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Pluto is a planet again — at least in Arizona

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs signed a law making Pluto the state's official planet. That's even though an international group of scientists stripped Pluto of its planetary status back in 2006, declaring it a dwarf planet. How unkind. From KJZZ in Phoenix, Camryn Sanchez delves into the history of Pluto, first discovered in an observatory in Arizona, and the people who never gave up on it.

CAMRYN SANCHEZ, BYLINE: A long time ago, at a conference far, far away in Prague, the International Astronomical Union designated Pluto as a dwarf planet, and most people moved on, but not Arizona Republican state Representative Justin Wilmeth.

JUSTIN WILMETH: And then this one's about the New Horizons mission that was sent out to basically take pictures of Pluto.

SANCHEZ: Wilmeth is a self-described history and space geek who sponsored the bipartisan effort to make Pluto Arizona's official planet this year.

WILMETH: Twenty years from now, I might be known for a couple of things, but Pluto is going to be one of them. And I pull no punches on that. I'm proud of it. I think it's important in its own way.

SANCHEZ: Pluto was discovered in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. All other planets were first cataloged in Europe. The astonishing discovery ignited the world. Classrooms started teaching the nine-planet model. Disney renamed Mickey's pet dog Pluto. But 76 years later, it all came crashing down.

KEVIN SCHINDLER: The controversy, I think, has been great because it keeps it in the public eye.

SANCHEZ: That's Kevin Schindler, a historian at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

SCHINDLER: Like, Uranus and Neptune, nobody cares about them. But Pluto, boy, don't take our planet away. It's funny. I mean, we still get visitors saying, you know, are you guys OK? They took your planet away.

SANCHEZ: The issue of Arizona being slighted has created a bit of a conspiracy theory that riled up legislators like Republican Representative Alexander Kolodin. He says that jealous Europeans, upset that America had discovered a planet, hatched a plot to take it away when most conference members had gone home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER KOLODIN: It is time to end this failed system of unelected bureaucrats exercising power over our society and stick it to the Pluto deniers.

SANCHEZ: Italian astrophysicist Piero Benvenuti is general secretary of the IAU. Here's what he had to say about the European jealousy theory.

PIERO BENVENUTI: That is total stupidity.

SANCHEZ: Benvenuti says the only people in the world who still ask him to restore Pluto's planetary status are from the United States.

BENVENUTI: No one in the world is caring about Pluto being a dwarf planet, but only the U.S. and, in particular, Arizona.

SANCHEZ: There are some other alternative theories about why that vote happened in 2006, toward the end of the two-week conference when most of the planetary astronomers had already left. Some astronomers argue the vote was political. But Lowell stellar astronomer Gerard van Belle says it was personal. He's an IAU member who voted against changing Pluto's status in 2006.

GERARD VAN BELLE: I wouldn't say that it was a nationalistic rivalry. I would say it was a much more kind of petty personal rivalry between individual astronomers and people who wanted to make their mark.

SANCHEZ: Will Grundy works at Lowell Observatory as a planetary astronomer - ironically, a profession that largely didn't vote on the planetary definition.

WILL GRUNDY: Most of the planetary science community sort of looked over our shoulder at the IAU and shrugged and said, we're the planetary scientists. You can come and talk to us about it if you really need to know about that.

SANCHEZ: In the end, Arizona lawmaker Justin Wilmeth says he doesn't want to argue about scientific definitions. He wants the new law to get people interested in space and shine a light on Arizona.

WILMETH: We can do anything in this state. And in 400 years when we have a manned mission to Pluto, there better be an Arizonan on it.

SANCHEZ: For NPR News in Phoenix, I'm Camryn Sanchez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camryn Sanchez
[Copyright 2024 KJZZ]