Joe Duhownik

PHOENIX (CN) — For 75 years after its discovery at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Pluto inched around the outskirts of our solar system known to all as the ninth planet from the sun.

But when the International Astronomical Union voted to strictly define what does and doesn’t qualify as a planet, Pluto didn’t quite meet the criteria.

Despite its 2006 downgrade to dwarf planet, the icy world three billion miles away has retained its planetary status in the hearts and minds of many citizens of Arizona — the only U.S. state in which a planet has been discovered.

That’s why state Representative Justin Wilmeth, a Republican from Phoenix, is pushing the Legislature to designate Pluto as the official planet of Arizona.

The bill he wrote to do so, House Bill 2477, just took one small step in its voyage toward law.

“There’s been some controversy recently of it being downgraded,” Wilmeth told the Arizona House Committee on Government Wednesday before the committee voted 8-1 in favor of the bill. “That’s not really the point of this bill. It’s to honor our state heritage, our state history and our strong astronomy background that we have.”

Wilmeth said he was inspired to write the bill after touring the Lowell Observatory in April. Its namesake, Arizona astronomer Percival Lowell, died in 1916 after spending more than a decade hunting for a mythical ninth planet.

Fourteen years after Lowell's death, a 24-year-old astronomer named Clyde Tombough completed the search when he located the first of many objects in what would later be called the Kuiper Belt, a region of icy objects outside the orbit of Neptune.

The International Astronomical Union defines planets using three criteria:

  • It is in orbit around the sun
  • It is round in shape
  • It has cleared its orbit of other debris

Pluto, which shares space with more than 100,000 other objects in the Kuiper Belt, doesn’t meet the third qualification. But that doesn’t matter to Wilmeth, who passed out “I Heart Pluto” stickers to guests at the hearing.

“In my opinion, a bunch of Europeans got mad that we made this discovery and downgraded it to a dwarf planet,” he joked to the committee.

Wilmeth wants the bill to “foster discussion and debate about a really cool part of Arizona history.”

Representatives from Lowell Observatory told the committee that the designation would also excite young students about historical and scientific discovery.

“Here’s an opportunity for a teacher to lead a discussion with the fact that Pluto is the state planet,” said Diane Phelps, who works at Lowell and wrote a children’s book about Pluto’s discovery. “[Students] will think that is oh so cool!”

Every year, the Lowell Observatory hosts the I Heart Pluto Festival in Flagstaff to celebrate the anniversary of its discovery.

“We have a lot of character in this state,” said Kevin Schindler, the observatory’s historian. “You think of cactus, you think of Arizona. You think of Pluto, you think of Arizona.”

Schindler suggested the legislature next add “cosmos” as the sixth C to the traditional five Cs of Arizona.

Amanda Bosh, a research astronomer at Lowell who began her career studying Pluto’s atmosphere, already considers Pluto to be the state’s unofficial state planet. “So let’s make it official,” she said.

If the bill becomes law, Pluto will join a long list of other “official” symbols of Arizona. Representative Nancy Gutierrez, a Democrat from Tucson, joked that she would like Wilmeth to change the official state drink from lemonade to margarita.

“That would be a friendly amendment to my bill,” Wilmeth replied.

Official state symbols include the bolo tie, the official state tie, and the Colt single action army revolver, the official state firearm.

Representative Steve Montenegro, a Republican from Goodyear, was the only member of the committee to vote against the bill.

“I genuinely do appreciate hearing the testimony from the individuals here,” he said. “I respect the sentiment. I want to learn a little bit more to understand it. I want to reserve that vote as we move forward.”

Montenegro hasn’t yet returned a phone call asking for an explanation of his vote.

Wilmeth joked that Montenegro isn’t invited to the legislative field trip to the Lowell Observatory when its astronomy discovery center opens in November.

“When little kids hear about this, they will fall in love with Pluto and think, ‘If that happened here, we can do anything in this state,’” Wilmeth said. ”And in 400 years, when we have a manned mission to Pluto, there better be an Arizonan on it.”

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