Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pluto column revision

WED, 3-05-08

SANTA FE - New Mexico's little dwarf planet just might be on its way back to full planet status. There are indications Pluto is gaining support.
Obviously, Pluto doesn't belong to New Mexico and neither does its founder Clyde Tombaugh. But the 50 years Tombaugh spent here tied him so closely to the state that one prominent reference source gives our state credit for being the location where Tombaugh made his discovery.
He actually did his work at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In recognition of his discovery, Tombaugh received an undergraduate scholarship to the University of Kansas. He came to New Mexico in 1946 to work at what is now White Sands Missile Range and remained in the Las Cruces area the rest of his long life.
But it is Streator, Illinois, Tombaugh's birthplace, that is generating much of the enthusiasm and support for the discoverer of Pluto. Former Streator City Councilor Siobahn Elias played a major role, last May, in organizing a two-day Planet Pluto Festival featuring a combination of entertainment and education.
The entertainers included artists who have written songs, poems or essays inspired by little Pluto and its sad tale of unjust demotion. New Jersey writer Laurele Kornfeld has compiled a listing of some of those pieces, which she includes on her Web site

Among the speakers at the event was Dr. Alan Stern, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's associate administrator of space science and the principal investigator for NASA's Pluto-bound New Horizons probe.
Stern, one of the underdog planet's biggest proponents, says the scientific tide has turned in favor of Pluto's planethood in the past year and that teachers and textbook companies shouldn't be too quick to toss Pluto out.
Kornfeld's favorite, and mine too, of those performance pieces is the song "New Horizons: A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission." Written and performed by Kevin Elias and Richard Fey, it carries an upbeat message of faith and perseverance, which is what Pluto supporters need to have if the planet is ever to regain its former status.
The New Horizons mission involves a rocket on its way to Pluto for a 2015 arrival. It is an American project run by NASA. It was launched in 2006, shortly before the International Astronomical Union demoted the planet.
Pluto was the only planet discovered by an American. It may not have been coincidence that the IAU demoted the planet shortly after the launch of an American mission to Pluto. There is suspicion that the action could have been at least partially due to the low esteem in which the international scientific community currently holds the United States.
Siobhan Elias also has succeeded in getting Rep. Jerry Weller, who represents the Streator area to enter comments in the Congressional Record encouraging his colleagues to support the effort to restore Pluto's planethood. New Mexico's congressional delegation should be among the first to take up that challenge.
Obviously, the United States Congress is not going to be able to influence the IAU directly, but it can provide encouragement. Numerous scientific societies are having great problems accepting the IAU's new definition of planethood, which essentially could eliminate all planets in our solar system.
If you are interested in helping with the effort to restore Pluto to its former elite status, go to Kornfeld's Web site for information on why Pluto should still be a planet.
Very appropriately, some of Tombaugh's ashes are aboard the New Horizons rocket headed toward Pluto. Tombaugh had a deep interest in rockets as a means of exploring outer space.
Because of that interest and his ability to spot tiny objects in outer space, Tombaugh was recruited for a secret government project several decades ago to search for near-earth satellites.
The reason for the search was never revealed, but we have recently learned that our government knew the Soviets were ahead in developing a manned spy satellite in the early 1970s. It's another aspect of the practical uses of astronomy.
I'm told the Web address listed in the column does not work. The attached column revision contains the correct address.

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