Inside the Capitol

Saturday, June 23, 2007

6-27 Pluto Demoted Again


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- Pluto has been demoted again. This time, there was hardly a whimper from the former planet's supporters when Pluto was bumped from its position as the solar system's biggest dwarf star.

      Frankly, no abundance of Pluto supporters likely ever existed. It was more a favorite-son sort of thing. You see, Clyde Tombaugh was the only American ever to discover a planet. The first eight were discovered while America still was busy conquering its own frontiers

      But in 1930 we got into space when young Tombaugh painstakingly discovered a ninth planet while working at Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

      Tombaugh moved to New Mexico in 1946 to work at the White Sands Proving Grounds, now White Sands Missile Range. In 1955, he founded the astronomy department at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University.

      So Arizona and New Mexico have a right to be proud of Professor Tombaugh and his accomplishments. And we have a stake in Pluto's planetary status.

      But we're not going to win this one. Last year, a new category of dwarf planets was created by the International Astronomical Union amid a fair amount of controversy. The meeting was held in the Czech Republic and the vote was taken after many of the attendees already had left.

      A Web site dedicated to saving Pluto was created and promised to collect a massive number of petition signatures but nothing has been heard since.

      In reality, the action had been coming for a long time. For many years after Tombaugh's discovery, telescopes weren't good enough to determine Pluto's details. As their quality improved, the news wasn't promising. Pluto didn't appear to be a good member of the planetary club.

      Then in 2003, a Cal Tech astronomer discovered another planetary body that appeared to be at least as big as Pluto. That's what lead to the new class of dwarf planets. Now it has been determined through observations by the Hubble space telescope that the newly-discovered Eris is 27 percent larger than Pluto.

      So now our guy isn't even the biggest dwarf. And it's highly possible that other dwarfs will be discovered. A Harvard astronomer suggests that the new class be called Plutonians, instead of dwarfs. At least that saves us a little dignity.

      As for Tombaugh, who died in 1997, his name shows up throughout science fiction novels, movies and TV series. Maybe when we reach Mars, we'll name a base after him. Meanwhile, his family can be proud of Tombaugh Elementary School in Las Cruces.

      His widow, Patsy Tombaugh, says her husband wouldn't be too upset with Pluto's demotion. He was a scientist and he knew that further information could change things.

      With the upcoming 60th anniversary of whatever it was the government finally decides didn't happen at Roswell in early July of  1947, it is appropriate to note Tombaugh's involvement in UFO lore.

      In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Tombaugh's sky gazing resulted in the sighting of three objects which he said defied any explanation of known phenomena. "Their apparent lack of obedience to the ordinary laws of celestial motion gives credence" to their being extraterrestrial.

      As the most eminent astronomer to report seeing unidentified objects, Tombaugh was attacked by some within his profession.

   He countered that as a highly skilled professional he thought that several reputable scientists were being unscientific in refusing to entertain the possibility that his sightings could be of extraterrestrial origin and nature.

   Tombaugh's reports of possible extraterrestrial phenomena may have led to his involvement in a secret government search for near-earth satellites. The reason for the search never was made public.

   There was speculation that the government was secretly looking for flying saucers while publicly debunking them. But it also may have been possible that our spies in Russia were reporting that the Soviet space program was significantly ahead of ours.

WED, 6-27-06


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



Post a Comment

<< Home