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Pluto: solar system loss is collectors' gain


August 25, 2006 — Pluto is now a limited edition.

Text books aside, there are hundreds if not thousands of products that were or are now on the market that include Pluto as the ninth planet of the solar system.

On Thursday, 424 astronomers voted to strip the small body of its planethood. Instead, Pluto is now categorized a "dwarf planet," one of hundreds that might be identified in the coming months and years.

In essence, the International Astronomical Union decided that when it came to planets, eight really was enough.

This may be bad news for Pluto fans, but for collectors, it presents an opportunity.

Nine little styrofoam balls

It's the universal child's science project: a styrofoam ball model of the solar system. Today it comes in kits with nine balls — one for each planet — ready to be colored with the included paint. Soon though, those same kits are likely to start shipping sans a sphere.

The same is true for mobiles, glow-in-the-dark decal sets, orreries (mechanical models) and charts of all sizes.

An article from the Associated Press suggests modified solar system toys may be on store shelves in time for Christmas.

Of course, that means a clearance on Pluto products. A Pluto "going out of business" sale, so to speak.

And while these toys and models may attract speculative collectors, they are more likely to seek items that weren't mass-produced or are older and thus harder to find.

Get your icy Pluto while its still hot

Consider the autograph of Pluto's discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.

During the nearly 70 years that followed his discovery up until his death in 1997, Tombaugh was generous with his signature. A search of eBay and similar websites display multiple examples where Tombaugh, in addition to writing his name, wrote a phrase along the lines of "Discovered 9th planet Pluto on 18 Feb 1930."

As of today, Tombaugh didn't discover the ninth planet. He found the first dwarf, but if you find a signature that is inscribed as such, caveat emptor.

On October 1, 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of ten stamps — one for each planet and Earth's moon — under the title "Space Exploration". The set depicted the probes that the United States had launched to each body.

Of course in 1991, as with today, no probe had been to Pluto. So on its stamp, was just an artist rendering of the icy sphere with the caption "Not Yet Explored".

In 2006 though, NASA did launch a mission to Pluto.

New Horizons needs a new tagline

On February 14, 1990, NASA's Voyager 1 probe pointed back toward the sun and took a series of pictures of the sun and the planets, making the first ever "portrait" of our solar system as seen from the outside.

All but Pluto, that is.

The then-ninth planet's highly elliptical orbit kept it out of the frame for Voyager. Its distance gave even the Hubble Space Telescope a challenge of resolving any detail on its surface. A dedicated spacecraft to Pluto was needed.

Nineteen days into 2006, NASA launched New Horizons, which the space agency dubbed its "first mission to the last planet."


New Horizons is still on-course for Pluto — it hasn't been diverted to Neptune — and will arrive in 2015. That gives mission planners more than eight years to establish their new mission statement.

In the meantime, any posters, decals or other promotional paraphernalia with the "last planet" slogan are sure to be sought by collectors.

The future is as fuzzy as Pluto through Hubble

Time will tell how strong the market for Pluto products really is and much of it depends on whether the public embraces the astronomers' resolution or decides to keep Pluto a planet, at least culturally.

If the demotion sticks though, Pluto also runs the risk of being lost among the hundreds of dwarfs that are sure to follow its reclassification.

Whatever may be, the hot toy this Christmas may just be a styrofoam solar system kit, Pluto not included.

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