This morning, June 21, 2015, a Google image search for Pluto brings forth inane cartoon dogs, blurry, best-effort HST images, over-the-top space-art landscapes, and a selection of shiny photo-realistic globes, clearly influenced by Ganymede, Io, and Triton.
The New Horizons spacecraft, on its ballistic pinpoint trajectory, is just 22 days, 16 hours, 14 minutes from arrival at Pluto, devouring its ever-shrinking gap at 30,800 MPH. A remarkable recent movie posted by the Mission Controllers imparts enough detail to see by eye that the system is tidally despun. And with the targets still effectively at infinity, the scale of the bodies and the orbit is perfectly illuminated. Perspectives during the encounter will use foreshortening and narrow field of view to optimal effect, obscuring the fact that any system with an orbital time scale of order a week is, when taken as a whole, of order dozens of times less dense than air. Effectively just empty space.
In less than a month, the same Google search will be dominated by a small handful of thousand-fold improved images, possibly even by a single best photograph impressed in the camera’s eye during the dramatic needle-threaded moment of urgency.
Pluto’s cultural status made the mission possible. Perhaps the spacecraft will reciprocate with image that will become a touchstone, a visual shorthand for distance, isolation, frigidity and exile.