Bigger Than Texas

NASA /Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This week we received a lovely new full-disk partial color image of the dwarf planet Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. There is so much lovely detail, so much more complexity than we could have imagined.

And yet, as with so many things in outer space, I felt a bit adrift when viewing the image, as I had no good sense of scale. I know that Pluto, with a diameter of 1,474 miles (2,372 km) is slightly smaller than our own Moon (2,159 miles, or 3,475 km across), but that only helps so much. To help me get my head around things, I calculated the scales and found that an outline of the state of Texas (approximately 733 mi/1,180 km from top to bottom) would fit nicely, so I put together this image to help make sense of the imagery.

If you've ever driven across Texas, then you know how long that takes, so I found myself imagining that drive, but across the icy Sputnik Planum of Pluto (in a heated rover, of course. Brr!)