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Postcards From the Edge


Charon and Pluto in deep space.
  • Charon and Pluto in deep space.

Our friendly little New Horizons robot flew through the Pluto-Charon system one Tuesday morning in mid-July, and people have been talking about it. It's beautiful how much everyone seems to care. Mike Brown, a professor at Caltech and the discoverer of Eris (and therefore the demoter of Pluto), was right the first time around—Pluto is a cultural planet. Regardless of what it may be scientifically, people care, and they love Pluto.

The Internet memes are flying. "So you dumped me years ago. But now you're driving past my house real slow." People actually understand why that's funny.

And that's about the shape of things, except that New Horizons is going pretty fast, more than 40 times the speed of sound. It made the three-billion-mile trip to Pluto in just nine years. Not terrible, given that we're not using antimatter propulsion.

The Onion added to the discussion, reflecting on what humanity has learned from our recent visit to the edge of the solar system—that the former ninth planet is "similarly cold, desolate, and uncaring as the rest of the universe."

All through this experience, my mind has gone back to covering the demotion of Pluto in the summer of 2006. Astronomers didn't even have a decent photo of the thing. There was exceedingly little data to work with.

Astrologers knew more than astronomers. The New Horizons mission had just been launched six months earlier and was still tooling around the inner solar system, with a long way to go. But scientists voted to declare Pluto "not a planet." This was your basic Wonderland logic of holding the execution before the trial. Science is becoming famous for this kind of logic (for those who notice), as it takes the place of religion in our society. In other words, science as publicly practiced often no longer depends on logic, reason or data but rather on the pronouncements of people who call themselves scientists.

Were it put to a popular vote, I am sure people would overwhelmingly decide to keep Pluto as a planet. It's amazing the passion around the sense of exclusion that people have been taking personally. Pluto being a planet would be the one truly bipartisan issue. On some other subjects you could say, well, the Republicans are finally right about something, or reluctantly we must agree that scientists know more than the general population. The people in white coats have the data. But they did not. Until July 14, any little kid could have matched the knowledge of the most advanced scientists.

Since shortly after the demotion, Pluto has officially been minor planet (134340) Pluto, just like Ceres is really (1) Ceres and Chiron is really (2060) Chiron. Pluto missed its chance to be given the honorary designation (10000) Pluto; for a long time, demotion was unthinkable, and many scientists objected. As a result, minor planet catalogue number 10000 was assigned to Myriostos, an ordinary main-belt asteroid discovered in 1951. That word is Greek for "ten-thousandth," a nod to the many scientists who helped discover the first 10,000 minor planets.

Now we've finally got some clear photos of Pluto, so the discussion of what this thing is will finally have some substance. It is a terrestrial world with water ice—indeed, mountains of ice that are miles high. There are plenty more photos coming than the few that we've seen—astronomers running the mission say that it will take 16 months to download all the data from the flyby. Clearly dialup is not fast enough for this job. They really need to upgrade to cable, just not Time Warner cable.

New Horizons will not be parked in an orbit around Pluto. It was pointed into the shadows cast by Pluto and its binary partner (Charon is not really a moon), and the Sun was photographed through the atmospheres of both bodies. Analysis of the light that shines through the atmosphere will reveal detailed data about their composition. I'm wondering what else we need to know or discover before we decide that the Pluto-Charon system is indeed planetary. Does it need a zip code or a bungalow colony?

Then the piano-sized New Horizons craft will continue deeper into the Kuiper Belt, where it will be aimed at other objects, as yet to be announced. At the moment there are about a thousand known objects orbiting in the space beyond Neptune. These include bodies such as Quaoar, Chaos, Ixion, Orcus, and many others familiar to a handful of astrologers and scientists. There are probably millions of them, as the whole Kuiper Belt theory seems to be correct.

Very little is known about this region of space, so the New Horizons mission represents the potential for real discovery. Pluto was the first object ever found in the Kuiper Belt, but the existence of a populated region of space beyond Neptune was not confirmed until the second discovery, that of 1992 QB1, 62 years later.

Eventually New Horizons will proceed into intergalactic space, hopefully to be discovered by some distant civilization that will make a blockbuster movie about it.

Whispering About Astrology

The astrological implications of this require some imaginative thought, though there's plenty of fodder for that. When Patric Walker, the great horoscope columnist, once described Pluto as a "meaningful little planet," he was understating matters, with a hint of irony.

Pluto describes just about everything that humans struggle to deal with. It's the home of the taboo subject—be it any species of sex, death or change. It represents all of the natural aspects of life that people tend to deny. That is why Pluto transits are often experienced as "intense"—they are phases of catch-up with what has been left behind.

When Pluto shows up by transit, the results can feel like anything from relentless pressure to cascading changes to some form of catastrophe. How Pluto manifests seems to be associated with how much resistance to change the person is willing to put up.

When contemporary astrologers describe Pluto as an evolutionary influence, they're really talking about all the implications of sex, death, and change. Aleister Crowley had the right idea when, writing in the 1930s, he described Pluto as "the prime mover." It is that thing in consciousness that drives awareness from the instinctual and emotional levels.

One of the main responses to Pluto is denial. That may work for a while, but it will never work in the end. Pluto will eventually make itself known. Someone who is resisting change and pretending that they don't feel the impulse to grow is flirting with inviting change in some catastrophic form. Where Pluto is concerned it's better to take things incrementally, steadily, and to lean into the changes with a longterm commitment.

Pluto can, if necessary, invoke the principle of "change or die." As a result, death and threats of death have become one of the few dependable ways that people actually grow. The age of Pluto as the outermost planet was also the age of megadeath, beginning with the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany starting just three years after the discovery. It's been nonstop war and holocaust since then—continuing with Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, East Timor, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many others.

The most distant known planet in the solar system has a way of defining the edge or the limit of consciousness. When Pluto's classification was changed to dwarf planet, that opened a few possibilities. One was that Neptune, as the official most distant planet, would be the edge, and denial would continue to prevail.

Or, seen another way, the many new objects beyond Neptune would be co-chairs of the edge. By the time Eris was discovered in 2005 and Pluto was reclassified in 2006, there were already many interesting discoveries beyond Neptune—the first (as yet unnamed) 1992 QB1, is a much gentler provoker of change, using experiences of voluntary submission and surrender to the growth process. 

Quaoar is about family patterns and how they spread into society. Varuna is about leveling the field of life, and describes the necessity for integrity and honor. 

At the time of Pluto's reclassification to dwarf planet, which was prompted by the 2005 discovery of Eris, I had two basic thoughts. One was that it was time to pause this megadeath consciousness of the 20th century, and consider the possibility that other planets might do a better job of expressing various bottom lines of reality. Not everyone needs a gun held to their head in order to change, and those who do will get their wish.

My other thought was that science, in declaring Neptune the official edge, was reverting to a kind of mystical consciousness. That is, those whose lives were supposedly devoted to the collection of data and the careful testing of clearly defined theories were declaring that in the end, this whole business of assessing what we experience is all about belief. 

This was abundantly clear in their making a historic decision defining a planet for the first time with nearly no data about what the Pluto-Charon system actually is.

Bringing Awareness Back to Pluto

If you've been following my somewhat obsessive media studies program the past six months, you're familiar with the idea that a TV camera or microphone is an extension of our senses. The same is true for a robotic spacecraft sent to a distant world. More than delivering information to us, we are taken there, to get a closer look.

Now humanity is getting its first real look at Pluto, which works as a metaphor as well. Considering that from an archetypal viewpoint, our senses and minds are being presented with something new being revealed about something old. We are getting to see, and in truth experience, Pluto with much greater clarity. This will precipitate an effect in consciousness—or rather it's already doing so.

In mythology, Pluto is said to wear a helmet of invisibility, and take people hostage to the world of death. We have, at least, discerned that Pluto is about a lot more than that, at least potentially. Pluto is no longer invisible. We know it's there and we can see it clearly. That is progress.

With clear images of Pluto we can look at the death aspect and also learn about the other things that it represents. We would go a long way toward having clear thoughts and a real discussion about, for example, the evolutionary power of sex.

Connected to that is the Plutonic subject matter of clearing away all the emotional debris that interferes with intimacy: jealousy, control, guilt, fear of surrender, obsession, and more.

We could go a long way toward coming out of denial of our need for change, and of the influences that drive us to change.

When it comes to addressing these things, looking at Pluto with open eyes and from an astonishingly close distance can only help. The whole "Neptune as the edge of reality" thing was not working—for example, we have no business getting our sex education or reproductive health policy from fundamentalist religious bigots. Belief can seem like the ultimate reality, but in truth it's nothing of the kind.

Said another way, on the most important issues of existence, those bottom lines of sex, death, and change, we need some clear boundaries. If astrology means anything, our view of Pluto will help us with exactly that.

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