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The Duality of Histories

Monica Nakashima

On January 19th, 2006,  the NASA space probe New Horizons is shot out into space with a central mission: to collect data on the last planet in the solar system, Pluto. 

This occurs five days before my sixth birthday, and I know nothing about planets, the edge of the galaxy left uncharted by man, or even that this event is taking place over 600 miles away from me in Cape Canaveral, Florida. My only thought regarding space is when I once stared at the moon from my aunt’s minivan and wondered why it seemed to follow us as we headed home after a long day of swimming. 

Not even the most brilliant minds of science have all the answers. Once I start the first grade in August of 06, Pluto is officially declared not a planet and is demoted to a dwarf planet. It’s a bit touching that the public cries out over the declassification of a planetoid whose best-known image is currently a sphere the color of moldy cheese from the Hubble Telescope. 

On December 2nd, 2011, New Horizons officially becomes the closest a man-made object has gotten to Pluto, surpassing the Voyager 2 spacecraft’s record from the late 70s.

I am now approaching my twelfth birthday, and everything starts to feel heavy inside. The stress of puberty and young girlhood weighs heavy in my head. However, I develop a love for knowledge and become enamored with both the solar system and mythology. Unknowingly, I am reflecting a similar life to the person who named the planet Pluto in the 1930s.

Venetia Burney is eleven years old when her grandfather reads to her a newspaper article about the newly discovered ninth planet. The Lowell Observatory discovered a planet beyond Neptune, but researchers debated on a name, so they are  taking suggestions from the public. A mythology bookworm like myself, Venetia tells her grandfather she thinks  it is fitting for the final planetoid to be named after the Roman god of death, Pluto. Her idea is later relayed to the scientists at Lowell, who choose her suggestion over thousands. However, many don’t  pick up on the mythological connection and believe it to be a nod to the newly released Disney character instead.  

Venetia’s connection to mythology not only influences the later naming of Pluto’s moons (Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra) but also indirectly names the New Horizons spacecraft itself. Because Nix and Hydra had the closest connection to the mythological god Pluto, the first letters of their names become the initials for the discovery probe over 75 years after Venetia’s inspiration. The power of preteen girls goes terribly unnoticed. 

On July 14th, 2015, New Horizons captures the first high-resolution photos of the former planet. The pictures exceed the quality from Hubble and show the surface of the planetoid, the color of a dull gray with hints of dusty brown. Social media quickly points out the shape of a heart that can be seen in these images, a coated nitrogen plain which is later named Tombaugh Regio. 

In a summer of astronomical advancement, I am just a fifteen-year-old who has fallen in love with my high school boyfriend. Looking back, it was obviously the stereotypical mushy-gushy juvenile type, but oh boy, did I feel like I had discovered a major scientific advancement. 

On January 1st, 2019, New Horizons officially passes the minor planet Arrokoth located in the Kuiper belt and will continue its official extended journey until April 30th, 2021. With space probes, however, it’s difficult to pinpoint how long their technology will be able to function. New Horizons may be able to fly by additional Kuiper belt objects and continue to make strives for the scientific community. 

The future for both New Horizons and I seem bright, yet untold. We have a set path, but only time will tell what discoveries shall be made.