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New Pluto Exhibit at Lowell Observatory

On March 13 Lowell Observatory unveiled a new exhibit, Pluto at 85: From Discovery to New Horizons. It features a combination of interactive elements and unique Pluto-related artifacts from the Observatory’s collections and was sponsored by Exodyne, Inc. of Phoenix, Arizona.

The exhibit is scheduled to run through the end of 2015 and is part of Lowell’s “Year of Pluto” celebration honoring Flagstaff’s ties to Pluto, including the New Horizons spacecraft’s flyby of this icy world in July.

Pluto at 85 features a variety of artifacts highlighting Lowell’s long association with Pluto, including Pluto’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh here in 1930. Lowell Curator Samantha Thompson said, “We’ll show a lot of letters from Tombaugh, his logbook, some instrumentation, Percival Lowell’s original calculations, and the telegram sent on behalf of Venetia Burney suggesting the name Pluto.”

The exhibit opened on March 13, the date Observatory founder Percival Lowell was born in 1855 and also the day, in 1930, the Observatory announced Pluto’s discovery. To help celebrate the opening, FALA instructor Rick Krueger brought his astronomy students to Lowell. Two of them, Naomi Francis and Kate Collette, agree about the importance of the exhibit. Collette said, “A lot of people have lost interest in the last frontier. I think having an exhibit like this, along with all the new information that will be coming back from New Horizons, will rekindle that inspiration we used to have.”

Pluto at 85 starts out asking the question, “Is Pluto a planet?” In order to allow guests to form an educated answer, the exhibit first reviews what a planet is and then discusses the nature of Pluto. Thompson said, “By the time guests get to the end of the exhibit they will feel more confident in their answer. We try not to persuade people one way or another, just make sure all the facts are available.”

At the center of the 2200 square foot exhibit is Science on a Sphere, an interactive five-foot diameter globe that will show updated images of Pluto from New Horizons. Guests can discover Pluto with a computer simulation that allows them to “blink” through the discovery plates. This is in lieu of the Zeiss blink comparator, which is being shipped to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. to be displayed for three years.

Lowell director Jeffrey Hall said, “We discovered Pluto 85 years ago, and we continue to study it today. It’s a major part of our scientific heritage as well as our current inquiry, and we want people to see that full story when they come to visit us. We were especially pleased to have a FALA class join us for the opening – inspiring and educating the next generation of scientists is an important part of what we do.”