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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Life Imitates Art: Pluto’s Face Predicted in 1979

By Phil Plait

I talk a lot about how entwined art and science are, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as good an example as this: Space Artist Don Dixon predicted what Pluto looked like back in 1979 … and he nailed it.

Are you kidding me? That’s the cover he did for the book Out of Darkness: The Planet Pluto, by Clyde Tombaugh and Sir Patrick Moore. Amazing.

And this is more than coincidence! As he writes on his Cosmographica site, the overall look of Pluto is probably modified by ices on its surface sublimating (turning directly into gas) during local summer and redepositing elsewhere on the surface where it’s colder. That means craters and lowlands should have different brightnesses … just as we’ve now seen with New Horizons.

And the color he used may be pretty close, but that’s not coincidence either; we’ve known for some time that methane on the surface would get hit by ultraviolet light from the Sun and turn into more complex organic compounds called tholins, which are reddish. The colors we’re actually seeing so far are more orangey than red, but close enough.

So yeah, he was doing more than guessing. And that’s all well and good, but still. Geez. The similarity is really incredible.

I’m tellin’ ya: art and science. The science informed Dixon’s art, and now his art has hopefully helped inform you. That’s how this stuff works.

Tip o' the easel to my old friend Robert Hurt.

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