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Pluto, 1930 — 2006, R.I.P.

Astronomical admirers attend funeral to commemorate fallen planet
Thursday, August 31, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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Randy Durk, treasurer of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, served as pallbearer during Pluto’s funeral service at the MU Physics Building on Wednesday. Angela Speck, head of the astronomy department, gave the eulogy for the former planet.

LYLE WHITWORTH/Missourian

Pluto, former ninth planet, enjoyed long, eccentric orbits and infrequent visits to our solar system.

The Central Missouri Astronomical Association and the MU physics and astronomy department held funeral services for Pluto on Wednesday night. More of a celebration, spirits were light, few wore black, and some of the bereaved brought pizza to honor their fallen friend.

While Irish musician Enya’s voice soothed the mourners, pallbearer Randy Durk solemnly presented the grayish black orb, representing Pluto, nestled in a cream sheet inside a blue cooler provided by Acme Economy Caskets.

“I don’t see this as a reason to be unhappy,” said Angela Speck, assistant professor of astrophysics and head of the MU astronomy department, who gave the eulogy. “It’s too special to be a planet.”

Pluto was reclassified and given the status of dwarf by democratic consensus at the annual meeting of the International Astronomers Union on Aug. 24. Pluto was, and remains, approximately five billion years old.

Pluto was born, along with its former planetary brethren, in a swirling cloud of dust and gas ejected during the violent deaths of ancient stars. Relegated to a far-flung region beyond the solar system known as the Kuiper Belt, Pluto grew up cold, small and lonely.

“It’s the prototype Kuiper Belt object,” Speck said. “There are plenty of other objects out there, but Pluto led us to them.”

Unable to accumulate enough mass to establish orbital dominance and keep its closest companion, Charon, from shoving it around, or to maintain an atmosphere except when it was closest to the sun, Pluto grew up in the infinite darkness of space unrecognized and unnoticed, until Feb. 18, 1930. Then an eager lab technician named Clyde Tombaugh caught sight of Pluto’s motion by comparing scores of photographs centered on where observers at the Lowell Observatory believed that Pluto should be.

It was then that the lonely ball of rock and ice was granted the distinction of its status as a planet. Despite being given the rather ignoble name of the Greek god of the underworld, Pluto was America’s planet and the roller coaster of fame never stopped: textbooks were revised, mnemonics were devised and shows were televised.

Now the roller coaster has met another loop, with people looking for ways to cope and accept the change in Pluto’s status. Educators and students must alter their teaching and learning techniques.

In response to a grievance over what we should do now, Speck said: “Think about all those poor astrologers.”

Pluto is survived by and shares its newfound dwarf status with its moon, Charon, Xena and a host of others.

Wednesday’s service ended with a moving rendition of the spiritual “Amazing Grace,” as Durk carried the casket out of the hall.


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