Closing in on Pluto, probe gives us the best pictures yet of distant world


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Nice. And here I was expecting another pixelated crapshot, but I still couldn’t resist clicking.


Plutocrats are named after Pluto, because Pluto rules the underworld, and the underworld – below the surface, within the earth – is a source of gold, to be dug up (probably by slaves) and used as Plutocratic wealth.

Pliny the Elder doesn’t use the term “Plutocrat” (that I’m aware of; although, I’m an armchair scholar) – but he sure does rail against the corrupting effects of gold and gold mining.

We trace out all the veins of the earth, and yet, living upon it, undermined as it is beneath our feet, are astonished that it should occasionally cleave asunder or tremble: as though, forsooth, these signs could be any other than expressions of the indignation felt by our sacred parent!

We penetrate into her entrails, and seek for treasures in the abodes even of the Manes, as though each spot we tread upon were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile for us!


without mining, there would be no NASA.


yup, that’s a Megasphere alright


Not really. Most of the data gathered will be quite late. New Horizons upload speed is, IIRC, 2 kbs. So it might be some time before the public gets to appreciate the full resolution photos, I think whet we’re seeing is a preview of what is to come.


What I see right there is a … Planet.
It’s… A… Planet.


There are really good reasons why it isn’t considered as such, which if you really wanted I’d be happy to discuss again. Because speaking as someone who thought it shouldn’t be a planet a decade before the IAU recognized that, it’s disappointing how rarely those are actually considered in favor of nostalgia.

As for what you see right here, let me point out another comparison – how much it looks like Triton, the one more familiar object that is probably from the same family. The biggest difference is the red color, something that seems to be common among Kuiper belt objects. I gather it hasn’t been explained yet, but hopefully this is the first step to an answer!



It’ like downloading high-res porn in 1998…one…line…at a time…


Well, yes – I am in favor of NASA, and therefore in favor of mining, and nuclear reactors, and some other stuff that has a history of abuse.

The brazen bull is an evil machine, but maybe it anticipates the steam engine.


Oh, I am very familiar with all the reasons, that’s why I didn’t bother to elaborate over all the ‘technical specifications’ as to why it’s a ‘dwarf’. Call it what you will, it’s still a Planet. And it looks nothing like Triton; Triton doesn’t have a Moon, much less 5.

Most people are not astronomers, but do like to look up into the sky, and know their place in space. It’s really not cool to just ‘take away’ a planet from their solar system for technical reasons that are difficult to explain. It’s not nostalgia, it’s history, it’s mythology, it’s fantasy and science fiction. You can say it’s just semantics, but that is what’s important. In the non-scientific ‘Space’ there is the Sun, the Moon, Earth, Stars, and Planets. These are the building blocks for painting the picture of the Universe we live in. We had 9 Planets, and suddenly a bunch of scientists just drop it off the list, that’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to do. We live in a very small place in a gigantic universe, we need all the friends we can get.
Disney didn’t name Mickey’s dog after the God of the Underworld, he named it after the Planet. Plutonium was also named after the Planet, and that element is powering New Horizons to it’s namesake world.

As more amazing pictures come in I hope more people will embrace the amazing Planet Pluto and bring it back into the fold.


It doesn’t, but moons don’t say much about what a world is like; there are terrestrial planets with and without them, other Kuiper belt objects with and maybe without them, and asteroids with and without them. The point is that the object itself is probably akin to Pluto, having formed in the same region and later captured by Neptune. To those of us interested in their nature, it’s the natural comparison.

Pluto was not suddenly dropped from a list, any more than mushrooms were suddenly expelled from the plant kingdom; its position was eventually changed after a long time learning more about things. I know you say you’re familiar with the reasons, but dismissing them as “technical specifications” makes it sound like you don’t really understand my perspective; so I’m hoping you’ll indulge me in repeating some things you know in order to explain myself.

Without making any attempt to classify them, here are all the largest objects in the solar system, save maybe a few that were discovered in the last few years; I’ve arranged them by mass in kilograms on a logarithmic scale:

30 – Sun
27 – Jupiter, Saturn
26 – Neptune, Uranus
25 – Earth, Venus
24 – Mars, Mercury
23 – Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, Io, Moon, Europa
22 – Triton, Eris, Pluto, Sedna, Haumea, Makemake, Titania
21 – Oberon, 2007 OR10, Quaoar, Rhea, Iapetus, 2002 TC302, Charon, Ariel, Umbriel, 2005 QU182, Dione, Ceres, 2007 UK126, Orcus, Ixion, Tethys, 2005 UQ513, Varuna

All of these are large enough to be round, in contrast to the 20 bracket which includes objects like Vesta and Pallas that aren’t. The sun is of course a star made of plasma; the next four are primarily gaseous, and the others are variously rocky or icy.

From Ganymede downward, many of these don’t orbit the sun directly, but instead circle larger objects. The others in this size range are all part of two belts containing a multitude of objects of various sizes, with generally eccentric and overlapping orbits. Both kinds probably formed there, but with some interchange; as I said, Triton probably started as one of the outer belt objects before Neptune captured it.

The only exceptions to these categories are the eight objects from Jupiter down to Mercury. These go around the sun directly but are not part of any belt, with orbits cleared of all but very small debris. And this is probably an important part of how the system formed; they are not all expected to have formed in place by any means, but not from belts or left-overs like the others.

If you care about knowing your place in space, this is what it looks like. I certainly care, and so I don’t consider the words we use to describe it mere semantics, but rather think it is important to choose them to paint this picture as clearly as possible. And to me the best way to do that is categories: an inner and outer belt, satellites, and eight larger objects that define regions on their own.

I do appreciate history, but that involves recognizing it as something separate from our current understanding and shifting over time. When Pluto was discovered, Disney thought to name a character after it. Holst preferred to stick with tradition and mythology, and left his planets suite with just the seven besides Earth. Even these were not all known to the ancients, to whom the god Uranus was the sky itself not an object in it. Before plutonium came cerium and palladium, named for new planets that proved asteroids. What reason is there besides nostalgia to enjoy all these centuries of learning, except for the last one?

I assure you I’m very excited for New Horizons. I’m excited because it’s the first time we’ve seen Pluto up close, and are bound to discover lots of things about it. And I’m even more excited because one of those discoveries is that it is part of a vast unexplored belt, and this will be the first close look we have at anything there. If you’re stuck thinking of it as the one final planet, a peculiar cousin of the eight places we’ve been, you’re missing out on this greater context.

I do embrace Pluto, for what it is and what we can learn about it, and I’m frustrated by the claim we can’t do that and embrace what we are learning about its actual place in the solar system. It amazes me every time somebody talks about the nine planets, as if that was a more inclusive take at what’s out there. It seems to me an obvious mistake, and one that short-changes Eris, Sedna, Haumea, and all the other new friends we could be making.

Pluto and other known “not-planets” in our solar system mapped in scale image montage
CT scan of a bee's brain
Um, Shit's Complex, Yo

I agree with Drew – it seems that as we come to know more about our solar system and others, the more sub-categories are needed. Pluto is a planet, a dwarf planet, Jupiter is a planet, a gas giant planet, etc. Perhaps what we need is binomial nomenclature.


You’re all wrong. Pluto is a planet.


a minor planet, yes.


It was some years after, when nine-planeters became the new flat-earthers.


Or maybe it got mad with us when we downgraded it to a dwarf planet and is still sore.

Pluto’s the butt-hurt one? I thought that was … oh never mind.


A rock by any other name will still be a rock.

Can we get to the asteroid mining already?