Column

Craver: Pluto pictures years in the making

On Tuesday, I have a dream date with a bunch of space camp kids and telemetry from a deep-space probe I’ve been watching for nine years like a pot that never gets around to boiling.

Actually, the pictures of Pluto the New Horizons space probe will be beaming back probably won’t start trickling in until Wednesday. But that’s my 44th birthday, so that’s just fine by me.

Yes, only a nerd like me would consider close-up photos of a dwarf planet a good birthday present, but being a nerd these days is cool. Be thankful, kids, that you live in such an age – it wasn’t the case when I was a kid, even after Lambda Lambda Lambda won control of the Adams College Greek Council.

And in watching the kids engaged in Pluto-related activities at the Challenger Learning Center in Woodstock for a story, I’ll be wrapping up another story I started almost two decades and three newspapers ago.

For those of you whose free time is devoted to seeing who got voted off the island, or who think I’m talking about Mickey Mouse’s dog, the New Horizons probe launched in 2006 finally is reaching its target of Pluto, which used to be the furthest planet in our solar system. Mere months into New Horizons’ voyage, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto for legitimate scientific reasons, forcing teachers everywhere to come up with a new way to remember the planets’ order that does not include nine pickles.

I prefer, “My very excellent mother just served us nachos.” It has a nice south-of-the-border ring to it that will surely anger a future Trump administration.

I’ve always been fascinated by astronomy and space travel. My heroes growing up weren’t athletes or movie stars, but guys like the Mercury Seven who, as Tom Wolfe so eloquently described in “The Right Stuff,” were “willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle … and wait for someone to light the fuse.”

But for me, the former ninth planet that’s coming into sharp view even as I write this has a personal connection.

My first journalism job out of college was education reporter for The Times-Press, a now-defunct newspaper covering Streator, a rust-belt town in far southern LaSalle County. Besides being known for some notable characters, and a metric ton of bars, it was the hometown of one Clyde Tombaugh, who in 1930 at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, discovered Pluto.

It was in 1998 that the IAU really started making serious noise about whether Pluto is a classical planet or whether Tombaugh merely discovered one of the trillions of leftovers from the solar system’s creation. And a middle school class at a local Catholic school didn’t cotton too well to a bunch of Paris-based eggheads taking something big away from a local boy who did good.

The innocent little story I wrote in January 1999 about the class’s letter-writing campaign, augmented by my lifelong interest in astronomy, went viral – well, as viral as one could get before YouTube gave everyone a shot at immortality for getting hit in the groin while playing “Guitar Hero” or trying to drink a gallon of Tabasco. The Associated Press picked it up and it flew everywhere. It was the first story I ever wrote that grew legs and ran.

Sadly, I have to agree with the IAU that Pluto isn’t a true planet. Yes, it has enough mass to be a sphere and yes, it orbits the sun, but no, it hasn’t cleared its orbit of debris and smaller objects. Besides, we’ve since discovered leftovers that are larger than Pluto, and if those aren’t planets, why does Pluto get special treatment?

Regardless, this proud science geek plans to have a good time at the Challenger Center watching kids learn about Pluto the same way that I, at that age, ravenously devoured the amazing pictures of the outer planets that Voyagers 1 and 2 beamed back to us.

And who knows? Maybe one of those kids, like Tombaugh the farm boy, will grow up to discover something extraordinary.

• Senior reporter Kevin P. Craver has won more than 70 state and national journalism awards during his 14 years with the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4618 or at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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