Defending our Pluto

Visit Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory, where the (former) planet was discovered

At least Pluto hasn't been booted off its own sidewalk. Here at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the beleaguered little block of ice is still honored in the Pluto Walk. For now.

In case you haven't been paying attention to news from our solar system, the object formerly known as the ninth planet has been demoted, dissed, sent to the minors. By ruling of the International Astronomical Union, Pluto is now a mere "dwarf planet." It's a comedown of cosmic proportions, and no place has felt it more strongly than Lowell, the place where Pluto was discovered 77 years ago.

"We're still in shock," says Steele Wotkyns, public relations manager for the observatory. "We were getting calls from England, Australia, all over."

There are few better places to ponder the vagaries of man, the universe, and astronomical fame than Lowell Observatory, which sits on a pine-covered hill above Flagstaff. Lowell is here because in the 1890s a rich, eccentric Bostonian named Percival Lowell became fascinated by the planets and realized that northern Arizona, with its high altitudes and clear skies, would be a great place to look at them.

"He was the Carl Sagan of his day," says current observatory director Bob Millis. "He loved to write, to speak for lay audiences. Of course, many of his ideas were very, shall I say, imaginative." Chief among those ideas was the belief that planet Mars was laced by canals built by brainy Martians, a theory that faltered once no Martians were found.

Lowell then commissioned his telescopes to search for Planet X, the long-hypothesized object beyond the orbit of Neptune. And in 1930, voilà: Pluto.

Visit Lowell today and you learn a fair amount about the discovery. On the Pluto Walk, you follow a sidewalk that represents a path through the solar system, each inch a million miles, passing plaques for all the planets and ending at the telescope that made the famous find.

Lowell's current scientists are understandably more interested in their current projects. The most exciting is probably the large new telescope, funded in part by the Discovery Channel, being built 45 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Among its jobs is the study of the Kuiper Belt ― the mysterious doughnut-shaped cloud of trans-Neptunian objects Pluto has been assigned to. "The Kuiper Belt is the solar system's new frontier," Millis says. "A team led by Lowell scientists has discovered half the 1,000 known Kuiper Belt objects. But we think there are more than 100,000."

As for Pluto itself, astronomers by necessity take the long view. "Nothing has changed about Pluto," Millis says. "It's still a remarkable little world." He describes the effort to reclassify Pluto as "premature." And he hints that further research ― done by Lowell's new telescope, perhaps ― may yet return Pluto to its proper place among its planetary kin. "People should not despair."

A nice sentiment, but as I strolled the Pluto Walk again, I grew annoyed with the International Astronomical Union. Didn't they care that Pluto was the only planet to be discovered in the United States? That millions of schoolchildren had memorized a solar system with nine planets, not eight? That another American icon, Mickey Mouse, had named his beloved dog after the planet? Apparently not.

That night was one of Lowell's open evenings, where regular people get to stare through telescopes into space. On these nights you see why Percival Lowell chose this site: So many stars fill the sky that finding familiar constellations ― the Big Dipper, Orion ― is like spotting a friend in Times Square. I looked at globular cluster M15, a blazing ball of yarn, and the Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral of starlight. It is true: looking at objects that are 2.5 million light-years distant puts problems into perspective. Pluto wasn't visible, but I knew it was out there, somewhere. I wanted to reach out and pat it, as Mickey might have reassured his Pluto. Don't worry, I wanted to say. Don't despair. We'll get you back.

Lowell Observatory (1400 W. Mars Hill Rd., Flagstaff, AZ; 928/233-3211)

 

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