Rediscovering Pluto

Clyde Tombaugh had only graduated from Burdett High School in Burdett, Kansas, when we applied for a position at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. His family didn’t have the money to send him to college, so he studied on his own, assembled a portfolio, and presented himself to the observatory director, V. M. Slipher. While working there as a photographic assistant, he discovered two comets and variety of other stellar objects including Pluto.

We haven’t had a good look at the once-and-future-planet until today. NASA’s New Horizons probe is passing by Pluto, carrying Tombaugh’s ashes and sending photos back to us. Will we discover the truth of what many sci-fi authors have written about this place over the last 85 years? Gregory Benford describes some of those details.

In his first novel, World of Ptavvs, Larry Niven depicted an astronaut landing in the Plutonian atmosphere, his vessel’s hot exhaust releasing the frozen methane and oxygen and causing the entire planet to burst into flames. In a later story, Niven imagined an even odder fate. A stranded astronaut freezes, only to find that his nervous system has become superconducting and that he can still think, frozen solid. . . . My own 2006 novel, The Sunborn, has small, smart creatures thriving along the shore of Pluto’s supposed nitrogen sea.

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