When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, allowing Neil and Buzz to go outside and play whilst Michael picked at his dehydrated meatloaf back in the shuttle, I was yet to be born. In fact, I wouldn’t enter this universe for another thirteen years, and even then as a child of the eighties, when anyone could see the historic footage simply by switching on MTV.
So many people remember where they were when we landed on the Moon, leaving our signature in the form of oversized footprints and an artificially horizontal flag, and I have to say that I feel quite jealous of them experiencing this giant leap for mankind as it took place.
Granted, there have been a lot of developments in space exploration since then, but nothing has ever quite united the world as much as the Moon landing on 20 July 1969. Even the Russians were impressed at the time, taking a moment to bask in humanity’s achievement before returning to their pastime of hiding missiles in different countries. In 2003 we all got a bit excited because a tune recorded by Blur was set to be the first played on Mars as part of the Beagle 2 mission, but somehow we lost the bugger entirely before it landed. After that we received plenty of lovely images of the dusty red planet from the diligent rovers, but the Millennials still lacked their own Moon landing: an event that everyone could be a part of, and which would forever be remembered in the history books.
Then, out of nowhere, Pluto was demoted and removed from the Solar System’s roll call of planets. That did the trick rather nicely.
Our smallest and most distant brother was discovered on 18 February 1930 by Clyde William Tombaugh, an American astronomer. Seventy-six years later, the International Astronomical Union decided that this chunk of rock and ice, which is only one-sixth the mass of the Moon, didn’t qualify for planetary status after all.
Why was this? Well, it wasn’t because it’s teeny-weeny, or even because it has an orbit that’s unabashedly elliptical, resulting in it taking over 247 years to circle the Sun. Instead it’s a case of the IAU jiggling around their criteria for a planet, stating that it must:
- orbit the Sun,
- achieve sufficient mass to be round, and
- have “cleared the neighbourhood”.
Pluto orbits the Sun and is certainly round enough, but unfortunately it falls short of requirement number three. “Clearing the neighbourhood” is when a celestial body shares its orbit with nothing more than its own satellites and other bodies of a comparable size. Sadly, Pluto is the travel buddy of a number of smaller objects in the Kuiper Belt, such as asteroids and other fragments, therefore no longer counted as a planet by the people who actually make this type of decision. And so it came to be that on 24 August 2006, Pluto was recategorised as a dwarf planet — globe-shaped and centrally orbital, but lacking ownership of its path around our mother star.
What happened next was pretty predictable: the nerds went ballistic. Suddenly the internet was awash with commentary and debate, presenting everything from the playfully mocking…
…to the compassionate…
…and the amusingly indignant.
Pluto Demoted Day was subsequently created, which now takes place every 24 August here on Earth. The Solar System, meanwhile, carries on as if nothing ever happened. The same very much goes for Pluto itself, hurtling through our planetary system with five moons in tow and not even the slightest acknowledgement of its relegation to a lower league of classification. Still, Pluto probably wouldn’t give a damn even if it did find out, seeing how humans have only known about its existence for less than ninety of its 4.6 billion years. That’s the equivalent of a thirty-year-old meeting someone just seventeen seconds ago.
It just goes to show that, considering how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, we Earthlings can be so full of our own importance, especially when it comes to planetary pride.