By Michael Alison Chandler and Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 25, 2006
Beneath the wings of the space shuttle Enterprise in a cavernous hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Virginia annex, space exploration took a deeper turn into the unknown yesterday with the news that Pluto will no longer be considered a planet.
Without a scientist or exhibit to explain the reclassification of the cold, distant entity long known as the ninth planet, young science enthusiasts turned to their only source of information for clarification: their parents.
"But, why can't it be a planet anymore?" was the first thing 11-year-old Maria Lomax of York, Pa., wanted to know.
"Well, if you get more scientific research, then the scientists can change what they think," Becky Lomax replied.
"But if it's not a planet anymore, then what is it?" chimed in Sarah Lomax, 9.
Becky Lomax, who home-schools her children, said she will have to investigate. "We just did the solar system last year," she said. "I guess we have to revisit it."
At the Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium in Washington, in the midst of a knot of children who were studying sunspots through a telescope, 6-year-old David Lieberman of Bethesda was incredulous when his mother informed him that Pluto had been reduced to "dwarf" status.
"It has to be considered a planet because it circles the sun," he said. "Pluto's not even the farthest planet." Sometimes, he has learned, Neptune and Pluto switch places.
Erasing Pluto's planetary designation from the galaxy of science textbooks, encyclopedias and educational software will be no small task. For years to come, students may puzzle over Pluto.
Next to an astronaut suit display at the museum annex in Chantilly, 5-year-old Sam Hennig of Arlington wondered what Pluto might be if not a planet.
"A star?" he asked. "A meteor?"
The three-foot-tall towhead said he has learned about Pluto from the library books. "It's dark and cold," he said. And it's so far away that "the sun looks like a little dot from there." Yesterday, he knit his brow over what he doesn't know.
"If Pluto isn't, well," a planet, he asked, "will it still be part of the solar system?"
For 4-year-old Benjamin Meman of Frederick, whose interest in outer space has not developed far beyond Martians, the loss of Pluto means one fewer magnet on the refrigerator.
For Ben Kranner, 13, of Madison, Wis., one fewer planet will require a new planetary mnemonic device. " 'My very excellent mother just served us nine pancakes' will become 'My very excellent mother just served us nine. . . .,' " he said. "It doesn't make any sense."
His father, Paul Kranner, who was studying a panoramic image of Mars, took the news harder.
"I didn't think they would actually decide that," he said of the scientists.
He said his son's generation has not inherited the same keen interest in outer space as his own.
"In the 1960s and 1970s, space was really cool," Kranner said. "If there was an Apollo landing, they would cancel school or they would roll a giant TV into the cafeteria, and everybody would watch it. But back then it was just Apollo and the moon, and that was it. Pluto used to be one little blur in the telescope."
Now there are bigger telescopes and more blurs, he said, and there may be 600 planets or there may be eight. With each discovery, he said, "They'll add another sentence to the book."