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Feb. 18, 1930: Pluto is discovered and named ninth planet (for a while)

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Feb. 18, 1930: Pluto is discovered and named ninth planet (for a while)

A digitization of the original photographic plates that Tombaugh used to discover Pluto. (Wikimedia Commons)

The solar system’s smallest planet – which isn’t even really a planet at all – was discovered today 84 years ago. On Feb. 18, 1930, Clyde W. Tombaugh, an assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., discovered Pluto while looking at a set of photographs taken by the telescope a few weeks earlier .

The Lowell Observatory, which is one of the oldest observatories in the country and home to The Discovery Channel’s telescope, was originally founded by Percival Lowell, who was the first person to believe there was an undiscovered planet near Neptune and Uranus. He died without ever finding “Planet X,” but the search was continued after his death and the new planet was discovered after years of painstaking work.

In 2006, Pluto (named for the Roman ruler of the underworld and with the first two letters of the name being an homage to Percival Lowell) was downgraded from planet to dwarf planet.

While commercial and tourist space travel is expected to take off in the next few years, visiting Pluto might be a bit further away. It takes four hours for even the light from Pluto to reach us and it took 20 years for the Voyager probes to get in the vicinity of the dwarf planet. In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft for a fly-by of Pluto, with an estimated arrival of July 2015.

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