Like every other astronomy nerd, I’m super-geeked about all the pictures and data we’re getting from the planet. The only thing I have to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said that for some reason the photos we’re getting back from New Horizons feel drawn or painted to me, rather than being entirely photorealistic. In fact, they remind me quite a bit of old drawing of Mars, not unlike this one, from 19th Century French astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot:

It’s probably only me who sees it, but I still see it. I think it has to do with New Horizons’ camera, which among other things is adapted to see in very very low light (Pluto is very far away, and we’re looking at the side of it not illuminated by the sun). I like the effect, mind you. But it weirdly makes Pluto still very much mysterious to me.

Thoughts on our Pluto sojurn?

72 Comments on “Pluto”

  1. I think that is because we have spent our lives looking at drawing and paintings of Pluto so our brains are accustom to it.

    Now that we actually have real pictures it will take some getting used to.

  2. It’s probably a result of the broad spectrum sensor used due to the low light. Add some heavy post-processing to highlight detail, etc, and you start to get something that’s pint-shop-esque. You see similar things all over instagram.

    But it’s still freakin’ cool, ain’t it?

  3. I watched the Guardian’s video of the press conference and when someone posted a congrats to “the guys at NASA,” I added a comment that I’d like to repost here.

    One thing that struck me as pretty cool was how many of the guys were female. I watched the Gemini and Apollo missions live on tv, all those years ago, and the operations centres were staffed entirely by men. Nerd girls have come a long way in the last fifty years.

  4. I was thrilled to see that many people so happy about their work, and all in one place. Such a feeling of accomplishment they must be experiencing. I had a job like that once.

  5. The pictures are amazing. I’ve been reading about and imagining Pluto all my life, so it seems weird that these are the first good pictures were have of it.
    They have an old-timey look. Something in the image quality makes them look like like they were taken on glass plates. They also look hand-colored, which I think is because they used color information from a lower resolution camera to add color to the higher resolution black and white. I’ve used a similar method to make pictures look hand-colored in Photoshop: copy the photo to two layers, desaturate the top one and put a heavy Gaussian blur on the bottom one, then set the blending on the top one to “darken.”

  6. What makes you say that we’re seeing the unilluminated side of Pluto? I’ve not read anything else saying that, and I think it’s pretty unlikely, given that New Horizons was approaching from inside Pluto’s orbit and that the dark side has not so much low illumination as none at all, except for a bit of starlight.

  7. The article you refer to talks about observations during the flyby. We don’t have any of those pictures yet. The picture you linked to was taken before the flyby, and I’m now certain that it was illuminated by the sun, not by the very much fainter light from Charon.

  8. @matthughes419434748 – I’m online friends with a few of the women working for NASA now. :)

    It’s kind of great to see how many women are into space exploration.

  9. I think the Atlantic article is referring to the geometry of the flyby, when, yes, the surface New Horizons is passing over was illuminated by Charon-shine. During the approach phase, which is where all the images we’ve seen so far come from, I’d imagine that Pluto would have been illuminated by the Sun.

  10. It was pretty moving to see the scene in the control room as they got the first data indicating the flyby went as planned. I’ll confess to tearing up a little bit at that…(heightened perhaps a bit by knowing firsthand the feelings of scientific exploration & discovery, and what the team must be going through). Now if only the reality of scientists as real human beings with real emotions would make it into more of pop culture…

  11. I think it’s endlessly fascinating and I’m glad that I’m here to witness this exploration. I was not yet born for the Apollo missions, and was but a small child for the early days of the space shuttle program. The amount of excitement and enthusiasm among my friends and co-workers of the same age as me for New Horizons is awesome.

  12. Seeing pictures of Pluto with its moon just makes me upset all over again that they downgraded it from being a planet.

  13. I’d been thinking about this for a while – that so many of the pictures from Pluto look like very old special-effects shots. It’s strangely romantic, in that adventurer sense, you know? I have to remind myself repeatedly that no, it’s real.

    And yes, those old paintings absolutely apply. Same sort of thing, really. I imagine one could find a chain of influence all the way back around.

  14. I remember the Moon landings so seeing these pix is very special. And I still get a shiver down my spine every time I see a picture of Mars – an actual planet, that we have an actual machine on, taking pictures! Whee!

  15. All of the images we’ve seen so far have been sun illuminated for sure. It’s questionable whether we’ll be able to see anything but the crescent of Pluto in the Charon-shine attempts. And Pluto’s axis is rotated almost 90°, like Uranus, so we’ve mostly seen only its northern hemisphere all through the approach. The southern hemisphere will mostly remain a mystery until we send another probe out there.

  16. Correction to my earlier comment: Pluto’s axis is rotated 120°, so we could see a fair bit of it as it rotated. Bjorn Jonsson made a great video of the rotation we’ve seen so far.
    But there’s still plenty that’ll still be in shadow.

  17. {Assuming that I am on-topic as an ex-Astronomy Professor who spent two decades in the Space Program, to say what I SEE in this image}:
    Meta-Sonnet: “Pluto Rising”
    by Jonathan Vos Post
    Dark curved quadrilateral
    in the Southwest of the visible hemisphere
    the huge white Head of the Whale,
    at and below the equator,
    and the dark streak below the Tail of the Whale
    and the delta tip from
    the Head of the Whale
    to a bright South Polar area —
    and the Chaotic Terrain: what does it mean?
    Alien beauty of the Kuiper Belt
    Unique Geometries
    of clathrate ices
    under the dim glow of the Boatman:
    Charon, other side of the Double Dwarf Planet
    Wednesday 15 July 2015
    2 Tankas + 1 Quatrain = 1 Sonnet

  18. The quality of the image reminds me of very old glass negative photography, like around the time of the civil war. Perhaps its the color, which appears as if a duotone, or the sharpness, which is likely caused by the low level of illumination, but effect is startling and somewhat fantastic.

  19. It’s because the designers of the simulation we inhabit have a strategy of conserving resources where they don’t think they’re needed, and only rendered the Kuiper Belt at 150 dpi.

  20. Folks upthread are right: the picture is Sun-illuminated, and (in fact) is the anti-Charon side. Pluto always keeps one face to Charon (and Charon keeps one face to Pluto). The fly-by was planned so the nightside of Pluto would be lit by Charon, in hopes that something could be seen.

    Even if those observations fail, the crescent Pluto and Charon images will help look for things like dust rings in the orbits of the small moons. Dust tends to show up better in that sort of lighting (think about looking back at a projector and seeing the dust caught in the beam). In fact, we have a couple of well-publicized gorgeous image mosaics of Saturn’s rings taken for the same purpose.

    (You also learn a bit about the surface by looking at observations like this: more about the size of the stuff on the surface than the composition. That and we can never get views of crescent Pluto and Charon from Earth, given we’re always looking out, and not in.)

  21. My first impression was of a giant jawbreaker, probably because of the low-rez, airbrushed effect. Still better than anything we’ve seen of Pluto so far. New Horizons will be taking the better part of a year to send back imagery, just because their data stream makes dialup look blazingly fast.

  22. .
    {now that that APL released the highest resolution images}:
    Meta-Sonnet: “Pluto in Hi-Res.”
    by Jonathan Vos Post
    Like a squashed insect
    on a motorcycle headlight
    dark asterisk on lightness —
    what organic polymers in the dark stuff?
    More like tar, or protein?
    Was I right in my
    “Skiing the Methane Snows
    of Pluto”, in Focus, Magazine of the British Science Fiction Association,
    London, England, Vol.1, No.1, Autumn 1979
    or is it Nitrogen snow, or what?
    That story of mine
    correctly predicted
    volcano terrain
    on Jupiter’s moon Io.
    1:58 p.m.
    Wednesday 15 July 2015
    2 Tankas + 1 Quatrain = 1 Sonnet

  23. I am a science nerd of broad but modest knowledge (in the words of a chemist friend: “you are the most science literate history major I know…). When I was a kid we had the Time-Life books on science and another set focused on astronomy. I have been having some cognitive dissonance over the color photos because on a lot of solar system maps then and still Pluto is blue.

  24. I believe the “painted” appearance is mostly because the pre-flyby images we’ve been seeing before today were all taken while New Horizons was basically barrelling straight out of the Sun, so the light was coming from directly behind the point of view. That tends to flatten out topography, like a bad flash photo with the flash mounted on a pocket camera. It is also the situation with early observations of Mars from Earth, so the same thing happened there: mostly what people see are albedo features, not topography.

    Combine that with the low-res data being used to colorize the pictures, and you get this slightly unreal appearance.

    Now, the closeup that they just released today is a very, very, very different story.

  25. Ssteve; YES! I’ve had that song stuck in my head for days now. I feel so melancholy …

  26. One of the first science fiction books I ever read was Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I suspect I’m not alone. Anyway, I read it so many times I still remember large chunks of it. One that stands out is the section where Kip has been captured and how he figures out that he’s on Pluto.
    Another, more chilling story was the one about the space explorer frozen on Pluto, who doesn’t die, but his nervous system becomes superconductive at certain temperatures. It was Larry Niven’s “Wait it out”.

  27. The most emotional part of this for me is knowing that some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes have made it to the place he discovered 85 years ago. It’s like the feeling you get when you visit someplace you’ve only seen pictures of before, only multiply that feeling by a billion.

  28. If you like this stuff check out brady harans yourube channels. He has several. He talks to science progessors. One channel is called deep sky and its all above astronomy. My favoritechannel is the physics channel. Its not like sitting in classroom and anyone can follow. The professors are very engaging.

  29. Personally I think that there are no huge surprises there, some parts are darker than other parts and definitely a large impact crater. Not really the Pluto depicted in the Flash Gordon comic by Dan Barry “The Pluto Spectacular”. (Check with for that one.)

    Anyway – it’s a great achievement to reach Pluto! The more we know the more we know we don’t know, so there may be new mysteries to look at now!

  30. Also, I expect that as more data comes in that the color palette will be refined. We’ve seen that with early images from other probes. It’s pretty dark out there.

    Dr. Phil

  31. Don’t know details of how they’re processing the New Horizons pixels into a continuous-tone photograph, but I’ve done enough remote-sensing work to have a plausible explanation for why the image looks painted: Whenever you take discrete pixels and convert them into a depixillated image, you have to rely on some kind of algorithm (linear or cubic spline interpolation, kriging, nearest-neighbor area-weighted resampling, pixel unmixing, whatevs) to increase the perceived resolution. Each algorithm introduces its own artefacts into the final image, but in each case, you end up with a “smoothed” image that looks artificial because the smoothing doesn’t fully account for the complexity of a real image. You’re basically making up data based on what you can see from a limited number of pixels.

    Still bloody amazing images.

  32. Origuy,

    I do remember those. Another that came quickly to mind was The Legion Of Space by Jack Williamson. In it an intrepid band of heroes, John Ulnar (Star), Jay Kalam, Hal Samdu and of course Giles Habibula, are on their way out of the Solar System to follow the trail of the horridly alien Medusae that, in cahoots with Eric Ulnar and his uncle, who was the commander of the Legion, had kidnapped Aladoree Anthar the Keeper of the super secret ultimate weapon known by the cryptic acronym AKKA.

    The entire Legion has been turned against them by the traitor commander, but their stolen ship can not make the journey to the Medusae home world, orbiting Barnard’s Star, without massive provisioning. So they raid the last Legion outpost in the system on their way out. Pluto!

  33. .
    Pluto, the planet having been discovered by Clyde
    Tombaugh in 1930:
    * Stanton Coblentz’s “Into Plutonian Depths” [1931; Avon, 1950]
    * Jack Williamson’s “The Plutonian Terror” [publisher?, 1933]
    * Stanton Coblentz’s “Riches for Pluto” [Astounding, Dec 1934]
    * Stanton Coblentz’s “Blue Haze on Pluto” [Astounding, June 1935]
    * Donald W. Horner’s “Winged Destiny” [1912]
    * Wallace West’s “En Route to Pluto” [Astounding, Aug 1936]
    * Laurence Manning & Fletcher Pratt’s “Expedition to Pluto”
    [Planet Stories, Winter, 1939]
    *S.D. Gottesman (pseudonym of C.M. Kornbluth) “King Cole of Pluto”
    [Super Science Stories, 1940]
    * Joseph Ferrell’s “Mind-Stealers of Pluto” [Planet Stories, Winter 1944]
    * Murray Leinster’s “Pipeline to Pluto” [Astounding, Aug 1945]
    * Clifford D. Simak’s “Cosmic Engineers” [Gnome, 1950]
    * Jack Williamson’s “The Cometeers” [Fantasy Press, 1950]
    * Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Plutonian Drug” [The Outer Reaches,
    ed. August Derleth, Pelligrini Cudahy, 1951]
    * Vargo Statten’s (pseudonym of John Russell Fearn)
    “Deadline to Pluto” [Scion, 1951]
    * Charles A. Stearn’s “The Pluto Lamp” [Planet Stories, Fall 1954]
    * Algis Budrys’ “Man of Earth” [Ballantine, 1958]
    * Robert Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” [Scribner’s, 1958]
    : great scene trekking across Pluto’s surface with The Mother Thing
    sharing the teenaged protagonist’s spacesuit
    * Wilson Tucker’s “To the Tombaugh Station” [Ace, 1960]
    * Larry Niven’s “World of Ptaavs” [Ballantine, 1966]
    * Larry Niven’s “Wait It Out” [Future Unbounded, Westercon Program Book, 1968]
    * Philip Latham’s (pseudonym of R.S. Richardson) “The Rose-Bowl Pluto Hypothesis”
    [Orbit 5, ed. Damon Knight, Putnam, 1969]
    * Hugh Walters’ “Passage to Pluto” [Nelson, 1973]
    * Jonathan V. Post “Skiing the Methane Snows of Pluto” [Focus, Autumn 1979]
    : Your Humble Webmaster not only predicted the methane snows of Pluto (now confirmed by spectroscopy) but also “the volcanoberg terrain of Io” well before Voyager discovered volcanoes on Io!
    * Keith Laumer’s “No Ship Boots in Fairyland” [Once There Was a Giant,
    ed. Keith Laumer, Tor, 1984]
    * Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Icehenge” [Jove, 1984]
    : alien artifact found on Pluto
    expanded from the short story “On the North Pole of Pluto”
    * Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Memory of Whiteness” [Tor, 1985]
    * Rick Gauger’s “Charon’s Ark” [Ballantine, 1987]
    * Donald A. Wollheim’s “Secret of the Ninth Planet” [19zz]
    * Roger MacBride Allen’s “The Ring of Charon” [Tor, 1990]
    : living alien spacewarp generator buried in the giant moon of Pluto
    * Colin Greenland’s “Take Back Plenty” [AvoNova, 1992]
    * Stephen Baxter’s “Gossamer” [Science Fiction Age, Nov 1995]
    : ingenious cruogenic ecology on Pluto
    * Colin Greenland’s “Seasons of Plenty” [AvoNova, 1996]
    * Robert Silverberg’s “Pluto in the Morning Light” [magazine?, date?]
    * By the way, H. P. Lovecraft claimed to have predicted the discovery
    of Pluto in fiction! He had published various astronomy articles in a Rhode island newspaper, and in his Horror/Science Fiction he described prior to 1930 a planet beyond Neptune. [some of the above were also listed in “Steven Silver’s Pluto in SF”

  34. Hmmm. I don’t recall Pluto being featured in Jack Williamson’s “The Cometeers”. Neptune was featured, though. The main antagonist, Stephen Orco, was imprisoned on Neptune in an isolated super secret, super secure prison that the Legion built just for him. From which he was sprung by the alien energy entities, the Cometeers.

  35. Re: the women working on New Horizons
    NASA posted a nice article about the women who work on the New Horizons team:
    It get’s better when you add in the extended scientific community, who will be contributing to the data analysis and interpretation for the next few years and whose younger echelons of scientists have a closer to parity mix of women and men.

    Re: the ‘painted’ quality of the images
    The painted quality of the images is likely due to a combination of reasons mentioned in comments above. The current images that have been downlinked are lossy JPEG images, so there will be artifacts in the images. Then, the New Horizons team applied a number of standard processing algorithms to increase the effective resolution of the images, which can ‘smear’ any artifacts. Finally, for the color images, they have been applying the lower resolution MVIC color images to the higher resolution LORRI panchromatic images. This ‘colorization’ process involves interpolation of data that can lead to some of the ‘painted’ quality seen in the official images. On top of all of this, some of the images were purposefully over- and under-exposed. I believe that the photo at the top of this post may be an overexposed 100 ms image (see: ) which was then colorized.

    Personally, as a planetary scientist who studies atmospheres, I am much more excited about Friday’s press release, where they should release the first results about Pluto’s thin but intriguing atmosphere. This mission is going to keep tantalizing us with amazing results for years to come.

  36. Dear Jon,

    Please stop using your posts to promote yourself. It gets annoying fast. This isn’t about you.


    pax / Ctein

  37. I must commend my fellow commenters here, who generally know a lot more about astronomy than I do. I even like Mr. Vos Post’s descriptive doggerel! It’s great to see people excited about space for a change.

  38. I’m still stuck on the idea that pluto is 3 Billion miles away, and a human built machine was there. 3 Buh… buh… BILLion miles. BILLION….

    My God, its full of miles….

  39. Dear Geoff,

    Along with what you said, I’d like to caution people against trying to read too much into the fine details in the photographs. At this point we outsiders don’t know which of those are real and which of those are image processing artifacts. For example, the fine zebra striping that’s visible in the badlands terrain near the terminator in the high-resolution photograph–– I can make equally good cases that it’s real (because it’s similar in scale and orientation to the clear striping we see on the ice mountains towards the left) and that it’s an artifact (because the consistent size, spacing, contrast and orientation of the striping is physically implausible but typical of some kinds of image artifacts). So, reserving judgment until we know more.

    Breaking my own rule… That looks suspiciously like a caldera to me in the leftmost ice mountain.


    Dear NH,

    I would respectfully disagree. Pluto and Charon are pretty damn surprising. That they are both geologically active, with diverse and heterogeneous processes still going on, is flabbergasting. At this point we have no idea what energy source is driving that. When we see similar stuff on the moons of the gas giants, it’s because of interactions with other moons, tidal heating, and stuff like that. None of that’s going on in the Pluto system.

    We can’t explain the surfaces by some recent cataclysmic event. The moon system around Pluto is pretty stable and pretty tightly packed. Impact events that would be large enough to cause resurfacing of either Pluto or Charon shouldn’t leave the moon system in that orderly a state.

    We also don’t know where the nitrogen atmosphere is coming from. Pluto doesn’t lose a lot of nitrogen gas each summer, but it loses enough that over 4,000,000,000 years a few hundred meters to a few kilometers of nitrogen snow would’ve escaped as vapor into space. Pluto doesn’t look to be covered with a layer of nitrogen snow that deep, so it has to be coming from some sort of internal geologic process.

    It’s a big mystery.

    All this suggests to me that it’s going to be a lot harder to find “primordial” bodies to look at than we thought. We figured that once we got out as far as Pluto, we’d be able to see things that hadn’t changed much since they formed (not counting an ongoing shower of impacts). We’re zero for two. At this point I’d not be making any bets on whether other Kuiper belt dwarf planets we visit will turn out to be in their primordial state.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  40. Yes, the pictures are cool, and yes, as an enthusiastic sci-fi reader, I can’t help enjoying them. But as a grown-up living in a world of scarce resources, I have to say that the whole project represents tragically misplaced priorities and poor choices.

    The New Horizons mission cost $700 milliion. Suppose we’d spent that on teachers for inner-city schools instead? According to the New York City Department of Education, salaries for starting teachers range from $45,000 to $75,000. That’s likely to be higher than almost anywhere else in the nation, because of the cost of living in NYC. Let’s assume that the cost of a teacher-year is $70,000, including benefits. Then the money we spent on New Horizons could’ve gone for 10,000 teacher-years; in other words, in each of the 10 years of the mission, we could’ve had 1,000 additional teachers working to help underprivileged kids. Was it worth giving that up so we could have cool pictures of Pluto?

  41. Nova Cletus, while I sympathize with the desire to put more resources into public education, the US spent $621 billion in 2011-2012 on public elementary and secondary education in 2011-2012. The New Horizons mission didn’t deprive us in any measurable manner.

    The Pluto mission did get a fair amount of public interest in the media, but that’s because we’ve never been there. We graduate millions of people every year from high school. That’s important, but it isn’t really news. New Horizons is.

  42. Dear Nova,

    As sympathetic as I am for education (I ALWAYS vote for school bonds) this is not even a conversation worth having, because it has no basis in political reality. It’s a fantasy discussion taking place in an unreal scenario. Here are some of its major failures to connect with reality:

    –– It’s just a variant of the guns vs. butter fallacy. In its most stereotyped form, do you spend your tax dollars on a social safety net or on a strong military? (Assuming you can distinctly parse the two.) It’s a fallacious argument because it assumes that given sufficient money, the body politic would happily spend for both. That’s readily shown to not be the case. On the whole, people who are inclined to pay for Column A are disinclined to pay for Column B. There are exceptions to this, but they are in the minority. For example, the socially conservative factions in government (and it’s been this way for 60 years, so it’s not a New Republican thing) think that a strong military is vital to the health and survival of this country whereas a large safety net is at best a necessary evil and at worse a debilitating influence.

    I’m not saying that to pick on conservatives. It’s not hard to find a substantial cohort that feels just the opposite. I’m one of them. You can cut back the money for social programs all you want, I’m still not going to want see it spent on the military.

    –– It’s not your pie, and your piece is pathetically small. Why should all the money from a NATIONAL program go to the New York City school system? I live in California, whose schools have been gradually going to hell ever since they passed goddamn Prop 13. I can lay as big a claim on the money for my entire state as you can for your one city. I strongly suspect pretty much everyone, living anywhere could do the same thing. As Steve pointed out, New Horizons ate up 1/10,000 of the US’s educational budget. How much is it going to serve you to entirely kill a scientific program to get you a 0.01% increase in your school budget? Unless you’re arguing that the program has no merit whatsoever, in which case we’re back to guns vs. butter.

    –– Comparing pain never leads to anywhere good. I can find dozens of social causes much more important and time-critical than yours. Hell, I can find some programs within the New York City school system that are more important than just hiring new teachers. There’s always something that’s more vital than the cause you advocate. You do not hold primacy. Which, in a nuanced form, also tends to wander back to guns vs. butter.

    –– Your world of scarce resources is a fallacy. It’s one of your collective political making. The US is fabulously rich with an amazing level of economic resources available. All you have to do is be willing to pay the taxes to get all those services you want. By which, I do mean you collectively. I have no idea what your individual personal tax policies are. It doesn’t matter. You really want to do something to get more money into the New York City school system? Work the political system to raise taxes. Because I can pretty much guarantee you that the people who are hanging on to other pieces of the pie aren’t going to give them up without fights.

    And this is why I say your argument is being made in the land of make-believe, not the real world. For that reason, there is no purpose in engaging it.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  43. If it makes anyone feel better, it was about 25 cents per mile to Pluto. If we fund a visit to another Kuiper Belt Object, that price will go down. (the probe is going through the Kuiper Belt anyway, so it’s a matter of paying people to collect the data and study the results. I have to agree with Ctein and Steve C. about funding. We’d probably just buy another non-functioning jet. Besides, exploring is what we do.

  44. Steve C., your drop-in-the-bucket argument could be used to justify any $700M budget item, be it New Horizons, a four-lane highway between Podunk and Hicksville, or the Pentagon’s new FreedomAndJusticeDefender destructobot. I suspect that most of us wouldn’t be nearly as sympathetic toward the argument in the latter two cases: we’re receptive to it in this case because, amazing Pluto photos!

    I assume that the $621Bn figure you cite refers to all educational spending in the US, which is not wisely allocated: a great deal of it goes to provide AP courses and Olympic-sized swimming pools for overprivileged children in wealthy suburbs. The same amount of money spent through the federal Department of Education, particularly under a socially enlightened administration, would be directed toward meeting the real needs of society’s most vulnerable members.

    Ctein, you’re completely misreading my post. I wasn’t proposing that the $70M/year be spent on NYC alone. I was doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation of about how many teachers we could hire with the money that we’re spending on Pluto pictures, and I used the NYC figures because I thought they’d be high, so my estimate would come out low.

    Suppose that 10% of the Whatever readership had contacted their Congressional delegation and said: “We’d love to see what Pluto looks like, but we’ve got more urgent needs right here in the US. With much regret, we’re asking you to axe New Horizons and put the money into inner-city education.” Don’t you think that an outpouring of support like that could’ve swung enough votes in Congress to accomplish that, especially coming from people who were offering to give up something that they genuinely wanted, as opposed to the usual procedure where supporters of a program suggest that it be financed by taking funds from something that they don’t personally care about?

    But hey, Pluto!

  45. This isn’t just about cool pictures that are cool; that’s just the public-outreach arm. The main product is knowledge about the solar system that becomes the common heritage of humanity.

    That knowledge, in synthesis with other things scientists discover, could end up telling us something important that contributes to our ability to sustain existence on this planet.

    Or it might not. Odds are, it probably won’t.

    The trouble is, every basic science program in the world could be attacked on these same grounds. Any individual, purely curiosity-driven science program has a fairly small probability of providing some easily identifiable practical benefit. And science costs money. The money could be used instead to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

    So should we just shut down all publicly-funded basic science until every poor person is fed and every underprivileged child educated, which is synonymous with “forever” (while leaving all the far more expensive wars, destructo-bots, fossil-fuel subsidies and tax cuts for the rich intact, as a token of our political selflessness)?

    This is the divide-and-conquer strategy that’s being used when people issue stern warnings about how the country is broke. People get motivated to fight each other over slivers of a shrinking pie, and they all lose. The trouble with curiosity-driven science is that every so often someone hits some vital jackpot, but it’s impossible to identify them in advance, and the same progress can’t be made with narrowly targeted applied research. So it’s always difficult to justify. Occasionally some legislator makes hay out of the silly-sounding title of a grant on birdsong neurology or oyster sex: look where your tax dollars are going! It’s still mistaken.

    As space-exploration programs go, these interplanetary probes are cheap. To my mind, the right metric is scientific output per dollar. Some missions that the US has funded were probably not worth it (as fun as it is to see astronauts on the International Space Station, I don’t think the vast cost of it, which is something like 200 New Horizonses, can be justified on scientific grounds). This one was.

  46. Nova Cletus says:

    “I assume that the $621Bn figure you cite refers to all educational spending in the US, which is not wisely allocated:

    “The same amount of money spent through the federal Department of Education, particularly under a socially enlightened administration, . . .”

    These are two problems with the common argument you are presenting here. The amount of money currently spent on education is enough to provide a good education for all children in the US, if it were spent wisely and efficiently. It isn’t, not remotely. And, we don’t have a socially enlightened, let alone efficient or honest, administration. Those problems are much more important than the amount of money budgeted to education. Those problems will need to be fixed before adding money.

    Additionally, science missions like this have significant value. Much of the value they add to society is less tangible than being able to count dollars, but real none the less. They inspire, they help create a demand for educated people, they help advance technological innovation, they add considerably to our knowledge (about the most important resource there is), and more. I claim that all of that is worth spending money on.

    You present a false dichotomy. In reality we easily have the resources to do both education and science considerably better than we do right now. Both are highly valuable and, what’s more, closely related. Taking the science budget and giving it to education won’t have any significant impact on education because the amount of money is not really the problem. Yes, absolutely, even if the current education budget were spent wisely and honestly, more money towards education would be warranted. Education is a no-brainer investment in the individuals that compose our society. And there is no risk in it not paying off. Personally I think, seeing as we are supposed to be such a great country and all, that we should be able to find a way to provide as much education, up to and beyond PhD, as each individual wants and can accomplish without them having to worry about the costs.

    But the primary problem is not the amount of money. Throwing more money at the system as it is won’t do anything. First the system needs to be fixed. And YES. New Horizons is worth every damn penny.

  47. zer_netmouse: If I understand correctly Charon wouldn’t be a moon of Pluto even if Pluto were a planet. The center of mass is outside of Pluto, so both bodies rotate around a point in space between them. Double-dwarf-planet?
    (This also means that the *other*, much smaller, moons rotate around *both* Pluto and Charon, which I for some reason find incredibly neat.)

  48. It reminds me of the 1960s Star Trek planets, only more detailed and in a subtler shade of pink. When I read that it was a bit larger than was recently believed, I hoped against hope that the PTB would say, “Well, then! It’s a proper planet after all!” Sigh.

  49. Dear nova,

    No, I completely read your post correctly. I responded, in small part, to your specific example, but all my counter-arguments emphasized that they could be applied to ANY such dichotomy that you cared to set up. They do. No matter what specific antimony you choose to create, is going to fail on those arguments.

    Furthermore, you’ve doubled down on the un-realism in your reply. Along with changing who’s getting what money, you’re magically going to reform the educational system in the United States. That is a laudable goal, to be sure, but declaring it as a given to be associated with reallocating the money means you’re no longer discussing any kind of real political action.

    And your “what if” is also not a real political action. First, it would not do what you think it would do (John doesn’t have all that many readers compared to the body politic) and politicians are not swayed by claims of “sincerity” from mass mail movements because that is way too easy to fake, and it regularly is. You can make that point in a one-on-one conversation. You can’t make it in a letter-writing campaign. Second, stating a what-if as if it were a real-world argument is ridiculous. Once you’ve gotten 10% of John’s readers to agree to this plan, then we’ll talk. In the meantime, it’s about as realistic a what-if as me saying what if I won the California lottery.

    And, furthermore, back to the guns and butter problem, why pick on New Horizons? You’d be much more likely to get Whatever readers to write their congresspeople and say that they’d like the defense budget cut by 10% and that money given to education than get science cut. So, why are you picking on the science? Why shouldn’t you pick on the military budget? It’s a much juicier target.

    Take those last two questions as being non-rhetorical. If you come up with a serious and thoughtful response to them, you can probably get a serious discussion out of the readership here. Simply saying, repeatedly, that you think New Horizon’s a stupid use of the money, which is really all you’ve done, isn’t going to get you much in the way of edifying conversation.

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  50. Dear Sten,

    I don’t think we have a rigorous definition of “moon,” yet. The common one is “a body that is orbiting around a secondary body rather than a primary star.” Does that mean we call every grain of sand in orbit a moon? We do talk about moonlets, for things that are big enough to see but small enough to make us wonder if we should be bothering, but that’s even less rigorous.

    I don’t recall the location of the center of mass being a criterion for moon-hood, save that the body it’s farthest from gets called the “moon.” It would be a pretty arbitrary distinction. The center of mass of the Earth-Moon system is three quarters of the way to the surface. A slightly smaller earth or slightly bigger moon and using that criterion, we’d be no longer calling the Moon a “moon.”

    (But Pluto is and always will be a PLANET, he said adamantly.)

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery
    — Digital Restorations

  51. The idea of paying attention to the barycenter location was in an IAU draft proposal for the definition of a planet, which came out in the days before the vote on the final definition. That one would have defined Ceres, Pluto and Charon as planets!

    One objection to this definition is that the barycenter can move in or out of the surface of a planet. There could even be some (currently undiscovered) system out there in the Kuiper belt where a moon turns into a planet and back again over the course of its orbit!

    The IAU’s current definition doesn’t recognize double planets, and just takes all of the bodies smaller than the biggest one in a planetary system as moons. But I don’t think it defines any hard lower limit for what counts as a moon, which is definitely an issue to think about for the ringed planets: given the observations of ring clumps by Cassini, I’m pretty sure there are bodies in the Saturn system that would test any limit you care to define.

  52. About the Pluto-as-planet controversy, my personal opinion is that I really don’t care what Pluto is called either way, but what people really need to take away from the whole business is that the solar system does not just consist of a short list of planets that schoolchildren can memorize with a mnemonic. Even discounting the small-scale debris, there are dozens of major worlds out there, including not just the dwarf planets and large asteroids/KBOs, but many moons that are as interesting as some of the listed planets or more so.

    Reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet did not make it go away, and I remember it just getting hastily deleted from a lot of educational materials, which was the worst way to deal with it.

    Emily Lakdawalla once did an informal survey of K-12 teachers about what they knew of the status of Pluto, and it turned out that a plurality of them thought Pluto had turned out to really be a star. I just saw somebody expressing that misconception on an online thread about New Horizons. There seems to have been an outreach failure: people know Pluto was declared not to be a planet, but that’s all they know, and there seems to be a vague idea that Pluto turned out to be a mistake of some sort, or maybe it wasn’t there at all, or astronomers didn’t like it for some reason.

    What the science was saying is that there’s more. There may be dozens or even hundreds of bodies in the Kuiper belt/scattered disk/inner Oort cloud that are obviously in the same general category as Pluto. There are at least seven or eight that are already well-known to astronomers, one of which is more massive than Pluto (apparently slightly smaller in diameter, though there’s no reason that should really matter), and others that are almost as big. Popular notions of the solar system seem vaguely aware that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter exists, but not any of this, which is far vaster in extent and content, though further away.

    The other thing that seems not to be well-known is that astronomers already went through this with the asteroids. In the early nineteenth century, most references listed Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta (and, in some cases, a few others) as planets of the solar system; they got neat little symbols and everything. Their planetary status got rescinded when the known bodies began to multiply without apparent limit. There’s a respectable argument that for the case of Ceres that was a mistake.

  53. You’d be much more likely to get Whatever readers to write their congresspeople and say that they’d like the defense budget cut by 10% and that money given to education than get science cut.

    That’s because that’s where the money is. Biggest slice of discretionary spending is there—so…logically…that’s where you should look first.

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