In the Darkest Depths of Space

In a little over two weeks, NASA’s New Horizons probe will make its closest approach to the dwarf planet, Pluto. This will be our first really good look at this cold, dark and tiny world tumbling through space along with its system of four moons: Charon, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos. I’ve long been fascinated with Pluto, and back around 1994, I had a chance to snap some images with the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope at the end of a night. In the animation below, Pluto starts about two-thirds of the way from the middle of the frame and moves toward the top.

Pluto

Pluto is one of those objects that causes us to really contemplate the full enormity of the universe. It’s so far from the sun that it takes over two centuries to make one orbit, and this is an object in our own neighborhood! Our own sun would appear as only a bright star in its sky. It seems fitting that it shares a name with the god of the underworld. If any lifeforms were to establish an outpost on such a cold, distant world, it’s easy to imagine they would have similarly cold and dark intent.

It’s perhaps not surprising that H.P. Lovecraft had a real interest in Pluto. It turns out that long before Pluto’s discovery, Lovecraft contributed a regular astronomy column to his local newspaper. In 1906, when he was 16, he wrote to Scientific American criticizing the lack of an organized search for trans-Neptunian planets.

Pluto was discovered in 1930, while Lovecraft was writing his story “Whisperer in Darkness” which tells about the alien Mi-Go from the planet Yuggoth. He was excited about Pluto’s discovery and wrote to poet Elizabeth Tolridge in April 1930. In the letter, he indicated that he would write and suggest that the planet be named Yuggoth. Although the International Astronomical Union didn’t give the solar system’s outermost world a Lovecraftian name, Lovecraft wrote the discovery into his story and equated Yuggoth with Pluto:

    When I left Brattleboro I resolved never to go back to Vermont, and I feel quite certain I shall keep my resolution. Those wild hills are surely the outpost of a frightful cosmic race—as I doubt all the less since reading that a new ninth planet has been glimpsed beyond Neptune, just as those influences had said it would be glimpsed. Astronomers, with a hideous appropriateness they little suspect, have named this thing “Pluto”. I feel, beyond question, that it is nothing less than nighted Yuggoth—and I shiver when I try to figure out the real reason why its monstrous denizens wish it to be known in this way at this especial time. I vainly try to assure myself that these daemoniac creatures are not gradually leading up to some new policy hurtful to the earth and its normal inhabitants.

Of course, if we find evidence of pink, fungoid, crustacean-like creatures on Pluto, we may have to take heed of their opinion of Pluto’s demotion from being a full-fledged planet! That said, I’ll note that in astronomy dwarf galaxies are just types of galaxies. Dwarf stars are just stars—in fact our own sun is a dwarf! Therefore, to me a dwarf planet is still a planet, which means we’re a family of at least thirteen worlds: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Who knows what evil lurks on those even more distant worlds!

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