December 18, 2017 by Olivia
Pluto, the celestial body formerly known as a planet, is the most beloved—and controversial—space vacation destination in the solar system. Though it has lost its prominence in the pecking order of space objects, Pluto is still— and always will be—the same celebrated getaway spot favored by those who crave the most isolated locales.
Discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, this hunk of ice has captured the imaginations of generations of aspiring space vacationers. Named for the Roman god of the underworld, if Pluto is another word for hell, it seems to have frozen over.
This is an excerpt from “Vacation Guide to the Solar System” by our veteran Intergalactic Travel Bureau agents Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich. It makes a wonderful holiday gift, especially if you pair it with a VR viewer and our Space Vacation app, which will take you on a virtual holiday to space! Order the book in the U.S. here, in the U.K. here, and download the app for iPhone or Android.
If you’re like most ordinary people, you’ve always dreamed of visiting Pluto, but like a lot of them, you’ve never gone. Located in the distant and ghostly Kuiper Belt, at times almost 5 billion miles from Earth, this land of rock and ice, smaller than Earth’s moon, marks the beginning of the end of our solar system. You’ll be captivated by its rugged pink-hued mountains, deep dark blue sky, and iconic Tombaugh region, a huge icy plain in the charming shape of a heart. Water ice and nitrogen glaciers slowly drift across Pluto’s surface over century-long seasons, which are notable despite the dwarf planet’s tremendous separation from the sun. Its cratered, pitted terrain and mile-high mountains provide ample amusement for explorers. The gravity is low—you’ll weigh less than half what you do on Earth’s moon—and you can glide like a feather across its frigid fields.
Weather and Climate
Pluto is cold, even by outer solar system standards. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, the temperature hovers between a soul-freezing -360 and -400 degrees Fahrenheit. Gases rising from the nitrogen ice and water ice that cover the surface make it even colder, like sweat cooling your skin. Unless your space suit is well insulated, anything you touch will instantly turn from ice to gas. Instant frostbite, especially from your toes losing heat to the ground, is a looming threat.
The weather on Pluto doesn’t change much from day to six-Earth-day-long day because of its paltry air, made from nitrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide emanating from its icy surface. The air pressure is one hundred thousand times lower than on Earth, and if you squint your eyes you can see the atmosphere in the form of faint bright lines stretching across the dark sky. You won’t get caught in a blizzard or feel gusts of wind, but you might see a meager low cloud. Pluto circles the sun just once every 248 Earth years, so one season lasts most of a human lifetime. Its orbit is a stretched ellipse, and at its farthest point it is almost twice as far from the sun as it is at its closest point. It’s tipped almost upside down compared to most proper planets, with a tilt of 120 degrees. This sharp tilt causes land near the outward-facing pole to be cast in darkness for hundreds of Earth years at a time. When Pluto is far from the sun and where the surface is in shadow, you’ll notice epic frosts covering the ground as much of Pluto’s thin air freezes solid. These are the longest, coldest, darkest winters in the solar system. At the other pole, you are sunlit for centuries, although you defnitely won’t be sunbathing.
Because of the cold, most people don’t realize that Pluto has its own form of the greenhouse effect due to the bit of methane in its air. Though the temperature is always uncomfortably chilly, relatively small differences can seem dramatic to those familiar with the Plutonian landscape.
When to Go
Since Pluto has such a wide-ranging orbit, it’s best to try to catch it when it’s closest to the sun. Earth’s orbit is practically right next to the sun from Pluto’s perspective, so this is when Pluto is closest to Earth as well. If you didn’t make the trip the last time this happened, in 1989, you’ll have to wait until Pluto’s next approach, in 2237. You can buy a ticket for your great-great-great-great-great-great-grand- child! Even the quickest route will take a decade of your life—at least two if you’re hoping to make it a round trip. Schedule your vacation when you are young, so you can return to Earth by middle age. An- other option is to wait for retirement. Live out your last days wandering through the dwarf planet’s cold plains, far away from earthly woes. No matter when you choose to leave, remember to pack your warmest clothes, along with your space suit. It is always far colder on Pluto than the deepest arctic winter on Earth.
Getting to Pluto is a lot faster if you don’t stop once you arrive. A direct flyby with chemical rockets takes anywhere from eight to twenty years, depending on your trajectory and how far away Pluto is from Earth. You can snap a few photos as you speed past on your way to the great icy space rocks that lie beyond the dwarf planet. If a mere flyby doesn’t satisfy you, your trip planning gets more complicated.
Pluto moves much slower around the sun than Earth, at around 10,446 miles per hour, and slowing down to match pace with it takes a lot of energy.
A Hohmann transfer orbit works well for the inner planets with shorter orbits around the sun. Out here, that simple elliptical path would take many decades to complete because of Pluto’s long year. A gravity assist from Jupiter can shave a few years off your trip, but let’s face it—the trip to Pluto will be a long one unless you opt for a nuclear bomb–powered rocket. Forget solar-powered travel. It doesn’t work well this far from the sun. Because of the long travel time, you may opt to settle permanently.
When You Arrive
As your view of Pluto grows, you’ll start to see the contrast between the dark stains and bright splotches on the surface, including Pluto’s famous heart. You’ll also make out Pluto’s moon Charon and the deep chasm that slashes through its face. Arrival is a big event when you’ve been restricted to a tiny capsule for years on end. Some are hesitant to leave the cozy accommodations of their spaceship. When you finally venture out you’ll be greeted by a wintry panorama.
The cold, virtually airless environment makes for crystal clear skies, which are dusted with stars both day and night. The sun is always the brightest star in the sky, hundreds of times brighter than the full moon on Earth. Throughout Pluto’s year as it draws closer to the sun, the sun grows larger in the sky. It appears twice as big and four times as bright at its closest than at its farthest point. On the horizon, in the direction of the sun, the skies are a deep blue that fade to black as you look up. Sunsets on Pluto are otherworldly. They last for hours, since Pluto’s day is six times longer than Earth’s. Just after the sun sinks below the horizon it casts blue beams in every direction.
Don’t forget to send a note to friends and family back home when you arrive. You’ll need some extra patience when sending messages from Pluto, and because Pluto’s orbit is so elliptical the time to send a message varies a lot more than it does for the planets. Depending on where Pluto is when you arrive, it will take between three and seven hours for your note to make it back. If you’re feeling homesick, point a powerful telescope back at Earth and you’ll see what happened a few hours ago because of the time it takes for light to travel. It’s a telescope into the past.
Long-distance travel over the Plutonian surface requires rugged rovers than can manage jagged ice. Hoppers are useful because they can avoid this treacherous terrain. In low gravity, they’ll cover long distances, and the thin atmosphere doesn’t offer resistance. If you want an aerial tour of Pluto, you won’t be gliding in an airplane; you’ll fly the skies in a rocket.
A form of travel unique to icy worlds such as Pluto is the hover car. By allowing ambient heat from your comfortable, pressurized vehicle to escape through the bottom of its frame and heat the icy surface, the hover car can create a cushion of air. You’ll glide over the smooth plains with very low friction.
Jaunting between Pluto and its small moons is easy. Because of its low gravity and lack of atmosphere, you don’t need much fuel to escape its pull. You only need to reach a speed of 2,700 miles per hour to launch back into space. Traveling to nearby Charon is like traveling halfway around Earth. It’s twelve thousand miles away, so you could be there in less than an hour if you launch at conventional Earth launch speeds.
What to See
Visitors to Pluto are eager to view the bright plains of the famous heart-shaped Tombaugh region. The western lobe, an icy depression known as Sputnik plains (Sputnik Planum), is miles deep and five hundred miles wide. Huge cracks separate the plain into geometric shapes, like the cracks in the sand of a parched desert—be careful not to fall in. These formations are thought to be the tops of areas of slowly churning nitrogen ice—like a superslow and very cold lava lamp. Because water ice is less dense than nitrogen ice, occasionally you’ll see a huge chunk of water ice that has made its way to the surface and seems to float like an iceberg in the solid nitrogen. As you navigate this area of Tombaugh, you’ll see dozens of distinct landforms, from rugged pits to bright plains and isolated hills.
Al-Idrisi Mountain Range
Over the western curves of the heart, a chaotic mountain range looms. Ice climbers will appreciate these mountains, which tower as high as the Rockies. The water ice mountains have a delightful pinkish hue, with white snowcaps. The pink is methane that has worked its way into the pristine white, like dirty snow. The snow is unfortunately ill-suited to melt for drinking water, since it’s made out of frozen methane. On Pluto, the saying goes, “If the snow is pink, don’t drink.” Flowing between the peaks are glaciers of frozen nitrogen, which in gas form makes up most of Earth’s atmosphere. Take a good look—this is what frozen air looks like.
Hillary and Norgay Mountains
Travel southwest from Sputnik plains to visit the Hillary Mountains and Norgay Mountains. They are named after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first recorded climbers to summit Mount Everest. These mountains aren’t nearly as tall as the Himalayas, where Everest stands. Norgay’s tallest mountain is just 11,000 feet from its base, compared to the summit Norgay and Hillary achieved on Everest: 29,029 feet, or 15,000 feet from base to peak. Don’t be discouraged if this feels less impressive than the accomplishment of those British mountaineers in 1953. Remember, you already traveled at least 2.7 billion miles to get here.
Between the Cthulhu region and Pluto’s heart, Pluto has vast dark regions lined up like the finger holes on brass knuckles. Individual spots are named after mythological creatures, and include Meng-p’o, the Chinese goddess of forgetfulness, Balrog, the subterranean demon of The Lord of the Rings fame, and Krun, the louselike lord of the underworld in the Mandaean tradition.
Named after the gigantic octopus-like monster from H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, Cthulhu is actually shaped more like an enormous whale.
When you visit, you’ll be hiking on very dark, icy ground that’s blanketed in a tar-colored layer of carbon-rich muck called tholins. These highlands of Pluto are much older than the icy plains of Sputnik, and have had more time to accumulate craters—the scars of time. You’ll enjoy exploring their mysteries. The fifty-six-mile-wide Elliot crater has a strange, bright ring of ice. Standing on the ring, you’ll look up at its two-mile-high central peak, towering like a castle in the middle of an icy moat.
If you’re looking for something a little more thrilling than your typical resort vacation, try the backcountry descents on Pluto, which rival any black diamond routes back home. Heated skis create a layer of vapor, which reduces friction with the snow. Skiing is easiest on the methane snowcaps, where you’re more likely to find Pluto’s version of powder. At only one-sixth the mass of Earth’s moon, Pluto’s low surface gravity means a typical jump will launch you more than twenty-four feet into the air, and you’ll come down with a soft landing. There are plenty of steep jumps to vault off. Speed demons will need to have patience; the low gravity makes it hard to accelerate quickly. If you ski downhill long enough you can eventually get up to breathtaking velocities, especially because there is no air resistance. You can even catch some air, though technically there is no air to catch.
Ever try ice-skating on rock? That’s what frozen water ice is like on Pluto, where it exists in an ultradeep freeze at about –400 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll have better luck skating on nitrogen ice rinks, because nitrogen has a much lower freezing point than water: -346 degrees, much closer to Pluto’s ambient temperatures. This new form of ice-skating may take some getting used to. When you ice-skate on Earth, your skates glide over a layer of liquid created by the friction from your blade. On Pluto, the nitrogen ice turns straight into gas.
The pink mountains of Pluto have cliffs that may seem rugged, but they are surprisingly easy to scale because of the low gravity. You’ll need strong ice-climbing gear, including crampons and ice picks, to tackle them. People are sometimes cavalier about climbing safety in low gravity, but don’t forget that although you can fall from higher heights without hurting yourself, you can still die falling from high cliffs.
Imagine climbing up a hundred-foot tower and then jumping off. On Pluto you can do this without breaking your legs, due to the dwarf planet’s weak gravity. Just after you jump you’ll float downward gently, like a snowflake. Though it may seem like you could fall like this forever, you will accelerate as you near the ground. By the time you reach it, you’ll only be going as fast as you’d be going if you’d jumped from a six-foot wall on Earth. You need no parachute—and even if you had one, it wouldn’t do you any good because Pluto has almost no atmosphere. A popular location for BASE jumping is in the wide, deep pits that dot the Sputnik plains.
Play Air Hockey
If you heat a puck to Earth’s room temperature on Pluto, it will instantly and violently turn the ice beneath it to gas; the surface of the dwarf planet becomes your personal air hockey rink. Just be sure to keep the puck moving or it will make a hole in the ice and disappear.