NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made solar system history this week when it successfully flew by Pluto. It has traveled longer and farther — over 3 billion miles in nine-and-a-half years — than any space mission before.
The flyby of the dwarf planet and its moons will give scientists a close look at a region of space that may preserve evidence about the formation of the solar system.
It might be hard to comprehend the magnitude of the endeavor. Glen Fountain, the New Horizons project manager, compared getting the spacecraft’s trajectory right to teeing up a golf ball in New York City and hitting a hole-in-one in Los Angeles.
We can also understand Pluto, and what the mission means, through the connections to where we live.
To that end, here are some ways to think about Pluto when placed in a Maine context:
Pluto lends a level of mind-blowing perspective. It’s not just its size. (If the U.S. were a basketball ball, Pluto would be a golf ball.) It’s how long it takes to move.
Pluto requires 248 Earth years to orbit the sun. The last time Pluto was in its current position — in 1768 — the U.S. wasn’t even a country. Throughout all of the history of the U.S. — and Maine, which formed in 1820 — Pluto was slowly (or quickly, depending on your view) moving steadily in one oblong loop.
Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto — then believed to be the ninth planet — at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Feb. 18, 1930. (The International Astronomical Union announced in 2006 that Pluto would not be considered a planet because a planet must “clear the neighborhood around its orbit,” and Pluto’s orbit overlaps with the orbit of Neptune.)
In 1930, Maine was also on the brink of something new: modernity. In that year, 60 percent of Maine’s population still lived in the country. Life revolved around family, work and local happenings — religion, the country store, annual town meetings and the grange.
More than three out of four Maine people in 1930 were “native born of native parentage,” according to the Maine Historical Society, making it the highest proportion in New England. The homogeneity — and the unchanging nature of the 1800s and early 1900s — led to a strong sense of tradition. Isolation encouraged independence and reliance on family.
But times were changing. During the 1920s, more than 40,000 Maine people left the countryside. Roads, radios, phones and theaters were influencing culture — and beginning to turn Maine into a more urban environment. By 1930, two-thirds of Maine farm families owned automobiles.
The world was widening — in Maine and in space.
Maine’s geography has always been its hallmark and its challenge. At the cold edge of our solar system of states, Maine’s wilderness lends itself to the explorer. (Though we are no where near as cold as Pluto’s south polar region, where the sun has not been seen for 20 years and won’t shine again for another 80 years.)
We are also a jumping off point for further exploration of the sea and its vast mysteries.
Such is the role for Pluto, now that people have visited each planetary world in our solar system. As Dennis Overbye wrote for The New York Times, “You could say that we have reached the sea, the very icy and black sea between us and the stars. Whether we will ever cross that sea nobody can say.”