Tuesday, February 2, 2010

goodbye moon

Onward Unto Pluto!
with Dr. Harry Spangler

Hello, this is Dr. Harry Spangler, and I'm here from NASA, where it is my delighted surprise to once again be speaking to you about the tiny frozen world known as Pluto. Yes, lovers of the ninth stone from the sun, as I've illustrated above through the magic of photoshopping, the astronomically impossible has finally happened - Pluto has eclipsed the moon!

Two short months ago, the media was awash with wall to wall stories about water on the moon, and they spent endless hours of speculation on the means mankind would use to retrieve it, even though, as I astutely pointed out, to obtain even one meager eight ounce serving would have required the pulverization of 116 pounds of lunar firmament. Little did it matter to the moonstruck media, as they ceaselessly filled their airwaves with images of artists conceptions of future water processing plants at their imaginary moon colony in the Cabeus crater.

What a difference one rotation of Planet Earth on it's axis makes, and this dawn now reveals a new reality, one in which our lunar companion is put back in it's rightful place as little more than a celestial bauble. President Obama has delivered on his promise of hope and change and ended at last the folly that is moon mania. We've been there, we've done that, and it was boring.

Now the spotlight can return to Pluto! And just in time, too. Did you know that in only two weeks we'll be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Pluto? I will, anyway. Of course our frozen friend itself has been around much longer than eighty years, but it was on February 18th, 1930, that Clyde Tombaugh placed two photographs of the ecliptic plane, taken at a six day interval, into his mighty blink comparator in order to see if anything had moved. Viola, he might have shouted, or perhaps he cried Eureka. We shall never know for sure, unfortunately, because there is no existing video which documents that momentous night when a tiny point of light would be recognized as the ninth planet in the solar system of the star we call The Sun.

It was not yet Pluto, but it was close. Tombaugh was in a race against time to name this dark and icy world before someone else did, and so, counterintuitively, he opened the process to the public, where the name 'Pluto' was proposed by eleven year old Venetia Burney. The new planet was christened on March 24th of that very year, thereby forever protecting Planet Earth from residing in the same universe with a planet named Tombaugh.

But I digress, although in my defense I can only blame my passion for talking about the storied history of the planet Pluto. Which I would assume, given the media's obsession with the topic, you well know was brutally stripped of it's membership in the planetary brotherhood by the sinisterly named International Astronomical Union in 2006, who then reclassified it as a 'dwarf planet'. I used to be bitter about this celestial unkindness, blaming it all upon the discovery of Eris, but gradually I began to take a certain comfort in the fact that few common citizen have even the slightest knowledge of Eris, thereby ceding Pluto the mantle of greatest dwarf planet of them all.

But once again I digress, as my purpose here is to update you on the details of my primary project, the progress of the spacecraft known as 'New Horizons' - the grand exploratory mission to Pluto fortuitously launched back in the Bush years when America still had more money than it knew what to do with.

It is with extreme pleasure that I tell you that the New Horizons craft has now traversed over half the distance to it's destination. Many of you may have missed this thrilling development, lost as it was in the tabloid-like obsession the media has showered upon each and every little lunar tidbit, but on December 29th NASA announced that New Horizons is now closer to Pluto than it is to Earth and is safely on track for it's rendezvous with Pluto in July 2015, where it will thrill us all with nine days of intense scientific excitement.

Clyde Tombaugh's ashes will be along for the ride, but sadly there will be no human hand to sprinkle them upon the frigid surface of the planet Pluto - not on this voyage, anyway, but now that our silly fixation with the moon has finally been set aside for grander things, it is only a matter of time and will before humankind finally sets foot on the glorious arctic world of Pluto!

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