Tuesday, March 22, 2050


Probably the single most popular image of Pluto is that of Orthanc, a forty-meter-high shard of nitrogen ice that thrusts its crooked way up from a field of tumbled blocks. The image has appeared on commemorative plates, commemorative coins, postage stamps, website backdrops, placemats, welcome mats, and advertisements for everything from soap to sex boutiques. Wired magazine recently estimated that over forty million people had Orthanc tattood on their bodies.

I first discovered and named Orthanc about nine months after reaching Pluto. I was flying by jet pack south along the 320 degree longitude line, and I was fifty-five kilometers out from Pluto Station when I saw it poking up into the black sky like a long, white fang. The comparison to Saruman's tower from The Lord of the Rings immediately suggested itself, even though the original Orthanc from Tolkien was black, and almost four times as tall. Orthanc was tall enough that I had to travel another five kilometers to reach its base.

The famous image of Orthanc rising up into the sky with Charon perched halfway above the horizon to its left was not the result of random chance. I went to a great deal of effort to compose the shot so it would look like that. I found just the right tumbled block of ice to serve as a vantage point that would put Charon just to the left of Orthanc. Then I decided on the best time of the Plutonian day to make the shadows appear just right, went back to Pluto Station, waited thirty-nine hours, then returned to Orthanc to get the shot. Commentators who have remarked on the similarity between the Orthanc-and-Charon image and the Trilon-and-Perisphere logo of the 1939 New York World's Fair are absolutely correct. I specifically had the Trilon-and-Perisphere image in mind when I shot Orthanc; it was my way of celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the World's Fair.

Plutologists still aren't sure how this slab of ice managed to tear itself up from the surrounding matrix and wind up pointing almost straight up. I've been back dozens of times since making the initial discovery, often taking core samples from various places along Orthanc's flank and from the surrounding ice field back to Pluto Station for analysis. Perhaps some heat source below the ice field caused it to buckle and crack, and caused Orthanc to swing itself up. It's as good an idea as anyone else has come up with. In the eleven years that have passed since I first discovered it, I've never found anything else like it.

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