Pluto, you've got a friend in New Mexico

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Tuesday, March 13, 2007

State legislators in New Mexico vote today whether to declare March 13, 2007, "Pluto Planet Day." Up for consideration is a "joint memorial" sponsored by Representative Joni Marie Gutierrez, Democrat of Doña Ana County: "Declaring Pluto A Planet And Declaring March 13, 2007, 'Pluto Planet Day' At The Legislature." It was 77 years ago today that Clyde Tombaugh and Lowell Observatory reported Pluto's discovery.

Joint memorials are not laws. They simply express the thoughts and opinion of the legislature. They can pass with the approval of only one House, and the governor does not have to sign them.

What's the connection between Pluto and the "land of enchantment." Clyde Tombaugh moved to New Mexico in 1946 to work at the White Sand Missile Range. In 1955, he went to New Mexico State University to found the university's astronomical research program. After retirement in 1973, he stuck around. His adopted home state has taken the recent downgrading of Pluto to a dwarf planet pretty hard.

So, apparently, did the members of the California State Assembly. Having nothing particularly important to legislate on August 24, 2006, the assembly passed a resolution condemning Pluto's downgrading to dwarf. Among the numerous reasons cited in the Assembly's tongue-in-cheek resolution:
"WHEREAS, The downgrading of Pluto reduces the number of planets available for legislative leaders to hide redistricting legislation and other inconvenient political reform measures..."

The New Mexico legislature's meddling in matters astronomical is understandable, considering how much astronomy contributes to the state economy. The state hosts several world-class observing facilities, like the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope, and the National Solar Observatory.

Earlier this year, the legislature praised the NRAO in House Joint Memorial 4, "Recognizing the national radio astronomy observatory's Very Large Array radio telescope for its prominence in the field of astronomy and for its contributions toward the advancement of scientific knowledge."

And let's not forget the second Tuesday of every February, which the New Mexico legislature declared "Extraterrestrial Culture Day." Not surprisingly, Representative Daniel Foley of Roswell, NM, sponsored this one.

The New Mexico legislature's support for astronomy extends somewhat deeper than the cute, but ephemeral, joint memorials. It passed a law in 2000, the Dark-Sky Protection Act, to "regulate outdoor night lighting fixtures to preserve and enhance the state's dark sky while promoting safety, conserving energy and preserving the environment for astronomy." For instance, outdoor fixtures over 150 watts must be shielded or turned off between 11 P.M. and sunrise.

A good place to celebrate Pluto Planet Day, albeit belatedly, is Streator, Illinois. Clyde Tombaugh was born there in 1906. With two states already lining up behind restoring Pluto to planethood, you have to wonder what's next — a Constitutional amendment? Two states down, 36* to go.

One can't help but see irony in the fact that Tombaugh spent his high school days in Kansas and actually discovered Pluto while in Arizona, yet neither state legislature has laid claim to him or to Pluto. Perhaps other states can tap into some of Pluto's apparent marketing mojo with a "Clyde Tombaugh Slept Here" initiative.

* Amendments can be proposed by Congress or by a national convention of 2/3 of the state legislatures. Amendments can only be RATIFIED into law by a ¾ vote of the legislatures, or total of 38 of 50 states.

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