finding love and wonder on pluto

When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by science, especially astronomy. I was the nerdier kind of kid who preferred reading books to kicking a ball in the playground, and so, I would hole up in the library and gather up all the books I could find about stars, planets, the universe, and more. At that time, exploration of the solar system was still just beginning. Humanity had walked on the moon and come back. Probes had been launched even further, landing on the surfaces of Mars and Venus, sending back the very first images of other planets. More probes had been launched at the other planets, sending back to Earth the very first snapshots of these other worlds: the sun-hugging Mercury, and the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Reading about these newly explored worlds sent my mind on journeys of its own, journeys of awe and wonderment.

And yet, there was still more to this journey. In the pages of every book that chronicled the sums of our knowledge of the planets, one section still remained a mere footnote, a tantalizing mystery. Pluto, the last and farthest planet (as far as anyone was sure at the time), was a mere speck on a photographic plate, twinkling in the night sky as would any star—except that it moved. We knew it was there, but its great distance from Earth meant that it would surely remain unknown for a very long time. Who, after all, would ever travel that far, through all that nothingness, far above the ecliptic—the plane of the solar system—to snap a picture of this, the tiniest planet?

The New Horizons mission, then, is somewhat of a dream come true—the fulfillment of a long-cherished hope, and the continuation of that long journey of awe, of wonder and discovery. It allows us to fill in a blank in our knowledge of the universe. For those of my generation—who were taught that Pluto was a planet (although there’s nothing particularly wrong with being considered a dwarf planet, either)—this mystery cried out especially loud for resolution. The beautiful thing, of course, is that now that we have pictures, now that we have all this knowledge and data, we become acutely aware of how much more there is to discover. The wonder doesn’t disappear—instead, it builds. Our thirst for learning kicks in, and we want to know more. And in time, we will.

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