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Artist's redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

Artist’s redition of New Horizons approaching Pluto and Charon

After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Hmm, I can sort of see a heart, a whale, and a donut (Photo courtesy of NASA, New Horizons)

Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

Mister SETI (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on panel)

The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).


Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.

Artist's conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

Artist’s conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

More dramatic news from the far reaches of the solar system: NASA’s probe New Horizons has awakened from its nine year hibernation and is powering up to approach Pluto!  Although it sounds like “New Horizons” is a boy band, NASA gave up on trying to launch every saccharine teenybopper act into the Kuiper belt (although that is a laudable goal): instead the probe is named after the fact that New Horizons is the first human spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its little moons Charon and Hydra. Launched in January of 2006, New Horizons set the record for the highest launch speed of a human-made object from Earth.  The grand piano-sized spacecraft has spent the intervening years hurtling through the darkness of space–although it has periodically come to partial wakefulness to check in with mission control and to snap some dramatic flyby photos of famous locations along its trip (like this photo montage of Jupiter and Io).  The craft also used Jupiter’s gravity well to increase its velocity.

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Since the time the probe was launched, astronomers have discovered two new miniature moons of Pluto: Kerberus and Styx.  This means that New Horizons mission planners were forced to assess the possibility of a catastrophic collision with unseen debris or dust left over from these satellites. Computer models suggest that the likelihood of such an accident is remote, but, just in case, NASA has added two dramatic contingency plans for the mission. In one emergency plan, the probe’s satellite dish acts as a dust shield, in the other, the craft drops dangerously close to Pluto, where atmospheric drag has presumably cleared the surrounding space of particles.  These worst case plans will almost certainly not be needed, although we will learn more as New Horizons gets closer to the dwarf planet.


After flying past Pluto next July, New Horizons will hurtle into the Kuiper belt where NASA hopes the probe will rendezvous with an icy Kuiper belt object so that we can learn more about these enigmatic leftovers from the creation of the solar system.  The coming 7 months should be filled with excitement as we learn more about the Pluto system!

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

The Boat of Charon (Jose Benlliure y Gil, 1919, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting of a lesser underworld deity by a lesser Spanish master.  In the Greek pantheon, Charon was the ferryman of the dead– he carried departed spirits across the river Styx a haunted waterway which reputedly separated the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Charon was a self-interested deity who acted only for money (which, in retrospect, makes him one of the more comprehensible Greek deities from a contemporary American perspective).  If a dead Greek person was properly buried/burned, he/she had a small coin for Charon to pole him/her across the dark river to the grim underworld.  If, however, souls died alone or nameless and were not given a funeral, they then had no way to pay the ferryman and were forced to wander for centuries o millennia at the border of death’s realm.  There is no mention of what Charon did with all of his spirit wealth: he certainly seems unhappy, unkempt, and ill-groomed in this painting.  Maybe he hoarded it all or invested it in unwise joint-stock schemes (or had some other perverse vice which we never heard about). José Benlliure y Gil has certainly done a splendid job at portraying the greedy gaunt boatman and his deceased charges.  Perhaps the painting has a particular strength because the First World War and the Spanish flu were such recent memories when the work was finished.  I especially like the dark owl perched on the despairing spirit in the little boat’s stern and the phantasmagoric figures swirling within the stygian haze.

Joachim Patinir  (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).

Landscape with Charon Crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir

In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx.   On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands.  On the right lies the infernal city of the damned.  The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…

This painting is divided by color from front to back.  The foreground is the brown of earth.  Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks.  The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures.   The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.

The painting is also divided by color from left to right.  Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese.  Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red.  But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before.  Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive.  The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots.  It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out.  It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.

Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work.  The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong.  But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck.  The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac.  Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude.  Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society.  If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.

Patinir's hometown: Dinant in Wallonia

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020