On August 24, 2006, American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh didn’t just roll over. He sat straight up in his grave and loudly cried out to the International Astronomical Union, “Seriously? What are you people thinking?!”
This was our inaugural Pluto Demoted Day.
Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, must have been just as shocked as the rest of the world when the IAU made its stunning pronouncement. Why? What did Pluto do that was so wrong? According to the IAU, poor Pluto failed to clear the established neighborhood around its irregular orbit because it wasn’t gravitationally dominant.
The day Pluto was downgraded to dwarf status was sad for everyone who loves gazing up into infinity. The fact that it’s not visible without a powerful telescope isn’t the point. The former planet is special because it was the last one discovered in our tiny corner of the universe.
This is a planet that held a unique place on the maps of our solar system and our imaginations. Granted, Pluto took its sweet time orbiting the sun once every 250 years, but it was our ninth planet for 76 years. Walt Disney named his dog star after the former planet that was named after the Greek ruler of the underworld.
If you feel it’s wrong to downgrade a heavenly body graced with five moons, NASA has your back. In 2017, the agency sent a proposal to the IAU that could change Pluto Demoted Day into Pluto Reinstated Day. NASA’s tactful arguments for an upgrade revolve around better defining planet classifications.
We certainly hope NASA prevails and Tombaugh can finally rest easy. Until then, we’ll continue to observe August 24 with deep respect for our solar system’s designated underdog planet.