For the first time, Pluto is beginning to emerge from a distant speck of light into a world of its own. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is now sending back some of the first images of Pluto that hint at surface features. The view is about to get even better: New Horizons is currently about 30 million miles away from Pluto, traveling at over 30,000 mph. On July 14, it will get as close as 7800 miles from Pluto’s surface, snapping pictures and recording data as it flies through the Pluto system and on to the outer reaches of the Solar System. It will be the first time any spacecraft has visited Pluto.
Pluto, as you may have heard, is no longer “officially” considered a planet, but was demoted to the status of dwarf planet in 2006.1 Despite this affront, Pluto remains a fascinating world in its own right: a frigid world that could possess “ice volcanoes” and an atmosphere that freezes out for hundreds of years at a time, with at least five moons in orbit (the largest of which, Charon, can be seen in the image to the left). It is also thought to be the largest representative of potentially dozens of similar words in the Kuiper Belt (no, not Kuyper Belt) of the outer Solar System. We don’t know exactly what’s waiting for us to find at Pluto, but we do know this: it will be amazing.
What drives our desire to turn pixels into portraits, and to turn distant specks of light into new worlds? Why does there exist such a strong, inherent human desire to explore the unknown, to see a part of creation that we haven’t seen before?
Part of this is recapturing of the pure, unrestrained joy surrounding the creation of the planets, and discovering the incredible amount of creativity and diversity we see in our Solar System. In his beautiful essay, In the Beginning Was Laughter2 Dylan Demarsico considers the description of God and wisdom rejoicing in creation in Proverbs 8:30-31 and suggests that a more accurate word for rejoicing might be “laughing” or “playing”:
“But let us note: God’s laughter is no joke. He contains such force and infinite energy that when he plays, living solar systems are painted on the canvas of creation.”
We also delight in the creativity brought about by our exploration of planets: the use of science – a creative activity – as we try to piece together the story the Solar System. This helps us to recognize our place in creation: how do we fit into our local planetary garden?3 In these encounters we begin to realize not only the sheer scale and majesty of the creation, but the power of the One who created it. Moreover, that we can never go somewhere God has not made.4 So in all things, even as we explore the smallest of moons of the smallest of planets during a high-speed summer flyby, we see the handiwork of the Creator.
However, note that many planetary scientists consider anything big enough to be round on its own to be a “planet”. That is, any Sun-orbiting celestial body with sufficient mass for its gravity to overcome rigid body forces and assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape). ↩
And in astronomical terms, the Solar System is very local. Pluto is typically about 3.5 billion miles away from the Earth; the next closest star (Alpha Centauri) is 26 trillion miles away. Even traveling at 30,000 mph, it would take New Horizons nearly 100,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. ↩
cf.Psalm 139:8; Job 38 ↩