Flying by

It is interesting, in the latest photos from Pluto, taken obliquely towards horizons, to see that the dwarf planet has an atmosphere. We are beginning to get an incomplete idea, of what exotic ices and powders that atmosphere might consist — but are still surprised to find it there at all. And not only there, bound round Pluto for sixty miles up, but articulated in more than a dozen distinct layers. Even from a camera distance of seven thousand miles, the “rugged mountains and sweeping plains” (I quote from press releases) first catch our attention. The shadowing of a dim and distant sun picks shapes out of this Plutonian landscape, presenting a new beauty we never saw before.

Good Lord, we are witnessing sunset on Pluto. We are tasting a new food for the imagination, at this extraordinary supper hour. But in addition to this, we take our first hints that there is weather — motion — in this strange world, thousands of millions of miles away. Changing, day by day.

In the thin angle of the solar lighting, we have what appear to be great cliffs of dunes, and creeping in and out of their shadows, a dense ground haze. Though I cannot quite follow their “jargonian” meander (a word once invented by my little boy), the engineers at NASA seem to have deduced the rudiments of a hydrological cycle, that might be taken as a parody of Earth’s. Though in Pluto’s case, it is not made from water; even so, there is snow and steam.

All these things that we didn’t need to know, but are good to know, notwithstanding. This is a new way to understand the scale of our cosmos, in which we have sailed such a short way. It took nearly a decade for New Horizons to reach Pluto from Earth, travelling faster than anything we humans had ever previously launched. Were it pointed in the right direction, the little vehicle would take another hundred thousand years to reach Proxima Centauri — the nearest of stars to Sister Sun. And meanwhile, what that instrument box may find beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt cannot be guessed, though it is on our very doorstep.

By comparison, I find that the current obsession with locating planets, similar in size and in orbit to our Earth, shrinks down the universe “exponentially.” It is our latest essay in scientistic reductionism. The exercise is like spotting a random pinpoint, through powerful binoculars, very far away. Yes, we might calculate, the tick is about the diameter of our own head, give or take a beachball. It does not follow that it can talk.

The size and orbit of Pluto we knew; and little else. We figured out not exactly how to get there, but how to fly quickly by — with instruments blinking in the soundless void. Everything they have detected has come as a surprise; mostly big surprises. And so it has been with each other body in the Solar System that we have whipped by. For the universe, like Earth, will always hold surprises.

This stands to theological reason. God does not do Creation by halves.