by Oraia Helene
Ah, Pluto. Do I call it the ninth planet of our solar system, or the first dwarf planet? Whatever it is, it’s kind of weird. In fact, long before the decision in 2006 to reclassify it as a dwarf planet, Pluto’s status as a planet had been called into question. And the thing is, there was no formal definition of a “planet” before the International Astronomical Union created one in 2006 – one which, to many people’s consternation, no longer included Pluto.
Personally, it doesn’t bother me. Pluto’s still out there, following its funky orbit just like always, and now we know he’s got some company in the form of Haumea, Makemake, and the other dwarf planets and Kuiper Belt objects. This has happened before, actually; in 1801, Ceres was discovered, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. At first it was considered a planet, but further observation showed that it was much smaller than the other planets, and there were other, similar rocky bodies in the same vicinity. And thus the asteroid belt was found, with Ceres becoming known as the largest asteroid rather than the smallest planet. (Funnily enough, she’s now considered a dwarf planet as well!)
Human beings love to classify things, and classification is of primary concerns in many fields of science. When new information arises, sometimes this requires changes in those classifications, and often these new definitions and categories cause some amount of disagreement. But the way I see it, they’re just a way of representing the differences and similarities between different objects by putting them into groups, even though those groups aren’t necessarily cut and dried and permanent.
But whatever you want to call Pluto, Pluto remains Pluto. And Pluto is small, less than 1/5th the size of Earth, which makes it smaller than several moons in the solar system. It’s either the largest dwarf planet or the second-largest after Eris – at first, Eris was found to be larger, but more recent observations cast some doubt on that. It’s also a member of a group of objects called the Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs. The Kuiper Belt is an area beyond the orbit of Neptune, which contains a number of small icy bodies; it’s something like the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, but with a different composition. Pluto is the largest of the Kuiper Belt Objects.
By the way, beyond the Kuiper Belt is another region called the Scattered Disc, which is much more sparsely populated with Scattered Disk Objects, or SDOs. Eris is the largest of these. Taken together, the SDOs and the KBOs are known as Trans-Neptunian Objects, or – say it with me now – TNOs. (We do love our acronyms, don’t we?) The category of Trans-Neptunian Objects also includes comets and other scattered bodies all the way out to the much more distant Oort Cloud, which is believed to be the source of most of the comets that visit our solar system.
So there are all sorts of small, unusual objects orbiting way out at the edge of our solar system, but for now, we’re talking about Pluto! Pluto was discovered in 1930, based on observations of the orbit of Neptune, which pointed to some other planet – dubbed “Planet X” – disturbing its trajectory. What’s funny is that, while these discrepancies in Neptune’s orbit led to the discovery of Pluto, Pluto was actually too small to be the cause of those discrepancies, most of which in the end turned out to be errors in calculation. When the math was corrected, the influence of “Planet X” disappeared.
The name Pluto was originally suggested by an 11-year old English girl, and adopted unanimously by the researchers at Lowell Observatory, where it was discovered. Though Pluto was actually found by Clyde Tombaugh, it was astronomer Percival Lowell who initially launched the search for “Planet X”, and it was at his Lowell Observatory that Tombaugh did his work. Thus the astronomical symbol for Pluto, which looks like the letters P and L pushed together, may be seen to stand not only for the first two letters of Pluto’s name, but also the initials of Percival Lowell. (Pluto’s astrological symbol, by the way, is different; it looks more like Neptune’s trident, but with the center prong of the trident replaced by a small circle.)
Orbiting the Sun about 39 times farther away than Earth does, Pluto is extremely cold, possibly getting down to -375 degrees Fahrenheit. Its atmosphere is believed to consist mostly of methane, which also covers its surface in the form of methane ice. In truth, not much is known about Pluto, as it’s very far away and we haven’t sent a spacecraft there yet. The New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, is expected to get there in 2015. From Earth, observing Pluto requires at least a medium sized telescope, and even then you really can’t see much.
Pluto rotates very slowly; each day lasts over 6 1/3 Earth days. Like Uranus, its axis is tilted almost completely on its side, so that it appears to be rolling in its orbit rather than spinning. And as I mentioned last month, Pluto’s orbit is so strongly elliptical that it actually crosses over the orbit of Neptune, so that sometimes it is actually closer to the Sun than its larger neighbor. That orbit is also tilted 17 degrees out of the plane of the rest of the planets in the solar system, and takes about 248 years to complete. The tilt of its orbit and its greater eccentricity means that it never actually comes close to Neptune when it crosses its orbit; when Pluto is at its closest to Neptune’s orbit, the inclination of its own path carries it far above the larger planet’s path. Plus, the two bodies simply don’t line up with each other as they go around the Sun.
Pluto’s primary moon is named Charon, after the ferryman who carries the spirits of the dead across the river Styx in Greek myth. The dwarf planet and its moon are each tidally locked to one another, so that each one shows the same face to each other as they turn in their orbits. This tidal locking is reciprocal because they’re so close to the same size, and they’re very close together, as well, making it appear less like a planet and its moon, and more like a binary system. Two additional moons were found very recently, in 2005, and given the names Nix and Hydra. (And a fourth was just found this year, 2011, though it has not been given a mythological name yet.)
Mythologically, Pluto is the Greek God of the underworld, perhaps more commonly known as Hades, which was also the name of the Underworld itself. “Pluto” is actually the Latin form of the Greek “Plouton,” and it seems he was adopted into the Roman pantheon pretty much directly; his original Roman counterpart was named Dis, but at this point it seems that most people think of Pluto as the Roman form of Hades. As a side note, Pluto was also seen as the God of wealth (from which we get the word plutocracy, or rule by the wealthy.) This association of Pluto with money, however, may have arisen from a blending of Pluto with another Greek God, Plutus, meaning “wealth.” Since precious gems and minerals are often found underground, in Pluto’s realm, the blending of attributes seems to have stuck.
Astrologically, Pluto rules (or co-rules) the sign of Scorpio, which was traditionally ruled by Mars. That is, of course, when it is given rulership of a sign at all, since it’s yet another of the modern planets that doesn’t have traditional associations. But it’s pretty well established in modern astrology, and the recent reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet has had pretty much no effect on most astrologers’ opinions of it.
The energy of Pluto does seem quite at home in Scorpio, relating as it does to death and resurrection, transformation, and radical breaks with the status quo. As Robert Hand points out, all three of the modern planets represent stages of rebellion against the orderly, rule-based universe of Saturn, and Pluto is the most powerful of these. Trying to hold onto the status quo represented by Saturn in the face of a Plutonian revolution can be extremely detrimental; instead, a detached approach to letting go of the old and embracing the new is required, difficult as that may be.
Pluto can be a difficult planet, dealing as it does with destruction, obstacles, and radical change. Luckily, its influence tends to come on fairly slowly, transformation building like a wave rather than crashing down like a bolt of lightning. Pluto’s energy is also impersonal, and while individuals with strongly placed Plutonian influences can learn to channel or ride that energy, it is not theirs to bend to their own desires. Pluto’s influence goes beyond the individual – and the very fact that it moves so slowly makes it a generational force instead.
Because of the highly elliptical nature of its orbit, Pluto can spend from 12 to 32 years in each sign of the Zodiac. It is currently in Capricorn, and is due to stay there until the year 2024. In addition, Pluto is retrograde for about half of every year; it moves so slowly compared to us that we basically overtake it in its orbit every time we go around the Sun. When Pluto is retrograde, its transformative energy is directed more strongly inward, and this can be a good time to do inner work directed at releasing old structures or attitudes that we are clinging to out of fear of something new. Inner cleansing and renewal work would be well advised during this time. Pluto next goes retrograde on April 9, 2011.
Qabalistically speaking, like the other modern planets, Pluto does not have traditional correspondences on the Tree of Life. Some Qabalists place it in Kether, the Crown, while others put Neptune there and place Pluto in Da’ath, the “dark,” “hidden,” or “invisible” sephirah. If I had to pick one, I’d probably lean toward Da’ath, more because of its position in the Abyss than because of its own resonance with Pluto – but as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t particularly like any of these approaches, and I simply don’t attribute any of the modern planets to the spheres.
So that will do it for Pluto! (The cartoon dog of the same name, by the way, first appeared in Disney animation the year after the Kuiper Belt Object was discovered.) This also concludes our tour through the solar system, at least for now, but there is plenty more “up there” to talk about in other articles!
This article was adapted from the Astra segment of Media Astra Ac Terra Episode #27.