The New Horizons photos of Pluto are, as all the quivering hype suggests, magnificent and truly thought-provoking. But, for us, maybe the thoughts are rather different from what most people seem to be thinking.
The first close-up is here, as given by NASA.
From the news description that we are referring to for convenience here, these are 'historic'. Of course, this may not sound like simple hype, but in fact even my yesterday's dinner napkin is 'historic', unique, and never to be repeated. Perhaps the headline's adjective should have been more like 'first' or 'unique' or something more measured than that.
On the top is Charon, the Plutonic moon (these are not to scale; Charon is much smaller even than tiny Pluto). If you look carefully, you'll see that it has what, to an amateur like us at least, looks like meteor-hit pock marks. And if you look at the bottom image, which is Pluto from just after the fly-by, so farther away and showing the whole once-a-planet, you'll see what seem to be pock marks on it as well.
At one point, the BBC quotes a scientist as saying "We have not found a single impact crater on this image. This means it must be a very young surface." Another quote is that Pluto has been "resurfaced by some geological process - such as volcanism - within the last 100 million years". But in the final image, or the latest that was released in the news stories, showing the whole once-a-planet, there is a crater identified, in the lower left part of the image, and we have also labeled the location of the close up (our first reproduced figure above), which shows that it is rather close to the area that is being said to have some particular crater-erasing geological dynamics.
So it is not clear what conclusion one should draw from these images. Are we now in an ad hoc, mode, where we will see specific processes invoked for each specific feature, rather than a more theoretically based unifying idea of the inner nature of Pluto? That could be interesting, if there will be evidence of geographically different regions, in the way that the Earth has seismically active regions, regions where moving plates intersect, and so on. Or will it just be guessing? How accurately can photographic images resolve such issues?
What real scientific news would be like
So the first looks at Pluto from up close, spectacular in their own way, aren't all that scientifically new or shockingly novel as the news blares indicate. If we found that Pluto was made entirely of copper, or contained formations of polycarbonate plastic, or was made of green cheese, then we would really be facing something truly new, something not already very well established in our theoretical cosmological repertoire. That would be something to energize the mind and drive us to explore an unexpected fact of nature! It would be compelling to explore more directly, even with a lander vehicle, for its own sake but more importantly because it would signal that there are fundamental things we don't yet understand, and that probably apply all over the universe. If Pluto were made of green cheese, that would then also engage the biologists, to try to explain it, because it would, so to speak, be a true udderly new discovery, and we'd need to know what type of cheese, and we'd want to find the source animals--and their grazing lands!
In that sense, if researchers must claw and scratch to find something to claim is seriously new in what is really rather ordinary, it's a problem. In terms of basic physical processes, these photos certainly provide new factual knowledge, and the voyage is certainly an engineering feat, but it's only very minor science. But it's early days yet; we will have to see if this mission really shows us anything other than local particulars about the nature of a couple of ordinary rocks roving around in space.
If not, then maybe we already know enough about the basic nature of these aspects of cosmology, and maybe we should be concentrating on other things, such perhaps as dramatically better kinds of telescopes (or other sensing instruments) to explore some of the more fundamental questions about the cosmos, of which there are plenty.
On a positive note, unless there really is something truly new about Pluto or its moons and so on, then what New Horizons shows is that our physical sciences and our instrumentation have been very good for quite some time. We've truly overturned the classics' idea of the earth at the center, surrounded in crystal spheres. We know what's 'out there', at least within the nearby visible universe, and its utter predictability in our solar system, along with the rest of telemetry data, show that we can extend this to the rest of the universe. We can invoke Newton's clear idea about what a 'law of nature' is, as he expressed in his Principia Mathematica: if you find something in some examined corner of existence, you know (if you've discovered the 'laws' correctly, and the cosmos is law-like) that everywhere else is the same, too.
That's why, for example, the orbits of objects, including Pluto and its moon, and the rest of the material in the Kuiper belt, and the various comets and other debris, and the stars, and gravitationally affected spacecraft, all behave as they do, essentially following the laws of motion and gravity. It is marvelous to know these things (our own area, biology is far from that level of understanding at present, but is making progress rapidly). But it is no longer transformative. Diminishing returns have clearly set in. That is the very nature of scientific progress. We should celebrate that this means we really do understand things about the universe. And we should move on to things we really don't yet know.
This sort of mission doesn't seem to tell us anything about dark matter and things of that sort, that may be part of the story even in our own solar system or galaxy, but hide under the space-probe-vehicles' radar. Why don't dark matter or dark energy affect spacecraft? Why doesn't inflation affect the trajectory of a spacecraft? These are questions that to a cosmologist may be quite naive, but they show the nature of new kinds of things we can now be asking about, rather than what particular humps and bumps a given space-rock has on it.
Too hard to please?
The images we're seeing are in many ways spell-binding. Just to imagine a bit of ice, not to mention a Rocky Mountain range of it, so far away and yet being seen close up, is quite amazing. It's not that that bothers us. Our objection to the venture itself is largely due to the cost relative to other human priorities.
This is less profound new knowledge than it is amazing technology giving us views no humans have had before. There's no taking away from that. But documenting another space object up close is not much different than doing another GWAS study of the genetics of some trait. OK, yes, OK--but we already know the general picture. It's time to delve into the deeper questions.