Mid-February has been an exciting time. First, we received news that the LIGO Scientific Collaboration heard a gravitational wave, confirming the last part of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. That was followed up with Valentine’s Day, which of course means that a great many rocky relationships crashed and burned. But with all that hype about space and love, most people forgot about another event: the 86th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, which happens today, on February 18th. And that’s fitting, because Pluto, the former planet and current dwarf planet, has a long history of being overlooked in space and unloved by everyone. Let’s take a moment and shed a tear for the celestial sob story that is our former ninth planet and everlasting joke of the solar system – Pluto.
1906-1930: The Search for Planet X
Pluto’s story has auspicious beginnings. Despite its current shame and exile, Pluto was eagerly awaited by astronomers at the turn of the 20th century, and not just because astronomers eagerly await anything to happen, anything at all, to justify spending so much of their lives staring into the dark void of space.
It distracts them from staring into the dark void of their social lives
Indeed, the astronomy community had noticed that the orbits of Uranus and Neptune were being gravitationally pulled by another large, unseen body even farther away from the sun. This insight led Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory, to begin the search for a theoretical “Planet X”. To do so, he photographed the night sky through a telescope every night, then checked to see whether anything in the pictures moved from one night to the next, suggesting that Percy’s night life was about on par with other astronomers of the time.
It distracted him from remembering that his name was “Percival”
Unfortunately, Percival died before he could find Pluto. A subsequent legal battle over his estate halted the search for Planet X, and went on and on with no end in sight. It seemed like all hope for finding Planet X was lost.
Space researchers started looking for characters of fiction instead
Finally, in 1929, the quest for Planet X resumed, with Clyde Tombaugh cranking up the old telescopes at the Lowell Observatory. He scanned space photos day and night, looking for slight differences in image position like the world’s most boring Waldo book. Nothing was going to stop Clyde, he was determined.
Clyde, seen here being determined
In 1930, it happened: Clyde found a moving object that must have been a planet. Planet X had been discovered. Clyde published his findings the next month, and the world rejoiced.
“Woohoo! What a time to be alive!…Oh.”
1930: Naming Planet X
The discovery of Planet X made global headlines, and the Lowell Observatory took suggestions on what the new planet should be called. For my part, I think they should have stuck with “Planet X”, as that would have been awesome.
And I’m not the only one
Instead, many names were considered, including “Zeus” and “Cronus”, mighty symbols of power and strength, to “Percival” and “Constance”, the exact opposite of that.
The name “Pluto” was suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11 year old girl from England, who took the name from the Roman God of the Underworld who received the souls of the dead. The name was unanimously voted for by every member of the Lowell Observatory, and thus “Planet X” became “Pluto”. History is mum on why an 11 year girl saw fit to pay tribute to an underworld God, but it does shed a new light on Mickey’s dog.
“YOUR SOUL IS MINE”
1930-1992: Dark Times and Haters
Our brave little planet had a nice Honeymoon period after being discovered, despite being named after a Hell Deity. Pluto enjoyed enormous popularity, in fact. After all, Pluto was the 9th planet, and washed away the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth after the discovery of Neptune almost sparked another war between France and Britain. It even gave us a food category for My Very Educated Mother to Just Serve Us Nine of.
Take your pick
But there were dark forces at play. Like villains in a high-school drama, evil astronomers became jealous of Pluto’s newfound popularity and schemed to bring it down by spreading rumors.
Astronomers are catty like that
They hit poor Pluto where it hurt: it’s mass. Pluto was originally thought to be as large as the Earth, as it would have to be in order to skew the orbit of Uranus and Neptune. In 1948, though, a man named Gerard Kuiper declared that Pluto was probably only around 1/10 that size.
Kuiper, seen here making hurtful claims about the size of Pluto’s “diameter”
Things only got worse from there: In 1976, the number was revised to 1/100th, and in 1978 Pluto’s moon Charon was found, from which it was estimated that the little planet’s mass was actually only 0.2% of Earth’s, and some said that Pluto was far too small to have any impact on the orbit of Neptune or Uranus.
Then came the death blow. In 1989, Voyager 2 flew by Neptune and snuck some photos like the paparazzi it is. These photos revealed that Neptune is actually 0.5% smaller than previously thought. A recalculation with the new size showed that Uranus and Neptune actually weren’t being pulled by another planet at all, and that their orbits were perfectly normal.
People still laughed at Uranus’s name, though
This meant that, in a Shyamalanian twist, Percival Lowell’s theorized Planet X didn’t need to exist, after all, and it actually didn’t. What is Pluto, then? Just a hunk of rock that by coincidence is out where Planet X was supposed to be.
Actually, that’s a fair shot better than most Shyamalan twists
By 1992, a bunch of small dwarf planets were found in the general orbital area of Pluto. As a direct slap in the face to Pluto, these were collectively called the Kuiper belt, after the same guy who questioned Pluto’s mass in 1948. This led astronomers to wonder, publicly, whether Pluto was even a Planet anymore, man, and there were calls to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status, the celestial equivalent of sending a player to the minor leagues.
With similar levels of fan support
In 2005, researchers discovered Eris, another tiny non-planet that is more massive than Pluto. This meant that either Eris had to be considered a planet, or that Pluto couldn’t be. Scientists couldn’t come up with another word after “pizzas”, and so Pluto was officially demoted to minor planet status on August 24th, 2006.
It was even cut out of family pictures
As a final insult, “plutoed” became the American Dialect Society’s 2006 Word of the Year, meaning to “demote or devalue someone or something”. And that’s how Pluto’s 76 year run as the solar system’s 9th planet came to an end.
2006-Present: The aftermath
Pluto was eventually shuffled off into the Kuiper belt along with all of the other has-beens and never-was non-planets. There it remains, too far away to feel the warmth of the sun, ostracized from the inner clique of terrestrial planets and gas giants that used be its family.
You can’t see it, but the Kuiper Belt is holding a “Losers Not Allowed” sign
Pluto did get some much-needed attention last year, when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft got some photos of Pluto for the first time. Although New Horizons left Earth when Pluto was still a planet, if it had known it was going to go visit a dwarf planet it probably wouldn’t have bothered.
What New Horizons found, though, is the saddest part of the whole story. The photos show that Pluto, poor Pluto, who we took into our solar system and accepted as our own, only to cast back into the frigid nether regions of the minor planets and other miserable space rocks, it has a heart. And we broke it.
We broke it with our callous disregard for the feelings of a tiny little dwarf planet who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by its peers. We broke it by looking upon its tiny mass with scorn and derision, and laughing. It was also broken by gradual changes in geological and thermal composition. But mostly us, and our lack of caring.
So, when you stare out into the starry night this February 18th, remember the story of Pluto, the broken-hearted little rock that was once our 9th planet. You won’t see it, but you’ll know that it’s there. Please spare a thought for our old friend, so that maybe, just maybe its broken-heart may one day mend. We owe it at least that much.