A mediados de febrero de 1930, el astrónomo estadounidense Clyde William Tombaugh examinaba de forma minuciosa decenas de placas fotográficas en el Observatorio Lowell, en Arizona. Percival Lowell, un excéntrico millonario apasionado por la astronomía, había financiado años atrás su construcción con la esperanza de encontrar respuesta a sus dos mayores obsesiones: hallar vida en Marte –con vana fortuna, puesto que confundió los supuestos canales marcianos con capilares sanguíneos de su propio globo ocular al haber convertido, de forma inadvertida, su telescopio en un instrumento oftalmológico– y, por otro lado, localizar el llamado planeta “X”. Un lejano planeta que, a juzgar por las variaciones que parecía inducir en la órbita de Neptuno, tenía que ser muy, muy grande.
Tombaugh se dedicó en cuerpo y alma al segundo objetivo. Y lo consiguió. Al menos eso creyeron tanto él como la comunidad internacional, aunque el hallazgo conllevó una cierta decepción. El planeta era muy, muy pequeño, con una órbita tan excéntrica que llegaba a cruzarse con la del gigante helado Neptuno. Y una inclinación inusual de 16˚ con respecto al plano de la eclíptica. Pero al neonato había que ponerle un nombre, y a una niñita de Oxford –Venetia Burney– se le ocurrió que Pluto le cuadraba bien. Un dios del inframundo de tres al cuarto pero que podía hacerse invisible y, además, las iniciales PL rendían homenaje al soñador Lowell. Y también lo catalogaban como Planeta.
Tombaugh siguió escudriñando el cielo de forma incansable hasta su muerte –ya con 90 años–, y no sólo descubrió Plutón, sino que también le echó el lazo a 15 nuevos asteroides mayores. Y a un buen número de ovnis, inclasificables en categoría alguna pero que le dieron una confusa fama entre propios y extraños. En 1992, y aún en vida, la NASA comenzaba a proyectar la visita a Plutón, el planeta americano. Y los agentes de la NASA, siempre correctos, le pidieron el pertinente permiso a Tombaugh, a lo que este accedió no sin antes advertir –y no se equivocaría en esto ni un ápice–, del frío y largo viaje que significaría tal aventura. Lo que Tombaugh no sabía es que él iba a figurar en la lista de pasajeros.
Izquierda: el astrónomo Clyde Tombaugh, descubridor de Plutón. Derecha: recipiente con las cenizas del astrónomo, a bordo de la sonda New Horizons (NASA)
El 19 de enero de 2006 la sonda New Horizons partió desde Florida rumbo al planeta Plutón y al más lejano aún cinturón de Kuiper. En la parte inferior del ingenio va sujeto un pequeño relicario espacial que contiene una onza de sus cenizas –donado por su esposa Patricia, que le sobreviviría hasta los cien años–, y otros objetos imprescindibles para la colonización tales como un par de dólares, unos sellos y una bandera americana con los que, si el bueno de Tombaugh resucita cual ave fénix, tendrá con qué empezar allá.
Bromas aparte, el paseo no ha sido fácil ni agradable para él. Y no sólo por los casi diez años de viaje a velocidad de vértigo (la New Horizons navega cerca de los cincuenta mil kilómetros por hora, sólo superados por su antecesora Voyager I). Unos pocos meses después de la partida –en agosto de ese mismo año 2006, y apenas atravesada la órbita de Marte–, en una histórica votación digna del más encarnizado debate de Naciones Unidas, la Unión Astronómica Internacional (UAI) –con la enérgica oposición de muchos científicos, y no sólo estadounidenses– degradaba en Praga a Plutón a la categoría de los planetas enanos. Junto con Plutón aparecen ahora los casi desconocidos Ceres, Haumea, Makemake y Eris. Otros como Orcus, Quaoar o Sedna, por ejemplo, esperan sitio. La New Horizons había partido al encuentro de un planeta jugando en primera pero se iba a encontrar con un segunda división.
Sin embargo, la misión no ha perdido en absoluto ni su interés ni su atractivo iniciales. Todo lo contrario. La New Horizons lleva meses manteniendo en vilo a todos los científicos y aficionados a la astronomía que son legión. El formidable esfuerzo llevado a cabo en su diseño, construcción y lanzamiento habrá merecido la pena, y los resultados enviados por la sonda son ya todo un éxito celebrado internacionalmente.
Y así Clyde Tombaugh, ochenta y cinco años después de verlo por primera vez, volverá a contemplar desde su pequeño nicho dentro de la New Horizons a su querido planeta Plutón. Y como aquella vez, pero ahora a tan solo diez mil kilómetros de distancia, volverá a enseñarnos las extraordinarias imágenes del pequeño planeta invisible que comparte nombre con el famoso can de Mickey Mouse. Curiosamente, la controversia sobre qué se bautizó primero, si al planeta o al perro animado, todavía perdura. Tal vez la UAI debería pronunciarse al respecto, y desagraviar parcialmente la afrenta que recibió Tombaugh durante el largo viaje a Plutón. Aunque sólo sea por premiar el impagable espectáculo estelar que nos ofrece la New Horizons.
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The speed of light in a vacuum is 300,000 kilometers per second. This speed is so fast that modern scholars mistakenly believe that the speed of light is infinite - the moment the light is turned on, the whole room is not illuminated?
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