Pluto’s relegation.jpg

Pluto’s relegation

Clyde Tombaugh was only 24-years-old when he discovered Pluto, while working at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1930. He had spent six gruelling months examining images of the sky, endeavouring to discover a planet that the observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell, believed was affecting the orbit of Uranus. There was no such planet but, in the process, Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

Seventy-six years later, on August 24, the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from the eight classic planets and categorised it as a dwarf planet, along with two others found in the Kuiper belt. The astronomers had debated whether to add the other two planets, Ceres (discovered in the 1800s) and UB313 (discovered in 2003) to the list of planets, but decided to downgrade them to second class status, along with Pluto.

The scientists at Thursday’s conference showed the lighter side of the debate by waving about toys of the Walt Disney character Pluto the dog, insisting that Pluto’s spirit will live on in the exciting discoveries in the future.

Under the new guidelines of planet classification, Pluto is disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps Neptune’s.

The widow of the astronomer, who died in 1997, has expressed her frustration at the decision to remove Pluto’s planetary status, but added that her late husband would have understood the decision, given that two more dwarf planets were found nearby. The 93-year-old, who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is still proud of the discovery and so is the city. An observatory, a campus street and an elementary school bear his name. His words before he died should give hope to all who are frustrated at the decision: “It is there. Whatever it is. It is there.”