Note: I wrote this just after the fabulous photos came back from the Pluto New Horizons mission but only had a chance to post it now.
Once it was a round dot in the night sky, distant, cold, too small to be a planet, too far to be on one’s mind. It was a dead rock in space, accompanied only by a moon almost as large as itself, with whom it danced about their common center of mass. Discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto was far less interesting than the nearer planets. It famously lost planetary status in 2006, being demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ after the discovery of similar-sized objects in the Kuiper belt. Science fiction writers dreamed up fantastic scenarios, such as Stephen Baxter’s lovely “Gossamer” (1995).
I was never all that interested in Pluto, which paled quite literally before the mysteries and gorgeousness of such glamorous rivals as Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. Then in 2005 two little moons of Pluto were discovered, Nyx and Hydra, and in 2012 Kerberos and Styx joined their numbers. Pluto had courtiers! I had the chance to let my non-science students infer the presence of these moons on their own from a series of photos, much as Galileo did with the Jovian system. A great teaching moment, especially in the absence of much press coverage (combined with the general lack of interest American students exhibit in keeping up with the news) but it didn’t really turn me on to the Plutonian system, which was, after all, still blurry and distant. Now, in 2015, I am grateful to have seen, along with millions of other people, the face of Pluto in gorgeous detail. And I’m in love!
It has mountains! In the ‘heart-shaped feature’ named the Tombaugh plain, ice mountains rise 3500 metres. The absence of craters in the area suggests that geologically the plain is younger than 100 million years. This means that geological forces are as yet active in Pluto’s mysterious interior. To discover such a thing on a distant ice world, when Mars and Earth’s moon are geologically dead! Astonishment! And its largest moon Charon has a canyon system larger than the Grand Canyon, indicating that interesting things are going on in its interior too.
Missions such as these have the potential to remind us of our common humanity – to ooh and ahh in the millions before our computer screens and TV sets, to remember that whatever political and cultural differences we have, we share as a species a curiosity and wonder about other worlds. But it is also important to remember that not all of us are thus privileged, that people in situations of strife, or poverty and other forms of social injustice can’t afford or don’t have access to this shared wonder. It is easy to forget this when we stare slack-jawed at these marvelous images, when our imaginations take us from office and living room to a place 3 billion miles away.
Not long ago I heard Elon Musk speak at a space science conference, during which he recommended that people make exciting movies about Mars to generate public interest in a Mars mission. He suggested gunslingers – a Western set on Mars. (I can see how that would really excite Native American students about space exploration *). I heard people from the space program talk about space colonization, and mention how each time humankind had explored new frontiers on Earth, it had ‘benefited civilization.” (Whose civilization?) When someone in the audience asked if there was an ethical council in the space program to think through the philosophical intent and implications of space exploration, the speakers were caught unawares. All they could come up with was that the UN would handle policy issues, and they mentioned in passing that they did have a people looking at planetary protection (with regard to contamination, but restricted, as far as I could tell, to technological issues). I also heard mention that various diversity outreach programs hadn’t been as successful as one would think, in terms of attracting under-represented minorities to space science. “We tried, but they didn’t seem interested.”
Who knows whether we humans will ever get to set foot on a world farther than our moon? We have so much to contend with here on earth, not least of it being war, inequality, climate change, to name just a few challenges. But the potential is there. Given how colonization has ruined and destroyed people and the environment on our own planet, perhaps it is a good idea to re-think our paradigms before we get to the point of landing on other worlds, in proxy or in flesh. What kinds of ethical dilemmas might we face as we reach toward the stars? Shouldn’t we start to have that discussion? Even Gene Roddenberry was more thoughtful with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Do we know why we are going out there? We have ruined our own planet, committed genocides against peoples and other species. How can we make sure we don’t do the same on other worlds?
So these questions complicate my thrill and wonder at the new discoveries in the Plutonian system. Science without ethics, to paraphrase Einstein, is blind. As I think about Pluto’s surprisingly active geological heart, its frozen methane and nitrogen plains, its youthful mountains, as I ponder what we might discover about its dancing partner, Charon, and the tiny, irregular smaller moons, my imagination returns again and again to what we have done to our own planet. Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar, kya kije, sang the poet Faiz, as I might well sing to my new love, Pluto. Ab bhi dilkash hai tera husn magar kya kije! **
Dance on, ice world with a heart of fire. I hope our learning about you will confer upon us some wisdom as a species. Just as the first pictures of Earth from space moved tough men to tears (the overview effect) I hope that space exploration will bring us back, in the most meaningful sense, to Earth.
** From Faiz’s poem “Pehli si mohabbat.” Roughly and inadequately translated – My gaze returns toward [the suffering of the world], what can I do; although your face is still beautiful what can I do [but return to the world].