Gregory Benford reviews science fiction’s most imaginative uses of Pluto for Smithsonian’s Air & Space, and explains how the New Horizons mission will affect future science.
This is the last planet we’ll see up close for the first time—at least until we can send starships to other suns. We can expect, when New Horizons’ flies past Pluto, some confirmations of our many theoretical models. Far more important, we can expect surprises. First will come fresh pictures. Then will come streams of data about the fields and particles surrounding the planet. From that we can fashion a deeper understanding of this small, dim, world.
What we learn will apply not just to Pluto and our own solar system. Soon we’ll have many more to deal with. The Kepler spacecraft and other telescopes have found more than a thousand solar systems around distant stars. To puzzle out how they form, understanding our own is essential. Only by such comparisons can we learn whether life is widespread in our galaxy.