October 22, 2019

Astronomy Video of the Week: Catching Pluto before Pluto

Pluto! (Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI).

You just never know what might be lurking in old data, awaiting discovery.

Or perhaps pre-discovery. As we approach the eve of New Horizon’s historic fly-by of Pluto and its moons tomorrow, we thought we’d turn your attention to a recent amazing find from the Carnegie Observatories’ archive. The collection includes more than 200,000 glass plates of the night sky going all the way back to 1892 from three separate observatories.

Now, as we know from the news this past weekend leading up to the flyby, Pluto was discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 while working at the Lowell Observatory. It was a bit startling for an archivist then to come across an envelope marked ‘PLUTO’… from 1925:

Just how did this plate get in the collection from five years prior to the discovery? Dr. Cynthia Hunt of Carnegie Observatories uncovered the find during inventory. The plate covered a large swath of the sky, and contained a cluster of markings, along with the initials ‘UM’. After a bit of detective work, Hunt discovered a paper from 1931 which mentions the analysis of plates taken from Mount Wilson observatory in 1925 comparing the pre-discovery position of Pluto in an early attempt to refine its orbit. And UM? That was astronomer Nicholas U. Mayall, also cited on the paper.

Turns out Pluto was sitting there awaiting discovery, all those years prior. What a great story of astronomical detective work. This also highlights a prime reason to keep those old plates around… you never know what sorts of tales are waiting to be told.

Congrats to the Carnegie team on ‘finding Pluto’ 90 years before New Horizons is set to make the first historic pass of the brave new world tomorrow.

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  1. [...] fact: Historians at the Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on glass plates… dated 1925, from five years before its [...]

  2. [...] fact: Historians during a Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on potion plates… antiquated 1925, from 5 years before a [...]

  3. [...] fact: Historians at the Carnegie Institute recently found images of Pluto on glass plates… dated 1925, from five years before its [...]

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