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Sadly, on August 24th 2006, just ten years ago, the planet Pluto was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet”. How sad. I remember learning about the little guy in grade school and we were all particularly happy about the name – Pluto – because of our enjoyment of Pluto cartoons and comics. Both Plutos…the planet and the cartoon character debuted in 1930 but Pluto, the name, goes back into antiquity.

First, he lost his status as the ninth planet when he crossed inside of planet Neptune’s orbit…so then he was the eighth planet. But that lasted only for twenty years when he snuck back beyond Neptune in 1999. Pluto is something of a wanderer and it takes 248 years to make one orbit of the sun. Twenty of those years the orbit lies inside the orbit of Neptune. Image of Pluto from the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) aboard NASA's New Horizons spacecraft

Pluto tries harder to get our attention than any other planet. Sure, the other planets might have fancy rings or spots or might be close enough that we can see them from the porch. But Pluto, bless his heart, gave us a big valentine when we finally got close enough to get decent pictures.

The demotion was sad and some of us still secretly consider Pluto a planet no matter what those cranky astronomers think. We like his eccentricity and his goofy cock-eyed orbit. Pluto is on a tilt-a-whirl ride compared to the other planets…a non-conformist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, one way to celebrate Pluto is to visit the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The observatory was founded by Percival Lowell in 1894 on Mars Hill in the small town of Flagstaff. His first large telescope, the Clark Refractor,  is still there and still in use. The Pluto telescope (1929)  used to discover Pluto in 1930 is there also. Lowell was a little eccentric himself and was mostly interested in the “canals” that were seen by some astronomers on the planet Mars. He was also convinced that there was an undiscovered “Planet X” somewhere far out in the solar system. There is evidence that Lowell might have glimpsed Pluto before he died in 1916 but didn’t realize what he was seeing. The planet’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, joined the staff at Lowell Observatory specifically for the task of finding that elusive outer planet. He found the planet (or dwarf planet if you insist) in 1930 and named it Pluto. The common astronomical notation for Pluto, (♇), happens to be the initials of Percival Lowell.

Another major discovery at Lowell Observatory is the early evidence that the universe is expanding and that galaxies are moving away from each other.

The observatory is open to the public and there are scheduled tours. There are regularly scheduled star gazing events. A museum on site contains some of the early equipment used for the expanding universe discovery as well as Lowell’s 1911 Stevens-Duryea automobile. During my visit a telescope was set up to view sun spots and solar flare eruptions from the sun’s surface. I took a number of pictures while on the tour. Architecturally, the observatory buildings are interesting. Mrs. Lowell’s favorite planet was Saturn so there are a few references to the ringed planet on the grounds, including the library.

The observatory on the left houses the original 1895 Clark Refractor telescope used by Percival Lowell.

The old telescope — in use for over 100 years — looks as new as the day it was installed. Yes, the astronomer peers through that little eyepiece….but there is a photo attachment as well. The observatory dome rotates on automobile tires.

Percival Lowell’s library and some housing and office space for resident astronomers are located at the observatory. Lowell’s mausoleum  sits at the crest of Mars Hill near his original observatory. Lowell died 100 years ago, in 1916 at the age of 61. He was convinced that there were navigable canals on Mars — something that was widely believed at the time. We know now that that is not the case but it made for some interesting science fiction speculation back in the day. Lowell was very widely travelled and wrote a number of books on the orient that were widely read and well received at the time. One book, “Chosön: The Land of the Morning Calm ; a Sketch of Korea” (1886) offers an early, 1883, description of Korea and is viewable at Google online books.

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