Remember the anagram: My Very Easy Method Just Sums Up Naming ..well, naming what?
Pluto was officially demoted to the utterly humiliating status of a dwarf planet in 2006. Back before we utterly shattered its dreams of stardom (planetdom?), what was the history of our favourite dwarf?
Little Pluto first burst into our consciousness in 1930 but this was a long overdue discovery. Pluto was accidentally photographed by the Yerkes Observatory in 1909. Later, a determined astronomer Percival Lowell, who had actually set off to discover a potential 9th planet in 1906, unknowingly captured two pictures of Pluto on 1915 but but died a year after.
21 years and sixteen pre-disoveries later, Pluto was officially discovered at the Lowell Observatory (how ironic) by Clyde Tombaugh. Tombaugh had restarted the search for Pluto in 1929 and in March 13, 1930, he struck gold.
The discovery relied on the blink comparator. This machine allowed a viewer to switch between two images of the night sky very quickly and repeatedly so that any shifting objects created an illusion of movement before their eyes.
Now that they had finally discovered a ninth planet, they had the right to name it. But with naming planets comes responsibility, so what did they do? They took some one else’s suggestion.
A 11-year old schoolgirl named Venetia Burney suggested the name Pluto to her Grandfather. Venetia suggested that the name for the god of the underworld might suit such a cold, dark planet. As a nice touch it also started with the initials of the first astronomer to search for Pluto (Percival Lowell). Grandpa, a former librarian of the Bodleian library in Oxford (*connections*), then passed the name long to the right people and – boom – Pluto was our ninth planet.
But not for long… mwah ha ha ha!
Come 2006 and the discovery of the Kuiper Belt. This was a major discovery in modern astronomy opening our eyes to the existance of a third zone of the solar system. The Kuiper Belt is a “vast realm of ice worlds” beyond Neptune. It contains many icy masses as well as comets and asteroids (and is currently being explored by the New Horizons probe).
This was good news for astronomy but bad news for Pluto. As the little guy hasn’t cleared its neighbouring region of other objects, it can no longer be defined as a full-sized planet.
You fooled us for little while, Pluto, and for that we’ll always remember you.