In 1930 the ninth planet was discovered. A month later it was officially christened Pluto for the Roman god of the underworld, a name suggested by an 11-year-old girl. School children added Platte to My Very Elderly Mother Just Sped Up North to help them memorize the planets in order.
Fifty years later, another astronomer realized that the bulge he saw at the edge of Pluto was a moon about half the size of the planet. He named the moon Charon after the mythical ferryman whom the dead pay to convey them from earth to the underworld.
To study Pluto and the Kuiper Belt beyond, NASA began to develop the New Horizons spacecraft. In 2005 while looking for possible obstacles to the mission, the Hubble Telescope revealed a second and third moon, Hydra and Nix. Nix was named for Charon’s mother, the goddess of darkness and night. In honor of Pluto ninth position in the solar system, Hydra was named for a mythical nine-headed serpent that guards the underworld.
New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006. Among other instruments, it carries the first one ever built by students. They named the dust-counter for the school-girl who named Pluto.
Later that same year the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from full planet to a plutoid object. It hadn’t successfully cleared its orbit of other objects, so even though it was roughly spherical, rotated on an axis, and sported a sheer atmosphere whenever it got close enough to the sun, it could only claim dwarf planet status. It was simply one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt that would be studied for the secrets of our solar system’s birth.
School children everywhere took up a new mnemonic: Many Very Educated Men Just Screwed Up Nature.
“My 9-year-old informs me,” wrote a friend, “with the simple trust of one who’s never known differently, that Pluto is NOT a planet. I wish that gap between knowing and accepting a truth was as easy for me. Even after all these years, I still feel a twinge of regret when I hum the planet song from Schoolhouse Rock. Interplanet Janet must be so very sad.”
No Defense for Death
During New Horizon’s voyage, two more Pluto moons appeared in the Hubble. One we called Styx for the river boundary between earth and the underworld and the other we named Kerberos, the three-headed hellhound of Harry Potter fame.
It seems that the god of the underworld has ringed himself with defenses: a ferryman to whom we must pay the death tax, a nine-headed snake who will not let us pass alive, the dark herself, and now an impassible river and a three-headed guard-dog. Yet Lord willin’ and the Styx don’t rise, New Horizons will arrive to sift the dark lord’s dust next summer.
“Most of us do not have to go that far,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor in her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark. “All we have to do is wake up in the middle of the night and find ourselves unable to go back to sleep, so that we have several free hours to obsess about everything from how we will pay our Visa bills to who will take care of us when we can no longer take care of ourselves.”
Come July 2015, we will have begun to fill the solar system and to subdue it, to assert our dominion over even the darkest reaches (Gen 1:28). An 11-year-old claims naming rights over the darkness. A 9-year-old knocks ole Death down to a mere deathlike object. “Oh, Death, where is your sting?” sing Paul and Handel (1 Cor 15:54–55).
I wish the gap between knowing and accepting that truth was as easy for me.