In 2006, when New Horizons left Cape Canaveral in Florida, Pluto was still a planet. Just seven months later it was demoted to dwarf planet status when a larger object was found nearby, prompting scientists to reevaluate the very definition of the word “planet.”
But dethroned or not, Pluto isn’t any less loved or admired. In fact, over the last few days, the dwarf planet has been showered with attention, turning scientists and engineers into celebrities, and prompting the public to turn its gaze toward the sky.
In case you’ve missed the countless tweets and water cooler conversations, on July 14 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed by Pluto, gathering the most detailed information yet on this celestial member of the Kuiper belt.
It’s not quite the same level of excitement as when we put a man on the moon, but for modern times when some people think outer space is a little humdrum or a waste of government cash, Pluto is definitely kicking humanity’s interest in celestial objects into high gear.
Is it because Pluto was once a planet, and we’re just thrilled to finally see its face? Perhaps. For many of us, Pluto was a planet for the majority of our lives.
Even President Obama is getting in on the action:
More than 1,200 images collected so far have documented the discoveries: Pluto’s icy mountains, a young mountain range with peaks as high as 11,000 feet, as well as new views of Charon, the dwarf planet’s largest moon, and Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos, the four smaller moons. The images have turned our previously blurry visions of Pluto into high-definition landscapes, helping humans feel connected to something 4.67 billion miles away.
This kind of excitement about space exploration doesn’t happen every day. You're more likely to hear politicians complaining about the expense of the space program (despite the fact that a trip to Pluto costs less than it will take to build the new Minnesota's Vikings Stadium). It takes an event like this, one that captures the imagination, to really galvanize humanity. We saw the same kind of excitement when we heard back from the Mars Rover.
The excitement over Pluto reminds people to look up in the skies every now and then. (Photo: AZP Worldwide/Shutterstock)
"Pluto New Horizons is a true mission of exploration, showing us why basic scientific research is so important," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "The mission has had nine years to build expectations about what we would see during closest approach to Pluto and Charon. Today, we get the first sampling of the scientific treasure collected during those critical moments, and I can tell you it dramatically surpasses those high expectations."
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s been just over 50 years since the first astronaut traveled into space, the birth of a space program that has given us immeasurable amounts of information about our universe.
As tiny ants on a huge rock orbiting around just one of billions of stars in the universe, it’s no wonder that humanity feels proud as we reach out into space to snap pictures of Pluto. We live in a time when almost all of Earth has been traversed by humans. When it comes to outer space, we’re still in the early stages of our exploration.
Although if you ask Neil deGrasse Tyson, he’ll humorously say that these discoveries about Pluto are awesome, minus about 10 percent. What would make it 100 percent awesome? If Pluto were an actually planet. Burn. Check out the video of Tyson talking to Stephen Colbert about the discoveries, and how the host of “Cosmos” would downsize Earth to a dwarf planet if he could.
If you, like Colbert, aren’t convinced that Pluto deserved to be taken down a notch, watch this lecture from Dr. Michael Brown, “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming.”
Related on MNN:
- 5 things the Pluto flyby could reveal about Earth
- 18 space movies that everyone should see
- NASA keeps an eye on Mars, looks toward Europa