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The Story of Pluto: A Virtual Exhibit from Lowell Archives

An article from the Coconino Sun about the discovery of Pluto, circa 1930 | Lowell Observatory Archives

In the spring of 2021, NAU student Melissa Valenzuela was awarded the NAU/NASA Space Research Grant to design a virtual exhibit about Pluto. She started her internship at Lowell Observatory in the fall of 2021, and with the help of Lowell’s Archivist and Librarian Lauren Amundson, Melissa utilized a variety of artifacts from the archives to tell the story of Pluto.

The exhibit is fully virtual and organized into five sections that capture different eras of Pluto’s legacy, from the initial search started by Percival Lowell in 1905, to the New Horizons mission of 2015. Featured throughout the exhibit are historic photos, letters, audio clips, and other documents—many of which have never been seen by the public.

While Lowell Observatory currently houses a physical Pluto display in the Rotunda Museum, one goal of Melissa’s project is to make Pluto’s history more accessible to a wider audience. In addition to reaching viewers outside of Flagstaff, the digital format has allowed Melissa to highlight more artifacts than a physical exhibit would allow and integrate other interactive tools. In the “Public Reaction” section, Melissa used Google software to map out letters received by Lowell Observatory in the 1930s with name suggestions for the newly discovered planet. Viewers can click on pins across the world and read firsthand what Pluto might have been named. The Story of Pluto exhibit is part of the Lowell Observatory Archives’ long-term mission to bring their collection into the twenty-first century and get the public excited about history in a new way. 

Photo: Carl Lampland with the Clark Telescope ca. 1947 | Lowell Observatory Archives

Melissa would like to thank her mentor Lauren Amundson, NAU, Lowell Observatory, and the NASA Space Grant for making her project possible. She would also like to thank Will Grundy and Kevin Schindler for their continued support in telling the more technical parts of Pluto’s history. Finally, Melissa would like to give a heartfelt thank you to those who have already visited the exhibit and will continue to do so in the future.