Pluto’s Obit

Pluto, the least of the major celestial bodies, never asked to be a planet. Once elevated, it became an influential figure in astronomy and astrology, in classical music and in cartoons.

In 1930, an amateur astronomer discovered the frozen mass and designated it Planet X. It soon orbited into the stratosphere’s most exclusive club as the ninth planet. An English schoolgirl, Venetia Burney, 11, named the newest planet Pluto after the mythological lord of the underworld.

Pluto the Planet, 76, died Thursday in Prague, Czech Republic, when it was killed by the International Astronomical Union — downgraded to a lowly “dwarf planet.”

No memorial service is planned, because it’s been several years since astronomers considered Pluto a real planet.

Astronomy professors and graduate students at Georgia State University approve of Pluto’s reduced status.

“The previous definition was ridiculous,” said Mike Crenshaw of Dacula, a GSU astronomy professor. Crenshaw is now revising his PowerPoint presentations and quiz questions.

No longer will he test students on the smallest of the former nine planets. For the benefit of GSU’s 820 astronomy students, the answer to his question to name the smallest of the planets is now Mercury.

With 300 ballots cast among the 2,500 astronomers, the IAU’s definition now specifies that a planet “has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

It is not Pluto’s size—1,430 miles in diameter—that disqualifies it as a planet. Pluto is out because its orbit—it takes Pluto 248 years to complete one journey around the sun—carried it inside the orbit of Neptune from 1979 to 1999.

In other words, Pluto did not clear the neighborhood around its orbit.

“We’re sad to see it go,” said Angela Sarrazine of Buford, an astronomer at Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center. But she shares Crenshaw’s belief that Pluto should fall into a lower celestial category.

“I think they made the right decision,” Sarrazine said.

Fernbank will tweak its displays and teaching materials viewed by 180,000 visitors a year.

The science center won’t be covering up Pluto with duct tape in its “The Sky at Night” presentation. It may no longer be a planet, but it’s still up there, Sarrazine said.

Kicked out of one exclusive club, Pluto emerges as the star of the new club of dwarf planets.

“Pluto is now the most famous of the new set,” Crenshaw said.

Pluto was predeceased by the man who first turned a telescope on it. Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997 at age 90. A canister of his ashes is aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which is expected to orbit Pluto on July 14, 2015, according to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Pluto influenced the arts high and low. Within a year of its discovery in 1930, Walt Disney gave the same name to his new creation Mickey Mouse’s faithful companion — Pluto the Dog.

Whatever happens to the former planet, the Walt Disney Studio said Thursday, Pluto remains Disney’s dog star.

In the more sophisticated arts, British composer Gustav Holst created the popular symphonic suite “The Planets” in 1916 and steadfastly refused to revise the suite after Pluto’s discovery. Thursday, his decision was bestowed added credence by the IAU.

“The Planets” is one of the most popular pieces in symphony orchestra repertoire and has been fodder for legions of film scores. John Williams is said to have borrowed from it for his “Star Wars” scores.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is set to perform “The Planets” Oct. 5-7 at Symphony Hall.

In the world of astrology, Pluto’s designation as a dwarf planet changes little regarding its influence on charting, said licensed astrologer David Railey of Atlanta, a former president of the Metro Atlanta Astrological Society.

After Pluto’s discovery, astrologers took about 30 years to reach a consensus on what the planet’s influence is on human behavior, he said, adding that to astrologers, it will live on as a planet.

“How they choose to categorize Pluto is interesting, but should not affect its astrological meaning and influence,” he said. “We sit on the sidelines, interested and amused. The phenomena stay the same. We are mainly interested in its position and orbit.”

“Pluto in astrology,” he said, “is associated with transformation or rebirth, a rite of passage in a person’s life, a metamorphosis.”

Not unlike what Pluto itself is undergoing.

Survivors include eight planets, Earth, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Neptune, Saturn, Uranus and Venus.

KAY POWELL, AJC Obituary Writer

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