Monday, February 9, 2009

A Brief History of Pluto

Since its discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh to its eventual – yet not by any means final – dethronement as a planet in 2006 by the IAU. Is Pluto for all intents and purposes a planet?

By: Vanessa Uy

Seeing VHS recordings – the 1990’s version of TIVO – of an aging Clyde Tombaugh in his last TV appearance for the first time, especially ten years after, can be quite disconcerting. With an oxygen tank in the background and a tube up his nose, defending to the “bitter end” on the then embattled status of Pluto as a true-blue bona fide planet after the discovery of the Kuiper Belt – a previously unknown region of our Solar System - back in 1992. Given all the available viewpoints of the “Great Pluto Debate”, I began to wonder if this issue would still be relevant as we enter into the 22nd Century?

Of all the books written about Pluto’s “embattled” status as a true-blue planet, the one that I consider being the most “scientific” when it comes to pointing out the present status of Pluto is the one recently published by Neil deGrasse Tyson titled Pluto Files. As a Frederick P. Rose Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and a member of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, it is safe to say that Neil deGrasse Tyson is truly qualified to shed light on the on-going conundrum that has plagued Pluto’s planet-or-not status.

Even though the planet’s discovery in 1930 and naming it from a letter-writing “suggestion” of an 11-year-old British schoolgirl, it seems like Pluto has a somewhat “charmed” status right on the get go. Even though the Pluto’s planetary status was somewhat not-so-beyond-reproach from the beginning. I mean an orbital path that strays into the planet Neptune’s. Plus radically straying off our Solar Systems plane of ecliptic, Pluto has really got it coming from the beginning.

Then came the 1970’s, which given the advances in astronomical telescope technology allowed astronomers greater insight into Pluto. Astronomers around the world – university tenured or not – didn’t have to wait for the 248.4 years or so for Pluto to completely orbit around the Sun for them to know that there is seriously something wrong with the planet’s “personality”.

During the discovery of the Kuiper Belt back in 1992 – a hitherto monumental discovery in astronomy – given that various Japanese science fiction animated series has theorized its existence (remember that Star Blazer cartoon?) since the late 1970’s. Only highlights every astronomers doubts – especially ones affiliated with the International Astronomical Union and it’s Paris, France headquarters – to seriously cast their doubts about the somewhat “dogmatic” axiom describing Pluto as a planet since it’s discovery in 1930. When Pluto’s planetary status was endangered in the mid-1990’s, this prompted the now-aging and on assisted-living astronomer Clyde Tombaugh to have his last live television appearance defending his “pride-child” – namely the planet Pluto.

Toward the end of the 20th Century, the planetary status of Pluto was further eroded by such groundbreaking discoveries as “having 7 moons bigger than the planet itself”. Thus marking the somewhat untimely decline of Pluto’s planetary status. The Uruguayan upstart astronomer and IAU lap-dog named Julio Angel Fernández proposal of declaring Pluto’s “Dwarf Planet Status” only accelerated the process, but Pluto supporters won’t give up their planetary status issues without some semblance of a fight.

While Neil deGrasse Tyson mentions the American phenomena of a “Pluto Industry” which centers on the state of New Mexico staunchly supporting Pluto’s planetary status. Even though the state’s native son and Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh spent most of his time in Arizona – make that the observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona - during his discovery of Pluto. Even though most New Yorkers are now letting the issue go, everyone around the world now see the defense of Pluto’s planetary status as an American phenomena. But is there any strong and contemporary scientific basis that supports Pluto as a true-blue bona fide planet?

Recent scientific studies done by astrophysicists’ show that during the early days – a little over 4 billion years ago – of our Solar System, there were 20 or more planet-sized objects bumping into each other in the inner Solar System. The region now occupied by the planet Mercury all the way to Mars. Remember that Mars-sized rock that collided with the early Earth that eventually created our own Moon? This is how our Solar System looked back then. Now compare that to the present-day Kuiper Belt region of our Solar System. Given these existing facts we shouldn’t be dismissing Pluto as a true-blue planet too hastily.

Even though Pluto has earned itself the proverbial page-six-supermarket-tabloid-type-fame most of us could only dream about. And even though I myself thinks that it is very good that a lot of people had become interested in astronomy again and hopes that the Pluto controversy will not end for the sake of making astronomy popular again could anger quite a large number of people. But should the Pluto planet status be resolved soon, like before space tourism or space real estate becomes a booming business?

I would say yes, remember that “overpriced-gentrification-driven” Whitewater land development deal that almost destroyed the Clinton’s political career in America? I mean, should a parcel of land be over-priced by virtue of geologic stability alone? This debacle could affect the future real estate and space tourism development potential of Pluto. Just imagine the rigmarole and legalese nightmare that could ensue if the planetary status of Pluto remains unresolved by the time Paris Hilton’s descendents will be planning to create hotels and ski resorts on Pluto, only to be stymied by unclear zoning laws resulting from Pluto’s unresolved planetary status.


Laurel Kornfeld said...

Hi, Vanessa,

You might be interested in seeing my latest comments on Tyson's book, which he sent me to review. I disagree with him about support for Pluto's planet status being solely an American phenomenon. There are still many astronomers and lay people working to get the demotion of Pluto overturned, with the conviction that dwarf planets should be considered a subcategory of planets (they are round due to hydrostatic equilibrium, just smaller than the larger planets that are gravitationally dominant). I believe Clyde Tombaugh was right and know that astronomer David Levy, who wrote Tombaugh's biography, promised Tombaugh before his death that he would always stand up for Pluto's planet status.

I have decided to write a book of my own about Pluto though it's going to be a while before it's completed (I only decided to do this two weeks ago). Meanwhile, you can view my comments at

Vanessa said...

Whether disputed or not, at least the howls will be loud enough for Paris Hilton to know that there is a planet called Pluto. I do harbor a nagging feeling that the IAU's reason for demoting Pluto is based on political - rather than truly scientific reasons. Looks like the folks from the 22nd Century will be blaming them - if there is still an IAU by then to blame. I'll visit as soon as I'm not too busy. Hopefully soon.