The Discovery of Pluto and its Historical Context – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Astronomical History & Mythology Glossary

I. What is Pluto and its Discovery?

Pluto is a dwarf planet located in the outer regions of our solar system, beyond the orbit of Neptune. It is the ninth-largest and tenth-most-massive known object directly orbiting the Sun. Pluto was once considered the ninth planet in our solar system, but in 2006, it was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union.

Pluto was discovered on February 18, 1930, by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Its discovery was a significant milestone in the field of astronomy and sparked a renewed interest in the study of the outer solar system.

II. Who Discovered Pluto and When?

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, a young astronomer working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Tombaugh was tasked with searching for a ninth planet beyond the orbit of Neptune, based on the predictions of Percival Lowell, the founder of the observatory.

After months of meticulous observations and comparisons of photographic plates, Tombaugh finally spotted a faint point of light moving against the backdrop of stars. This discovery marked the first time a new planet had been found in our solar system since the discovery of Neptune in 1846.

III. What was the Historical Context of Pluto’s Discovery?

The discovery of Pluto came at a time of great excitement and exploration in the field of astronomy. The early 20th century saw rapid advancements in technology and observational techniques, allowing astronomers to peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

The search for a ninth planet beyond Neptune was driven by discrepancies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which suggested the presence of another massive object exerting gravitational influence. Percival Lowell’s predictions and Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto helped to fill this gap in our understanding of the outer solar system.

IV. How was Pluto Named?

After the discovery of Pluto, there was much debate over what to name the new planet. Eventually, the name “Pluto” was suggested by an 11-year-old girl named Venetia Burney, who was inspired by the Roman god of the underworld.

The name “Pluto” was officially adopted by the Lowell Observatory and quickly gained widespread acceptance. In addition to its mythological significance, the name also had astronomical connotations, as the first two letters “PL” were the initials of Percival Lowell, the founder of the observatory.

V. What is the Significance of Pluto in Astronomy and Mythology?

In astronomy, Pluto holds a special place as the first object to be discovered in the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy bodies beyond Neptune. Its discovery challenged our understanding of the solar system and paved the way for further exploration of the outer regions.

In mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, ruling over the realm of the dead. The name “Pluto” was chosen for the new planet due to its dark and distant nature, reflecting its position on the outer fringes of the solar system.

VI. How has our Understanding of Pluto Evolved over Time?

Since its discovery, our understanding of Pluto has evolved significantly. In the decades following its discovery, Pluto was considered the ninth planet in our solar system and was the subject of intense study and speculation.

However, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, citing its small size and eccentric orbit as reasons for the change. This decision sparked controversy and debate among astronomers and the general public, with many questioning the criteria used to define a planet.

Despite its reclassification, Pluto continues to fascinate and intrigue scientists and enthusiasts alike. Recent missions, such as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, have provided valuable insights into the geology and composition of this distant world, shedding new light on its mysterious and enigmatic nature.