People on Pluto

When I was a few years younger than I am now ideas swam around my head like sparkling little goldfish at an alarmingly constant rhythm. I took it for granted. It was a time when I thought my ideas were bright and shiny and new, and gleaming with originality. I thought I was thinking up things that no one had thought, thinking thoughts only a thought genius could’ve thunk. Because they were new to me. When a new thing scuttles its way into your head, you make a big deal out of it, and you make a big deal out of it by writing in journals and listening to angsty songs.

Firsts are magical in their newborn gurgles, and get sillier with perspective.

For the first time we’re seeing Pluto properly. It used to be a bunch of pixels, so few that I could count them, and so small I bet they had to check for dust on the lens before confirming. Now I can see its craters. I can see the white splodge that stamps the middle of it, shaped like a well-made men’s shoe and most likely a remnant of when we booted it out of the planet club. It looks suspiciously like our moon, only drenched in sepia and the tones of old times.

It was named by an 11-year-old girl, after the Roman god of the underworld. It’s sweet really. Pluto, god of the underworld, husband of Persephone, ruler of Hades, way out there in the Keiper Belt ruling the icy rocks with its gravity. Of course the god of the underworld would be frozen solid. Nothing’s ever what we expect.

And now New Horizons is zipping past – mission accomplished – carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh with it, further and further from his discovery. Glory doesn’t last, but there is something thrilling about being catapulted past our solar system post-mortem style.

He discovered it in 1930. That doesn’t seem far enough in the past. It’s hard to picture a time when Pluto wasn’t there, tailing the solar system with its posse of rocks. Just as hard as it’ll be in 85 years, when Pluto has dropped off the student acronyms for good and there are clear and actual pictures hanging on classroom walls, to think of a time when all we knew for sure was it was there, and it was very very far away.

There might even be a flag cracked into the ice, if we practice dangerous optimism. Another first for another generation to gawk over. What do you mean, Mum? There were always people on Pluto.

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