Looking at the pictures of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons space probe reminded me of the excellent novel about the discovery of Pluto, The Unfixed Stars, by Michael Byers. I was quite surprised at such poetical, impassioned writing in a novel about astronomy and mathematics. It made me look at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder.
But now that I’ve seen the pictures that New Horizons has sent back, the first detailed pictures humans have ever seen of Pluto and its five moons, I understand why celestial objects evoke passion and expressions of awe in people – and why Byers’ wrote like he did. His novel – which I highly recommend – depicts the suspenseful search for Planet X, the 9th planet in the solar system, a story based on actual events that are stranger than fiction.
Planet X was to become Pluto. Knowing that it is no longer classified as a major planet, reducing the number of planets to 8, did not diminish my enjoyment of reading about this race to discovery. Byers writes:
After reading the novel, the title was clear to me – the stars are indeed unfixed. And fixing them takes bull-headed determination, manoeuvring, money. And countless nights staring at the sky, endless fiddling with calculations, and even near-insanely precise grinding of telescope lenses. Lonely occupations, and all for those unfixed, tiny pinpricks of light.
Among the many interesting characters in the novel is Clyde Tombaugh, who actually found the planet in 1930, depicted by Byers as an inquisitive, persistent and broken-hearted man. The images of Pluto come on the 109th birthday of Tombaugh. “This is our birthday tribute to Professor Tombaugh and the Tombaugh family, in honor of his discovery and life achievements — which truly became a harbinger of 21st century planetary astronomy,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
Video published on Jul 15, 2015: This animation combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015. Credit: NASA