by, Jo Carol Hebert
Space. It’s out there. The first ‘star-gazers’ of the human race looked up at the night sky and wondered . . .
- Early farmers calculated the seasons of harvest from the phases of the moon.
- Old-world sailors saw patterns in the stars and navigated their vessels.
- Ancient civilizations predicted world events from the positions of celestial bodies.
- Trading merchants on camels used the stars as their GPS to direct them across desolate deserts.
Some planets have been visible to the naked eye since ancient times. Scientists named these observable bodies after their Roman and Greek gods.
In the century of the 1600s, an instrument of lens and mirrors was invented. This new marvel could gather light and magnify objects farther beyond the sight of man.
In later centuries, astronomers improved the ‘eye’ of the telescope. Other planets were discovered in our Solar System.
Eight planets were identified orbiting around our Sun.
The ‘X’ Planet
In the century of the early 1900’s, scientists believed that another planet was out there beyond Neptune (planet number eight). They called it Planet X. But it remained a mystery.
Try This: Use the first letter of this silly sentence to help you remember the names and order of the eight planets;
My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos
(Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune).
Planet ‘X’ Gets a Name
Sure enough, in 1930, a young astronomer named Clyde Tombaugh ‘found’ the tiny new planet. An eleven-year-old girl named Venetia Burney named it Pluto, in line with the names of the gods of Roman mythology. And so, there were nine planets – for a while.
Fun Fact: In 1930 Pluto, the Disney cartoon dog (pet of Mickey Mouse) was created and named for the planet, Pluto.
Oh, how we loved little Pluto! For years, school kids were taught facts about Pluto as a planet:
- Pluto is COLD, about -375 degrees below zero. Average temperature for Earth is a comfy 62 degrees.
- Pluto is 4,599 miles around. Earth is about 25,000 miles around.
- Pluto is over 3,000,000,000 miles from the sun. Earth is 93,000,000 miles from the sun.
- Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the sun. Earth takes 365 days to orbit the sun – our year.
- Pluto has O number of people. Earth has over 7 billion!
- Pluto has 5 moons. Earth has 1 moon.
- Pluto is the 9th planet from the sun.
In the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, rocket technology allowed space modules to be propelled into space. These spacecrafts carried instruments to monitor and relay information of the mysteries of space back to earth. Fearless astronauts suited up and stepped out on the Moon. The new frontier of the Space Age had begun.
What happened to the little planet, Pluto?
In 2006, some astronomers decided to redefine the criteria of being a ‘real planet’ Pluto’s future hung in the balance…
- A Planet has to orbit around the sun. (“Ok, so far, so good for Pluto.”)
- A Planet has to have enough gravity to pull itself into a sphere shape. (“OK, Pluto could do that.”).
- A Planet has to be ‘able to clear its neighborhood of all objects in its orbit. (“Uh, oh. Pluto did not make it”).
The gravity on Pluto was so weak, it could not ‘clear its neighborhood. That is, it could not absorb nor throw out objects in its orbit.
Pluto was kicked out of the elite planet club and named as a ‘Dwarf Planet’. Today, we have only eight ‘real planets’.
Pluto is Re-Discovered!
In 2006, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent out the New Horizons Space Probe to study Pluto. This mission-effort discovered a vast ring of other icy, planet-like objects around and beyond Pluto.
They named this region, the Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons Spaceship
Included on board was an American flag and the sealed ashes of Pluto’s long-since departed founder, Clyde Tombaugh. The spaceship traveled over 3 billion miles, took 9 years, and came within 7,800 miles of Pluto. With the amazing images transmitted back to earth, Pluto was popular again!
The tiny ‘dwarf planet’ has a heart!
Pluto and Beyond…
The New Horizons spaceship sails on past Pluto, and continues exploring the universe and relaying data back to earth. Its extraordinary journey could end in 2021 when it loses power. It will then drift on out of our solar system to worlds unknown.
One last word…
There are current voices of change in scientific circles to make ‘poor little Pluto’ a real planet again.
Now, what do you think about that?