Give Pluto your stamp of approval

By Phil Plait | February 1, 2012 11:00 am

In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will zip past Pluto, giving us our first close-up view of this tiny world.

The team behind the space probe have a nice idea to help raise awareness of it: make a new US Post Office stamp commemorating it. My friend Dan Durda, both an accomplished astronomer and artist, created this lovely design of the stamp:

[Click to enhadesenate. Note: the word "Forever" means the stamp is always good for first class postage, and is crossed out here to prevent forgery.]

It shows the spacecraft going by Pluto and its (relatively) freakishly large moon Charon. I like how he didn’t go for photorealism, but instead used an oil paint-like feel for it. The stamp is meant as a followup — I might even say send-up — of a US stamp issued in 1990 about Pluto that has the label "Not Yet Explored".

I like this stamp! I’d love to see it made official, too. Alan Stern, the head guy for the mission, created a petition to help that along. It takes more than just a nice stamp design to get the PO’s notice; it has to have public support as well. I signed the petition, and if you want to, please do.

I’ll note that I expect this to raise the specter of whether Pluto is a planet or not. I have some thoughts on that, and I’ll be posting again soon on that topic.

Related posts:

Pluto has another moon!
Find cold, distant worlds with Ice Hunters
Pluto still may be the biggest dwarf planet
Percy, Percy, me

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. Friday links | February 3, 2012
  1. Signed! :)

    And for related news on Pluto, some wild speculation about the possibility of liquid inside the ice was discussed a while back. Over at the Astronomy StackExchange, I managed to dig up some papers that discussed this. Can’t wait to 2015 to see what the verdict turns out to be!

  2. Dave

    What is this “stamp” thing you speak of? To better help raise awareness, I suggest a laser-disc video of this event.

  3. CR

    Signed. It’s nice to have a science-related petition to sign once in a while! (Political petitions, though necessary, are getting to be a drag!)

    By the way, looking closely at the art, I noticed that in addition to the atmosphere (saw that at first glance, actually), Dan’s added what look like Triton-styled geysers and even aurora at Pluto’s pole. A bit of license, obviously, and I woner if either will be shown to be true. My money’s on the geysers, but less so on the aurora, though they do look cool in the painting. Would Pluto’s atmosphere be sustantial enough to allow for them to appear (when the atmosphere isn’t ‘frozen out’ that is)? Do we know how much atmosphere is needed for aurora to occur?

  4. Jeff

    since I’ve taught college astronomy 30 years, I probably am entitled to an opinion, although only the IAU will be the authority of course:

    I wish all classifications in solar system were based upon commonality of objects based on formation process. So for Pluto, I believe it is a KBO, formed at the same time by the same process all the other KBOs were. Therefore, to me, this dwarf planet drawing in also Ceres is a political, not scientific , classification.

    But yes, the stamp is very nice. I’ll be very excited to see New horizon reach Pluto/Charon, we’ve never really met those yet.

  5. Good luck. For decades we’ve been trying to get a stamp honoring coal miners approved, but the Post Office is apparently too busy endorsing the latest Disney products with lines of stamps to notice. It took how many years to get the Feynman stamp? And even then it was just part of a series. Maybe this would have a better chance as part of a series honoring planetary exploration. Oh, wait, Pluto isn’t a planet anymore…

  6. CR

    This is trivial, but Harold’s post (#5) reminds me that I never understand why the USPS puts out Disney Studios-related stamps, especially for films that are only a couple of years old. Do we REALLY need that much Disney exposure? (I know, I know, the same could be argued for ANY stamp: “Do we really need space stamps? Do we really need baseball stamps? Do we really need Civil War stamps? Do we really need some old guy or lady commemoratives?” And so on. But Disney films? Come on… Oh, wait, Disney probably pays them a hefty bit of much-needed money for the ads, er, I mean stamps.)

    By the way, Harold, on a more serious note: I presume that petitions have been circulated to gain/show support for a coal miner stamp, over the years? Maybe now might be a good time to start a new one, if one isn’t already in effect. Maybe, in order to foster better public relations during these troubled times the USPS is going through, the organization might be more responsive to public influence/input… just a thought, anyway!

  7. Damon B.

    Phil, I think you missed a big opportunity here to use “click to philatelate”.

  8. Kappy

    @Jeff Here are my thoughts on Pluto’s status:

    Actually, I really do think it’s a KBO :)

  9. BJN

    That’s a Photoshop filter applied to photo imagery – the result is an amateurish look at best. And the typography isn’t very good. If the petition is successful, a designer/illustrator should rework the image and design to a professional level.

  10. TM

    ‘Note: the word “Forever” means the stamp is always good for first class postage, and is crossed out here to prevent forgery’

    Wait is stamp forgery a real thing? How much money is there in that? Tens of dollars?

  11. MadScientist

    Big thumbs down to the antiforgery attempt. It would have been better to touch up the image to make the lettering disappear altogether. Oh well, at least the stamp doesn’t have a value on it. That’d be a cool stamp. :)

    @BJN#8: I agree, but even if you were to take that image as it is and print it to a stamp, those things (about the image) will not necessarily be apparent. If anything the image has far too much detail (unless it’s going to be a large stamp). The choice of fonts etc. will simply look awful when shrunk down to stamp size though.

  12. eric_in_ak

    If you want to see this happen, send a letter (yes a dead tree thing) to the Postal Service. There is a committee that reviews and approves new stamps. I have done this a couple of times on a couple of subjects, one even got made into a stamp. the adress is:

    Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee
    c/o Stamp Development
    U.S. Postal Service
    475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300
    Washington, DC 20260-3501

  13. @eric_in_ak (#10) will ap personal visit have any effect? I have a trip to DC scheduled for next week. 😉

    @MasScientist (#9), Forever IS a value in the US for stamps. 😉

  14. Dan

    Too bad it has to zip by. I wish there was a way to orbit Pluto and drop a lander onto its surface. Ah, well. We couldn’t afford that. Too many war planes that the govt. needed to buy instead. Guess I should be happy we have a Pluto mission at all.

  15. Bad Wolf

    This is a great way to immortalize the exploration of the unknown.

    It’s ironic that this post comes out on the birthday of another explorer of the unknown, Elisabeth Sladen (she even went to Pluto, IIRC).

    RIP Sarah, Jane Smith

    (Petition Signed)

  16. Since Pluto and Charon orbit a point outside either mass, if they were still planets, would they be a binary planet system? If not, what would it take to classify it as such?

  17. CB

    Nice! Definitely signing that. I love Pluto, and love that we’re going to be probing it. Even if it isn’t a planet (neener neener).

  18. Kappy

    @Dan yeah, but the Delta V would have to be enormous to get there in a reasonable amount of time and actually enter orbit given our current tech. It will be flying with a TON of fuel. Just the fact that we will actually see what a KBO looks like is pretty awesome, even ignoring all the science that will be done.

    My big concern is that the mission folks seem really skittish about additional moons and debris in their current desired path. I’d hate for them to make an even further approach after traveling as far as we are.

  19. I would like to sign the Petition but Change.Org wrongly banned me and a few thousand others:

    Back in 2008, after Obama won the election, Change.Org had people submit petitions for President Obama on his first day. People voted them up. The top 10 would be delivered on that first day.

    1 of the petitions was to ban nontherapeutic sexual genital mutilation of minors and end Medicaid/Medicare-funding of nontherapeutic sexual genital mutilation.

    That petition was in the top 5 when it disappeared. When contacted, the reply was that Change.Org had no interest in carrying the Petition. This is from an organization claiming that it is devoted to Free Speech. Also, meddling with elections goes against the stand of Change.Org for Voter-Verifiable Elections so that people like Walden “The ElectionFixer” O’Dell of Diebold.Com cannot steal any more elections.

    Many complained about this to Change.Org. Change.Org responded by banning all complainants and everyone who voted up the petition before its removal.

    I cannot sign the petition. I recommend that one setup future petitions on other sites because Change.Org is an untrustworthy hypocritical site.

  20. Jeff

    Mr. #9, I like your Pluto status the best; can’t beat that.

  21. “Note: the word “Forever” means the stamp is always good for first class postage,”

    Yeah, I guess it doesn’t mean “forever a planet”!

    Anyway, a very nice stamp. It reminds me of some of the Apollo era stamps.

    Question: Are the stars just background, or are they “astronomically correct”?

  22. Nemo

    I like the stamp, but maybe the design should wait until the mission arrives, so we actually know what Pluto looks like!

  23. Monkey

    @23 No, its better to have a documentation (however it is flattered with artistic license) of humanities impression of the unknown. Think of how cool old maps are with the early impressions of landforms, places, etc…

    This can lead to a follow up stamp, though. The real pluto, king of the KBO’s! Or was it a dog…I forget…. :)

  24. Hey, gorgeous!
    Is that an RTG on your chassis, or are you happy to see me?

  25. I’ve always wondered, how bright would Pluto actually look, to human eyes? Clearly, it receives much less light than the moon, for instance, but the moon has quite a low albedo, considering. Would it really look as bright as it does in this image, or would human eyes that were dark-adjusted enough to see it well not be able to see colors?

  26. Matthew Ota

    Getting back on topic, I signed the petition for sentimental reasons. There have been many other space exploration stamps made in the past that I used to collect as a child.

    Even though snail mail is becoming obsolete, stamps can be true works of art.
    This one is beautiful

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Pluto certainly has my stamp of approval. 😀

    I’ll sign that petition for sure! :-)

    Great idea here – thanks BA & Dan Durda. :-)

  28. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 26. Joseph G :

    I’ve always wondered, how bright would Pluto actually look, to human eyes?

    Interesting question – I’m not exactly sure of the answer and it would depend on where we were seeing it from. Ken Croswell asks a good question of his own here :

    on just how bright Pluto would be if it was closer. (If you haven’t seen that already maybe?)

    See also :

    regarding possible oceans within Pluto.

    Plus :

    for an item on ice geysers that could exist on Charon. These are extraordinary little worlds. :-)


    “…Marc Buie can very easily imagine what it must be like to walk around on Pluto: with less than 1% of your weight on Earth because of the low gravity, at temperatures of 230 degrees below zero, in the twilight because the Sun is nothing more than a dazzling star in the black sky, across snowfields of methane ice and transparent crystals of frozen nitrogen and with a gigantic moon hanging overhead – at least if you are on the right side of the planet.”
    – Page 61, ‘The Hunt For Planet X’, Govert Schilling, Copernicus Books, 2009.

  29. Dragonchild

    @26. Joseph G
    I’d imagine it’d look like whatever New Horizons manages to see, but illuminated in starlight conditions. Pluto gets just as much starlight as Earth’s night side; I’m tempted to call Earth’s atmospheric scattering and the Sun on Pluto’s day side a wash.

  30. eric_in_ak

    @Larian LeQuella (#14), I don’t know if the USPS Headquarters is open to public visits. If you are interested in stamp type things, go to National Postal Museum. It is part of the Smithsonian and is a great museum.

  31. Mark L

    So in 2015 we’ll finally find out that Charon is really just a chunk of ice housing a gigantic Mass Relay that will allow intergalactic travel? I, for one, welcome our new Turian overlords.

  32. @29 Messier Tidy Upper: You’ve always got all the most useful links, don’t ya? If it weren’t for Google, I’d suspect that you were some kind of rogue AI. Or maybe a witch 😛

    @30 Dragonchild: I’d imagine it’d look like whatever New Horizons manages to see, but illuminated in starlight conditions. Pluto gets just as much starlight as Earth’s night side; I’m tempted to call Earth’s atmospheric scattering and the Sun on Pluto’s day side a wash.

    Is the sun really that dim at that distance? Would it then not be possible (for humans) to see color?

  33. Chris A.

    Nice stamp, but isn’t it a bit premature to call New Horizons the “First Spacecraft to Explore Pluto” when it’s still 3+ years out? I mean, spacecraft do occasionally fail en route, FSM forbid!

  34. @ SkyGazer:

    Waaaaaaaaaaait a minute … that’s not a picture of Pluto, it’s a picture of Goofy!

  35. CR

    Re: the crossing out of ‘Forever’ as an anti-forgery thing. It’s basically so that someone can’t cut out the picture and glue it to an envelope to mail a letter. Think of it as pre-cancelling a real stamp. Even the USPS does the exact same thing (over the word ‘forever’ or over the numerical price, whichever the individual stamp picture might contain) on all of its posters and catalogs showing pictures of upcoming and available stamps. The Pluto/New Horizons example shown here is within normal operating specs of the USPS.

  36. @36 CR: I see, so the “strikethrough” isn’t on the actual stamp, just posters of it?

  37. Dragonchild

    @33. Joseph G
    Sol is the brightest star in Pluto’s “daytime” sky by far, but bear in mind brightness falls off like any other inverse square law. Voyager 2 had to expose its camera for TENS of MINUTES to observe Neptune.

    I don’t know just how bright the Sun is from Pluto, but I think like the Moon here, it’d be bright, but not enough for me to see color, and would be dim enough to look at without eye damage. I’m speculating because I can’t do the math while I’m at work.

  38. Note: the word “Forever” means the stamp is always good for first class postage, and is crossed out here to prevent forgery.

    And here I thought it was a commentary on Pluto’s planetary status ;p

  39. @Dragonchild: Voyager 2 had to expose its camera for TENS of MINUTES to observe Neptune.

    Wow. I didn’t know that.

  40. “since I’ve taught college astronomy 30 years, I probably am entitled to an opinion, although only the IAU will be the authority of course…”

    Jeff, not only is this not true; it is also not very scientific. Science is not “decreed” by a self-appointed “authority”; it is determined by facts and data. The IAU can vote that the sky is green, but that wouldn’t make it any less blue. I find it disturbing that so many would so easily cede “authority” to others even when they themselves have built careers studying astronomy. No one voted on the truth of relativity, on gravity, or on whether the universe has one or many galaxies. Similarly, no one should vote and have the right to issue declarations for all humanity on what constitutes a planet.

    Pluto is both a planet and a KBO. Why is it a problem for it to be dually classed? The first tells us what it is; the second tells us where it is. Pluto is geologically differentiated into core, mantle, and crust just like the Earth and larger planets are. It has weather and geology. These all make it very different from the majority of shapeless KBOs and asteroids.

    We are learning from exoplanet discoveries that planets form in a variety of ways. Even if Pluto formed in a different process from the bigger planets, that does not in and of itself preclude it from being a type of planet–if we recognize that there are many subtypes of planets rather than just two.

    I am also very disappointed to hear of someone being banned from Walabio, I would recommend trying to start another account there via a different email address. If that doesn’t work, email New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, explain your situation, and ask if he can add your name to the list of supporters.

  41. Judy Dye

    Yes, Pluto should have it’s own stamp.

  42. Matt B.

    @42. Laurel Kornfeld: It’s not a vote on facts, it’s a vote on names. Getting everyone to call the same thing by the same name is necessary for effective communication. Think of when anti-science nuts call evilution “just a theory”. They think theory means the same as conjecture, when it actually means (to scientists at least) a well developed model that is used as the basis for new hypotheses. That disagreement on the meaning of “theory” leads to miscommunication.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar