Pluto is ready (or not) for its close-up

 A color image of Pluto taken by LORRI aboard the New Horizons spacecraft on July 7.

A color image of Pluto taken by LORRI aboard the New Horizons spacecraft on July 7.

On July 14, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will fly by the former planet known as Pluto. Already, the spacecraft is sending back pictures that have scientists “drooling,” which is a bit like calling Marilyn Monroe a dumb blonde and then collecting every MM photo you can.

You see, back in 2006, a fraction of the members of the IAU (International Astronomical Union) voted to demote Pluto to dwarf status. (Something about size and crossed orbits and not owning its Kuiper Belt neighborhood, etc.) So even though tiny Pluto has five moons, it was out.

This did not sit well with the kind of Earthlings who champion the oppressed or are tiny themselves (card-writing schoolchildren, especially those who had to memorize “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles,” or some such to remember Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.)

  “ Pluto und Proserpina (Persephone)”-Glocken Fontäne Rondell – Sanssouci.  Photograph by Steffen Heilfort.

Pluto und Proserpina (Persephone)”-Glocken Fontäne Rondell – Sanssouci.  Photograph by Steffen Heilfort.

Now, your very educated mother just serves you nine – nothing.  But at least Gustave Holst is happy. He wrote his popular suite “The Planets” before Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh but had become so disillusioned with the way the work took over his reputation as a composer that he refused to add to it. (In 1972, Leonard Bernstein improvised “Pluto, the Unpredictable” for one of his New York Philharmonic “Young People’s Concerts.”)

Poor Pluto – always getting the short end of the stick. It goes back to the name itself. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld (in Greek, Hades), in large part because kid brothers Poseidon and Zeus claimed the sea and sky respectively in a game of dice and there was nothing else left. Sure, the underworld was a place of perverse pleasures and immense wealth and Hades had a hot-looking queen -- his niece Persephone, or Proserpina -- but even that didn’t work out too well as he kidnapped her and then had to return her to her mother part of the year after discovering that she ate only a handful of pomegranate seeds. (And that’s why we have fall and winter, Persephone’s time with her gloomily handsome hubby, and that’s why we have spring and summer, Persephone’s time with mama.)

By the way, Persephone’s mother is Demeter, or Ceres, the name of another dwarf planet out there in the Kuiper Belt with Pluto. See how it all fits? Except Pluto must think the IAU is just rubbing it in.

As we said, not everyone is happy with Pluto’s dwarf status and the flyby – Pluto does not even get a landing – is either further confirmation of the way in which the former big boys’ planet is viewed or hope that it will be returned to planetary status -- which seems like a stretch. Still, Pluto’s demotion and renewed celebrity have produced some humorous outrage and backlash, much of it unprintable, and lots of “I Heart Pluto” stuff. There are also bleakly beautiful paintings of the pearlescent planet by British artist David Hardy that depict “an unimaginable loneliness.” 

Pluto has a friend, though, in Illinois, home state of astronomer Tombaugh, as the state voted to keep it a planet. And planet or not, NASA is encouraging everyone to use social media to post pix of Pluto time – that moment right before dawn and right after dusk when the light becomes a sliver. That’s what noon is like on Pluto, 3.67 billion light-years from the sun.

But you know what? No word from Pluto on whether or not the little planet that could cares. And that’s a life lesson for all of us: Dwarf or no, Pluto continues to do its elliptical Pluto thing.

It doesn’t matter what people call you, only what you in essence are.

You go, Pluto. Rock on.