it is only half the width of the United States), there are some things Pluto has a lot more than we do. It has four moons, and it has longer days. A day in Pluto is equivalent to six and a half days here. If you prefer winters, Pluto has a lot to offer you, given its distance from the sun (although the journey to it may take so long and frostbites can be unimaginably deadly). Advertisement aside, keep in mind that you may not live long enough to travel to actually do so, unless they manage to make FTL or hyperspace happen.
Pluto has been enjoying so much fuss because it just had its first photograph taken and it was googled and tweeted for the world to see. Despite being a solid mass and being billions of kilometers away, Pluto has managed to accomplish quite a feat. The only one who liked your first selfie was probably your mom. Because of the New Horizons trip, we are also privileged to know that Pluto is not a wasteland – it has mountain ranges made of ice-water, or so scientists speculate, as nitrogen and methane are, according to them, too weak to make mountains. These mountains are also thought to be relatively young, denoted by the lack of craters, which also means a lack of foreign masses making a substantial amount of marks on these mountains. Kerber, one of Pluto’s moons, just couldn’t let go of publicity that easily and had itself photographed, too. Unlike what we think of moons, Kerber is actually bi-lobed, and scientists predict that two giant masses collided to call itself one of Pluto’s moons, very much like how planets are formed.
Technology has definitely gone to new horizons, and this space craft epitomizes its own name. New Horizons has literally gone where no man has gone before. The closest anyone has been to riding it is Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes, which deserve it with every fiber (well, powder) of his being, as he discovered the dwarf planet in 1930. That means New Horizons still remains to be a space craft, not a spaceship. All its parts are designed to function optimally without bearing too much weight or size. You’d have to have discovered Pluto and be in ash form to hitch a ride.
Launched in January 2006, it took nine years to see Pluto. Even though this is a relatively speedy feat, your hopes of riding it are dashed, as 16 kilometers per hour would have torn you to shreds. This is made possible not by solar power, not by a giant battery, but by plutonium fuel used to power an RTG – radioisotope thermoelectric generator) – which, as the name implies, emits heat as the element decays. It also helped that during its stop at Jupiter, not only was it able to catch a glimpse of a volcanic eruption on one of Jupiter’s moons, but Jupiter was also able to give it a giant gravity fart boost, lessening the rest of its journey to Pluto by three years, which is the most feasible version of FTL we can get right now.
New Horizons was launched before the birth of smart phones smarter than you are. In fact, its CPU is equivalent or even more inferior to that of a Sony Playstation. However, its stability and the fact that it can withstand radiation set it apart. It sent data to back to earth through an antenna pointed back to us at one to two kbps. The next time you complain about your internet connection, keep in mind that New Horizons could send one high-res photo of Pluto to Earth in thirty to sixty minutes and the whole world rejoiced about it.
To Infinity and Beyond
If you’re thinking about why you have to be bothered by something going on billions of kilometers away when you cannot even bother to listen to a lengthy lecture in your own planet, think again. What used to be science fiction is now available for mass consumption. Though we cannot possibly imagine how people can be sent to other galaxies at the moment, it was never doomed to impossibility. Plus, if one of NASA’s reasons is that exploring space is exciting, surely, even the littlest of reasons are never mundane enough to contribute to efforts to space exploration. [x]