Pluto – a Cornucopia of Surprises

Mathematical calculations had led to the discovery of Neptune, and Percival Lowell attempted to discover a further planet in a similar fashion. Astronomers had noted irregularities in the orbit of Neptune, and Lowell set out to find a trans-Neptunian planet that was supposedly causing these disturbances. However, this elusive celestial body fooled Lowell. When it was photographed in 1915, it masqueraded as a star, and none of his astronomers noticed it. In spite of his ingenious calculations, Lowell passed from the earthly scene without finding his mysterious trans-Neptunian planet.

Lowell died in 1916. For many years, legal difficulties impeded the operation of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. However, about 13 years later, Clyde Tombaugh took up the search. This surprising celestial body suddenly staged its scientific debut. In 1930, it strutted boldly onto a number of photographic plates, to the delight of Tombaugh and subsequent viewers. It was hailed as the outermost planet of the Solar System, and received the name Pluto, after the Roman god of the underworld.

The flamboyant Pluto made astronomers rub their eyes. Its orbit was very eccentric. Moreover, Pluto was very adventurous. It ascended considerably north of of the plane of the equator of the Sun, and then dipped far to the south. Its wanderings even brought it inside the orbit of Neptune for several years, but evidently Pluto feared global warming, so it soon returned to more remote regions of the Solar System. Moreover, through all its wanderings, it seemed to be lying down, since its axis of rotation was almost the same as the plane of its orbit around the Sun.

This flamboyant braggart pretended that it was more massive than it actually was. It convinced some astronomers that it was as large as the Earth. However, the prying eyes of science eventually cut it down to size. It is now thought to be smaller than the Moon.

Many people began to doubt whether Pluto was really a planet. This opinion became stronger and stronger. Finally, in 2006, The IAU made it official. Pluto was not a planet, but a dwarf planet.

Pluto was miffed. To recover its tarnished reputation, it began to parade its satellites before the eyes of astronomers, just as parents proudly display their children. In 1978, it astounded the world by showing James Christy its largest satellite, called Charon after the boatman who ferried the shades of the dead across the river Styx in Greek mythology. It then enlisted the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope, and through this magnificent piece of equipment it revealed three more satellites: two in 2005 and one in 3011. The former were called Hydra and Nix. The latter has not yet received an official name.

Moreover, Pluto took advantage of the fact that astrologers had incorporated it into their system. It now could use sorcery to enchant the world. It waved a magic wand, and moved many people to protest its removal from the planetary ranks. The states of Illinois and New Mexico even passed laws stating that Pluto was a planet. It even mesmerized the United States government, so that it spent millions of dollars on a spacecraft designed to investigate Pluto and its moons. The New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to approach the Plutonian frozen shores in the year 2015.

So the world is on pins and needles, wondering what new surprises this mysterious planet will unfold before the eyes of science.

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