Happy Birthday Pluto(’s discovery)

Posted by Bill Andrews
on Thursday, February 18, 2010

In this illustration, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft approaches its far off destination, the Pluto system. Today marks the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery, and New Horizons just a month ago marked its 4th year in space. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI) photo
True Plutophiles are likely already aware of this, but today marks the 80th anniversary of Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto. Recently, of course, the tiny object’s biggest claim to fame was its reclassification as a dwarf planet in a 2006 decision by the International Astronomical Union. Complaints from little kids all the way up to planetary scientists have protested the demotion ever since, though, and everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter. (Except me, of course: I remain cautiously neutral, the better to serve in my journalistic capacity.)

Regardless of your personal views, this anniversary is a special one. Not only does it mark a new decade’s worth of our knowing about Pluto, but it also comes hot on the heels of a related milestone. Just 30 days ago, NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons mission celebrated 4 years in flight. When the spacecraft launched January 19, 2006, it left with the fastest launch speed ever recorded, yet after 4 years (longer than many entire space missions) it’s still more than 6 years from reaching the distant Pluto system. That’s not to say it isn’t making progress, though: Last December, it finally became officially closer to Pluto than to Earth.

So whether you’re a devoted Pluto-killer like Mike Brown or a crusader for Pluto’s reinstatement “as a planet of our solar system with full rights and benefits” as the Friends Of Pluto seek, perhaps we can all agree to put our differences aside for one day. If you’re looking for an appropriate way to celebrate, consider our Top Ten list from last year, or suggest a new one in the comments. When it comes to space, I think we’d all rather be lovers than fighters, so what better way to symbolically begin burying the hatchet than to call a truce on February 18, Pluto Day?

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