It’ll be August in a few weeks, which means that summer is almost over. I know this to be a fact because Mrs. G. told me that she was in a store that was selling Halloween candy, and that the fall colors are coming out on things with long sleeves. These are two very scientific indications of the end of summer, and far more accurate than a seasonal equinox. I’ve already made plans to cut down a Christmas tree over the Labor Day weekend. It should be ripe by December.
So far it’s been a banner summer for mosquitoes, and the lawn has never been greener, due mostly to the rain we seem to get every other day. I feel as if I now live in Seattle, only without the coffee roasters on every corner. It’s also been unseasonably cool, much to the consternation of my wife, who has been wearing socks over her colorful summer pedicure. Me? I prefer it cooler.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been much happening. Why, just the other day, the New Horizons spacecraft, which was launched from a trebuchet at some point during the Napoleonic War, had finally coasted past Pluto, and has sent back a picture of what seems to be a large, round sphere. I’m not sure what else everyone was expecting. Pluto is three billion miles away in the deep bowels of space, and since every other planet-ish thing in space is more or less a round sphere, some people were a little nonplussed by this discovery. Somehow there are people who view the accomplishment of this entire endeavor as a failure because the photo didn’t show a Six Flags resort on the Plutonian surface.
The photos of Pluto were posted on Facebook, where they received over two hundred likes, and comments along the lines of: Hey, if your planet wants more likes, click here. My favorite comment was—and this is verbatim—“So why dose NASSAU never let you see them flies all way their so we can see space? You only get to see the pic of a fly by they hide everything maybe we would see a UFO or something.” I used to hope that there was intelligent life out there. Now I hope that if there is, they don’t monitor Facebook newsfeed comments.
New Horizons also sent back a high-resolution shot of Pluto’s moon, Charon, which looked more or less the same as Pluto only Charon had inverse mountains. Frankly, I think Earth’s moon should have a name besides Moon, which is the same as naming one’s dog, Dog. Anyway, it’s great that a bunch of scientists can now speculate on whether Charon is geological or not, but as of this morning, I’m more curious about when the town DPW is going to pick up the brush in my front yard that has been sitting there for two weeks. Ask me next week if I’m wondering about Charon.
There is also a rekindled discussion on whether Pluto is a planet or a dwarf planet. Some of us still consider Pluto to be a planet, while others cite some rule of space that demoted Pluto to something less. The decision is still somewhat controversial.
When I was in school, the nuns made us memorize the names of the planets—all nine of them, from the sun outwards. It was important to a fourth grader to realize that there are billions of stars and at least eight other planets in space, and that we may not be alone. That was a staggering concept for a kid whose entire world could fit on one street, especially since we had all seen Saturday afternoon movies where evil, reptilian space creatures attack the Earth. We had air raid drills back then, and most of us had no idea if we were hiding under our desks from the Russians or the Martians.
Anyway, we used mnemonics to recall the order of the planets, and to this day, I remember My Very Easy Method Just Simplifies Us Naming Planets meant Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and… wait a second. I could never stop laughing once I hit Uranus. Who names a planet something that they know will send every male on Earth into hysterical laughter? The name Uranus was ultimately chosen in the late 1800s to represent the Greek deity of the sky, Uranus, who must have been teased horribly in Greek god middle school, but now he has a planet named after him, so suck it, popular kids. I understand the second choice was to name it after Uranus’s brother, Urarmpit. Fun fact: Uranus is classified as a gas giant, so some jokes simply write themselves.
Here’s an interesting side note on the naming of the planet-like orb, Pluto: An eleven-year-old girl named Venetia Burney suggested in 1930 that the then-planet be named Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld. Her grandfather, not being able to afford a pony for young Venetia, thought this would be a grand idea, and the suggestion made its way to Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. Had an eleven-year old girl named Pluto today, it would very likely be called Taylor Swift.
So that was the big news for July. We saw a picture of an icy giant, or a dwarf planet or whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks Pluto is, and its nearby moon, which may or may not be geological. My opinion on all of this? Rename Uranus because that’s just ridiculous, and launch a campaign to have the rings of Saturn moved to encircle Earth because that would simply be fabulous. As for Pluto, I’m not really sure what to make of it. It more or less rotates around the sun—the same sun we use—so that’s a planet by the definition that Sister Christopher Mary explained to us.
Bottom line: I think it’s amazing that we could send something three billion miles into the void of space with technology that predates an iPhone, and still get a decent picture of a frozen, planet-ish orb that nobody has ever seen clearly. Heck, I’m still stymied when I put on my jeans, and my toes get pulled backwards in the ankle hem. The amazing thing is—the New Horizons spacecraft isn’t turning around and coming back home, mainly because there aren’t any kids in the back seat chanting, “are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet?” It’s still going deeper into space, beyond what we always thought was the last planet in line. Space never ends, and as New Horizons keeps going farther and deeper into space, it’s bound to find a Starbucks.
I think that exploration and discovery should be constant, even if the end result leaves more questions than answers. The New Horizons project started when NASA still had the Centurion AMEX card, but that was then. People like to see a return on their investment these days that they can touch or at least appreciate. Most people would rather see the potholes on their daily commute fixed than view photographs of Pluto.
Exploration outside of our atmosphere has dwindled down to the space station, and does anybody really know what they do up there? I mean besides send back videos of people floating around the cabin. Chalk me up in the “no” column on that, and I like this kind of stuff. For that reason alone, I give the New Horizons spacecraft, and the pictures of the planet Pluto two terrestrial thumbs up for a job well done. On top of that, and not to get all sentimental, but the spacecraft holds the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, which is definitely a much cooler way to spend eternity than in an urn on top of the fireplace mantel.