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Poor little Pluto

The little planet that isn't may have been demoted to the minor leagues, but viewing its bigger cousins is still a hot ticket at the county's only public observatory
by: patrick sherman, Karen Halliday stands with the observatory's four-inch refractor telescope, ideal for exploring the solar system.

Even the declining number of planets in the solar system is not sufficient to dampen the public's enthusiasm for astronomy in Clackamas County, according to the volunteer staff at the Haggart Observatory at Clackamas Community College.

'We've been getting more than 40 people coming by on Saturday nights, and it's a very time consuming process,' said Karen Halliday, who coordinates the observatory's all-volunteer staff. 'You have to climb all the way up this 45-foot tower, and we can only take maybe four or five people up in the observatory dome at time.

'People have ended up waiting quite a while to get their turn at the telescope.'

When that turn comes, however, the majesty of the Solar System and the universe beyond is laid bare, according to Halliday.

'We focus on the whiz-bang objects: the Andromeda galaxy, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, also known as M13,' she said. 'We can also show you where it is with your own eyes, so that you begin to know your way around the night sky.

'To me, it's fun to think, 'If I had a telescope, I'd be able to see the Ring Nebula right now.' You can see a smoke ring in the sky where a star has blown off its atmosphere at the end of its life.'

Over the past few years, the observatory has been open to the public on clear Saturday nights, but demand has far exceeded its availability. In response, staff has started taking reservations for every night of the week on a first-come, first-served basis.

'If you want to come out, you should leave a message on our answering machine or send an e-mail,' said Halliday. 'Right now, we're just switching over, so we'll have to see how it works out.'

The staff will limit groups to eight - the most who can comfortably occupy the dome and a raised viewing platform atop the observatory. Each has a reflecting telescope, which uses a mirror to gather and focus light, rather than a lens, as is typical in a pair of a mariner's spyglass.

The power of a reflecting telescope is determined by the diameter of the mirror.

'We have a 24-inch reflector in the dome, and a 13-inch reflector on the deck,' Halliday explained. 'We also have a 4-inch refractor, a telescope with a lens, mounted alongside the big reflector in the dome.

'A lot of people think it's a spotting scope, but it's actually quite good for looking at the planets.'

Through its eyepiece, visitors can observe the four moons of Jupiter first discovered by Galileo as they orbit the might gas giant, 484 million miles from the sun, or study the craters of the moon in detail.

'Each group will be given an hour and a half, and I think it will make for a much nicer viewing experience, although they will have to make a reservation,' she said. 'It all depends on having the volunteers and the weather cooperating.'

What the public wants to see depends on what has been in the news, according to Halliday. Lately, there has been a lot of interest in Mars.

'Three years ago, that Mars is as close as it has ever been in some huge number of years, so it was a bit brighter than normal,' she said. 'That same message is going around and around on the Internet without the year on it, and like any good folk tale, it's been exaggerated to the point that Mars is supposed to look as big as the moon in the sky.'

There has not been much of a spike in interest regarding Pluto, which the International Astronomical Union downgraded in from a planet to a 'dwarf planet' at its meeting August.

'Pluto is really difficult to find with our telescope,' said Halliday. 'We only have one volunteer who said that he found it, once. It would just be a tiny little point of light, if you could see it at all.'

Whither Pluto?

Pluto isn't withering, in spite of being re-classified as a 'dwarf planet' by the International Astronomical Union in August. The remote, frozen world has changed little since it was discovered in 1930 by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz.

What has changed is the definition of the word 'planet,' as used by astronomers. In the decades since Pluto was first observed, a number of additional objects have been identified in the same region of space. These include 'Xena,' which is actually larger than Pluto.

'For most scientists, this is a non-issue,' said Karen Halliday, volunteer coordinator at Clackamas Community College's Haggart Observatory. 'Pluto is what it is: a Kuiper Belt object.'

The Kuiper Belt is a collection of more than 800 objects orbiting in the periphery of the Solar System, which includes comets and asteroids, as well as Pluto, Xena, Charon, Orcus, Quaoar, Ixion and other small planetoids.

'There are so many Kuiper Belt objects that if we were going to stick with calling Pluto a planet, you'd have to call of these other objects planets, too - and there are thousands of them,' Halliday said. 'It makes sense to demote Pluto rather than to promote all of those other objects.'