Inside the Capitol

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2-25 Legislature Declares Pluto a Planet

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Pluto has officially been declared a planet again -- but only in New Mexico -- and only on Feb. 18, 2009, although New Mexicans always will consider Pluto a planet.
On Feb. 18, Rep. Joni Gutierrez, of Las Cruces, introduced House Memorial 40 in the New Mexico Legislature restoring Pluto's planethood for a day in honor of the 79th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh on Feb. 18, 1930.
The memorial, proclaiming "Pluto is a Planet in New Mexico Day," was immediately debated and after some good-natured questioning of the sponsor, it passed unanimously.
Pluto lost its planethood four years ago at a meeting of the International Astronomers Union in Prague, Czech Republic. The action came at the end of the meeting, after many scientists had left. Controversy quickly erupted.
Some American astronomers charged that the action was taken as a poke in the eye of the United States for its shabby treatment of science during the George Bush administration. Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American.
But the IAU had better reason than that. Better telescopes were discovering other bodies in Pluto's neighborhood exhibiting similar characteristics. It was either reclassify Pluto or add an indefinite number of new planets to the solar system.
But the new definition has problems, one of which could eliminate some additional planets. So the debate continues as Pluto support societies form around the world.
New Mexico is where Pluto should expect its most support. Although Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto as a young man at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, his long and distinguished career and all his retired life took place almost totally in New Mexico.
Another hotbed of Pluto support is located in Streator, Illinois, Tombaugh's birthplace, which holds festivals and other events in Tombaugh's honor. Flagstaff has never shown interest in recognizing its part in Pluto's discovery.
Rep. Gutierrez's memorial also mentions Tombaugh's sightings of several unidentified objects in the sky near Las Cruces. It is not unexpected that astronomers would be more likely than most to sight strange objects in the sky.
In fact, Tombaugh was surprised there had been so few. Dr. Lincoln La Paz from the University of New Mexico was one of the few others to publicly reveal their sightings.
Tombaugh charged that some other astronomers were being unscientific by not revealing their sightings publicly or for not entertaining the possibility of their extraterrestrial origin and nature.
In other astronomical news, Discover Magazine currently has an article on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey being conducted at Apache Point Observatory, in Sunspot, New Mexico, 18 miles south of Cloudcroft.
The 10-year survey, nearing completion, so far has confirmed the existence of dark matter and dark energy, discovered cannibal galaxies, dwarf companion galaxies to the Milky Way, confirmed a major Einstein prediction and observed structures in the universe measuring a billion light years across.
It is by far the most ambitious sky survey ever undertaken. And it's right here in New Mexico. If you've never taken the beautiful drive from Alamogordo, through Cloudcroft, to Sunspot, you must do it. You'll pass through the state's only tunnel along the way and see some beautiful mountain peaks and canyons.
The scientists won't let you look over their shoulders at Sunspot but they have an excellent museum and do a great job of interpreting.
The huge dishes of the Very Large Array telescope west of Magdalena are a sight to behold. They have been featured in several movies and are well worth the trip out to see.
Besides these installations that are part of the public's knowledge, New Mexico also has many other sky search projects, which aren't so well know. New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech are on the cutting edge as are top secret observatories at Kirtland Air Force Base and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
WED, 2-25-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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