Could Pluto Become Arizona’s State Planet?

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Controversial object gains cosmic support.

The rattlesnake is Arizona’s official state reptile, petrified wood is the state fossil, and the bola (or bolo) tie is the state neckwear. Now, if Arizona lawmaker Justin Wilmeth gets his way, Arizona will become the first state to boast an official planet: Pluto.

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Wilmeth, a republican state representative for District 15, introduced the bill into the House on Jan. 17. Last April, he was part of a legislative delegation that toured the construction site of Lowell Observatory’s 40,000-square-foot Marley Foundation Astronomy Discovery Center, set to open this November. During the visit, he was reminded of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto at the observatory in 1930.

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Jump ahead to early 2024. “I was sitting around with one of my staffers one day who is from Flagstaff, named Kelsey,” explained Wilmeth. “And I said I want to have a little fun this year.” Soon, the discussion triggered a lightbulb to go off in Wilmeth’s head and the idea of naming Pluto the official state planet formed.

He quickly wrote a bill, which reads simply, “Pluto is the Official State Planet.” He introduced it to the House and, after being passed by the House Rules and Government committees, it went before the entire House on Feb. 19. After Wilmeth read a proclamation honoring Pluto, the House discussed the bill and voted unanimously to pass it, 52-0.

Wilmeth acknowledged that the bill is not necessarily as weighty as others but is nevertheless important. “We’re defenders and purveyors of our state history and this happened here,” he said. “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.’”

Lowell Observatory’s Clyde Tombaugh, then 24 years old, discovered Pluto in 1930. Its planetary status has long been debated, but Wilmeth points out, “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.”

Diane Phelps, a Sedona-based writer of children’s books, recently published “Needle in a Haystack: How Clyde Tombaugh Found an Awesome New World.” She testified at a House Government Committee meeting on Jan. 31, “Here’s an opportunity for a teacher to lead a discussion with the fact that Pluto is the state planet. [Students] will think that is oh-so-cool!”

Lowell Observatory Chief Operating Officer Dr. Amanda Bosh, whose early days as an astronomer included participation on the team that discovered Pluto’s atmosphere in 1988, also testified at the Jan. 31 meeting. She pointed out that the benefits of the bill extend beyond inspiration and community pride. “Adopting Pluto as our state planet would signify the importance of state optics, photonics and astronomy, an industry that stretches from Tucson through Phoenix all the way up to Flagstaff,” she said, “and brings in $4.3 annually to the state as noted by the Arizona Technology Council.”

After the Feb. 19 House vote, the bill moved to the Senate, where it was introduced on Feb. 22 and assigned to the Senate Finance and Rules committees for deliberation. From here, it moves to the entire Senate for discussion and voting. If approved, it then goes to Governor Katie Hobbs for final approval and signing into law. This could happen by early spring, adding Pluto to the list of officially recognized emblems of Arizona. FBN

By Kevin Schindler, FBN

Courtesy Photo: Lowell Observatory Historian Kevin Schindler, with a City of Flagstaff proclamation celebrating Pluto, joins State Representative Justin Wilmeth, holding a Pluto poster, on the floor of the State House of Representatives Feb. 19, after the House passed the bill to make Pluto the state planet.    

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