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Happy Birthday, Pluto

January 21, 2011

"Artistic rendering" of Pluto by C.M. Handler

Sunday marks the 71st 81st anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, located by late astronomer Clyde Tombaugh on Jan. 23, 1930. He found it by comparing a photographic plate taken that night with two others taken earlier in the month; the plate is now on display in the Exploring the Planets gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s not much to look at—certainly no nebula shot courtesy Hubble—but look close and you’ll see a tiny bit of history.

Pluto, of course, has been through some rough times as of late. It first had its title of “planet” stripped away in August 2006, when the International Astronomical Union re-examined the definition of a planet in the wake of discoveries of more large objects orbiting the sun. Anyone who went to school in the 1990s or earlier felt robbed of their cherished nine-planet solar system, but alas, Pluto remains a dwarf planet, sharing a family with objects such as Ceres, the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, which also briefly held the title of “planet” in the early 1800s.

Also on display at the Exploring the Planets gallery are the Apollo 13 “rock box” used to carry samples back from the moon and a full-scale engineering test model of the Voyager spacecraft. And if you’ve got kids, the Family of the Sun exhibit features children’s art displays and the song “Family of the Sun,” sung to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell.” Check it out this weekend—consider it Pluto’s birthday party.

In other news, NASA’s Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) spacecraft is preparing for a “celestial date” with comet Tempel 1 at 11:37 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. Awww.

Editor’s note: This is the year 2011, not 2001, so our anniversary wishes for the dwarf planet Pluto were off by a decade. City Paper regrets the error.

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