Posted on behalf of Alexandra Witze
There’s less than a month to get up to speed on all things Pluto, before NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft whizzes past the dwarf planet on 14 July.
Your best guide (aside from Nature’s Pluto special, of course) might just be the hour-long documentary The Year of Pluto. It will be out of date in a couple of weeks, but until then it serves as an excellent primer on the New Horizons mission and on what to expect during our first-ever close look at Pluto. Filmmaker Geoffrey Haines-Stiles has been producing science videos since Carl Sagan’s original 1980 Cosmos, and his experience shows in the film’s professionalism and focus.
The Year of Pluto begins with the 1930 discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh, the Kansas farm boy-turned-astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The film then steps through the major discoveries involving Pluto, from the ices that coat its surface to its giant moon Charon.
Those breakthroughs came from astronomers using telescopes on the ground. Seeing Pluto in greater detail would take a planetary mission, a voyage that began in 1989 when Alan Stern asked NASA’s planetary chief Geoff Briggs why there was no mission to Pluto in the works. Stern and other young researchers soon coalesced as the “Pluto underground” to push for a spacecraft there, and 26 years later he is the principal investigator of New Horizons on the eve of its arrival.
The Year of Pluto explores the community of Pluto researchers — so expect a lot of footage of people sitting around at science team meetings, looking intently at computer screens. Faces that were fresh in the early 1990s are now lined, and a second generation is emerging to experience the thrill of the 14 July flyby.
Refreshingly, the film skips the debate about whether Pluto should be a planet, and focuses on the wider context of how it fits into the realm of icy bodies on the solar system’s fringe, known as the Kuiper Belt. Illustrations of eerie ice balls such as Haumea, Makemake and Eris offer a welcome perspective. No one knows what Pluto might look like, but worlds such as Neptune’s moon Triton, festooned with icy geysers, may give a clue.
Other essential Pluto reading includes Alan Boyle’s The Case for Pluto, a journalistic account of the battle over planetary nomenclature; Tombaugh’s own account of his discovery, Out of the Darkness; and Stern’s overview written with Jacqueline Mitton, Pluto and Charon.
If you haven’t the time for all these books, stick with The Year of Pluto. But watch it now — before it becomes obsolete.
Alexandra Witze is a correspondent for Nature in Boulder, Colorado. She tweets all things Pluto, and more, at @alexwitze.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.