Clyde, Venetia, Kelsi, and Planet X
Updated: Jan 31
As he neared the end of his time on Earth, Clyde crazily wished aloud for the sort of thing that compels uneasy laughter from well-meaning visitors of the geriatric; might his family please arrange somehow to have his ashes flown out to Planet X?
“Sometimes in stars or the swift flight of seabirds I catch a moment of you. That’s why I walk all alone, searching for something unknown, searching for something or someone to light up my life…”
– Antonio Carlos Jobim/Gene Lees
Those of us who believe Life is a predictable and mechanistic march of ordinary days typified by ham sandwiches, yard sales, and various kinds of assault, will want to visit Center Stage Theater downtown the evening of November 16. There, Dr. Alan Stern is going to tell the yet-unfolding story of the spaceship we sent to Planet X. What did it find when it got there? A heart 990 miles wide, for one thing. Which fits the story like a glove.
In February 1930, bespectacled former farm kid Clyde Tombaugh likely did not foresee that in far-flung 2015 a bit of his burned corpse would be zipping past Pluto in a spaceship the size of a grand piano. Life’s funny that way, isn’t it? But it was on February 18, 1930, that Clyde, a 24 year-old space hobbyist from the Midwest, confirmed the existence of the insanely distant rock, at that time known colloquially as the theoretical “Planet X” (needless to say this all happened right around the dawn of Science Fiction’s Golden Age)—a proposed Mystery Thing way out there past Neptune.
As a kid with his head in the stars, he’d built his own wobbly telescopes out of farm junk and bits of dairy equipment, staring for untold hours at the cosmos and drawing pictures, his dreams of going to University foiled by a crop-destroying hailstorm at just the wrong moment in his life. When Lowell Observatory got hold of his illustrations, though, they hired the self-taught starman forthwith, to his blushing astonishment.
So it was that Clyde discovered Pluto the old fashioned way; hunched under an itchy blanket in an unheated observatory dome, staring intently at photographic plates spattered with tens of thousands of white dots against a black background; pretty much the way he’d spent every waking moment back home. When one night, Clyde’s straining eyes noticed what appeared to be one of the migraine-inducing dots hopping fitfully about the star field, he knew he had something.
Clyde Tombaugh lived to be 90 years old, and in his longish life of earnest stargazing he also discovered some 15 asteroids, a comet, some star globs, and a galactic super cluster. But Pluto was his lifelong main squeeze, and (perhaps understandably) wife Patricia’s chief rival for the distracted farm kid’s affections. As he neared the end of his time on Earth, Clyde reached out one last time for the old dear who in his youth had so completely stolen his now-failing heart, and he crazily wished aloud for the sort of thing that compels uneasy laughter from well-meaning visitors of the geriatric; might his family please arrange somehow to have his ashes flown out to Planet X?
On July 14, 2015 the New Horizons planetary probe—a huge, needy-looking dish antenna strapped to what looks like an enormous garage door opener—flew past distant Pluto and took pictures like a sonafabitch, the ashes of an unstoppably curious farm kid from Streator, Illinois fastened to the inside of the spacecraft’s upper deck. The tiny accompanying commemorative plaque’s words—composed by New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern—would remind the probe’s distant interstellar finders some centuries hence that the craft bore a once and future daydreamer from a faraway village called Earth. “Adelle and Muron’s boy…an astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend.”
The photos beamed back in the summer of 2015 show surface details of a world some 3 billion miles distant; 11,000 foot-high ice mountains, a huge, dazzling heart-shaped plain of frozen carbon dioxide—quite rightly named the Tombaugh Regio— and an atmosphere as stratified with haze as a 1930s speakeasy. But the New Horizons probe carries a full suite of instruments for measuring and testing the unseen elements Out There at the edge of interstellar space, too; among them the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, a cosmic gadget with a curiously Edwardian name. The device, which measures the dispersal of deep space dust particles at the outer limits of our solar system, is named after the precocious 11 year-old British schoolgirl who gave the newly discovered Planet X its official nom de pierre back in 1930.
When on March 14 of 1930, the morning newspapers all hollered as one about the discovery of the long-sought planetoid, little Venetia was nibbling at Lincolnshire sausage and toast at her home in Oxford, England. The article her grandfather was reading aloud let it be known that public suggestions on what to name the new discovery were welcome. As an older, graying woman in spectacles softly explained in a later interview; “I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out at breakfast the great news and said he wondered what it would be called. And for some reason I, after a short pause, said, ‘Why not call it Pluto?’”
As a well-read young girl, Venetia had pored over many children’s books on Roman and Greek mythology and knew the players by heart. As it happened, the mythological Pluto was not only ruler of the Greeks’ cold, dark underworld (a name nicely suited to such a cold, dark and remote rock as the one in question), the first two letters of the word paid handy homage to Percival Lowell, the astronomer who had first postulated the existence of a big rock out beyond Neptune way back in 1906, and millionaire founder of Lowell Observatory.
Venetia’s grandfather was taken with the idea, cabled some astronomically influential people with Venetia’s suggestion, and it was entered into the mix. Ultimately Venetia’s submission would edge out the name Minerva which, to the chagrin of its sponsor, was already appended to an asteroid.
Venetia Burney just recently left our solar system, passing away in 2009 at the age of 90, and so lived plenty long enough to watch the 2006 televised launch of the New Horizons planetary probe bearing her eponymous space instrument. Venetia managed to become, in her autumn years, one of the Space Age’s quieter avatars, her accomplishment unbeknownst to passerby and all the more brilliant for that—the nondescript and little-noticed grandmotherly figure in the produce section, squeezing cantaloupes and having named a planet.
Venetia Burney lived a quiet life teaching economics and math, marrying, never mentioning to her students or friends or neighbors that she had – you know. As she once quite reasonably explained in her polite British accent, “On the whole, it doesn’t arise in conversation. And you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto.”
Kelsi (and MU69)
Now that the plucky New Horizons probe (known to warm-hearted science insiders as The Little Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator That Could) has so smashingly completed its flyby of Pluto—analyzing atmosphere, deciphering ice floes, and taking snapshots like a caffeinated tourist—it’s on to more distant and oddly shaped things; one in particular.
“At this point we know so little about MU69 that I think most of the instruments have a good chance of turning up some surprising data,” Dr. Kelsi Singer told me. She is a Planetary Scientist, and Co-Investigator on the New Horizons deep space probe’s Geology and Geophysics team. “We really don’t know what kind of geology might be occurring on MU69, and we might even see geologic features with LORRI (the craft’s onboard camera) that we have never seen anywhere else in the solar system.”
Yes, New Horizons’ next and final flyby will be a close encounter with the musically named MU69, a largish and possibly two-headed “Classic Kuiper Object” drifting out there in what’s called the Kuiper Belt; a massive “circumstellar” field of icy rocks that encircles the solar system and may be a drifting junkyard of unrealized planets. Pluto’s controversial demotion to “Dwarf Planet” has to do with the discovery of many large, Pluto-comparable rocks in the Kuiper Belt, among them spheroids with names like Haumea, 50000 Quaoar, and MakeMake [Seriously. No one can say Planetary Science is a somber pursuit]. Some of these rocks, or “worlds”, depending on the reader’s disposition, are some 900 miles thick, and may be wrapped in envelopes of atmosphere; you know, like proper planets? Dr. Singer weighs in again.
“It would be incredibly surprising to find an atmosphere around MU69. The conventional wisdom is that objects this small don’t have enough gravity to hold onto the lighter gas molecules to make an atmosphere. So again we would have to re-think our theories – or it is possible that some recent event on the body, either an impact, or even a geologic event, created gas relatively recently and that is why it is still around MU69 as an atmosphere.”
Time, and New Horizons, will tell. Once having engaged in that final stare-down of MU69—billions of miles away from home, and from the heartfelt gang of science peeps who built and raised her—our favorite deep space explorer will exit the solar system proper and soar soundlessly through the vacuum between the stars until her decaying, power-generating plutonium pellets wink out for good, calculated to happen in 2026 or thereabouts. Thereafter, New Horizons will just coast straight out into eternity. She and Clyde, and little Venetia’s namesake gadget.
New Horizons is a machine, but like a fine cabinet built with loving artisanal hands, she carries the spirit of the builders and scientists who made her and gave her purpose. New Horizons also bears the hopes and deep curiosity that define us as humans who can clearly see, and have the means to carefully craft, the day after tomorrow.
While corresponding with Dr. Kelsi Singer, I explained the conversation to my own 15-year old STEM woman-in-waiting. Her response was pure Stella. “Wow! Tell Kelsi I said she is badass!” I relayed the message and Dr. Singer, Planetary Scientist, laughingly accepted Stella’s estimation, and offered sweet words of encouragement to our nascent explorer.
Reality is so deliciously mad we don’t need to dress it up. That throbbing lump of fever-jelly trapped in your ribcage has long been planning its escape. So hand it the keys, already. There is no such thing as an ordinary day, folks. Not really. Just ask Clyde, Venetia, and Kelsi.