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Flagstaff Celebrates The 90th Anniversary Of Pluto's Discovery

Ninety years ago Tuesday, a self-taught astronomer discovered what became known as the ninth planet in the solar system — Pluto. It happened at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

The observatory’s namesake saw evidence that a "Planet X" existed, but Percival Lowell died in 1916 before he could find it. Then, in 1930, a 24-year-old man with no college education, Clyde Tombaugh, identified a previously unknown planet by comparing photographs captured by the Lowell telescope. The discovery made international headlines.

“This really changed the solar system — what we knew about the solar system up to this point, the last planet was Neptune, this planet too the solar system out much further,” said Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler.

Schindler says the discovery put Flagstaff on the map. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union redefined the term "planet," relegating Pluto to a "dwarf planet," meaning it was no longer the ninth planet from the Sun.

The delisting was a blow to the Tombaugh family and the Lowell Observatory, but the importance of the discovery lives on.

"You know Pluto is the little planet that could against the big bullies of the solar system in all these ways that people kind of use Pluto as a symbol of overcoming unusual odds."

The Lowell Observatory will celebrate the 90th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery with the I Heart Pluto Festival tonight at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff. You can also find "Pluto" themed keepsakes and food in downtown Flagstaff.

By the way, Pluto got its name after a 11-year-old British girl suggested it to her grandfather, who passed it along to the Lowell Observatory. The first two letters in Pluto are the initials of Percival Lowell, who believed the planet existed.

And of course, Walt Disney named his sixth animated character — a dog — after the former planet.

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Paul Atkinson produces The Show, KJZZ’s award-winning daily news and culture program. He rejoins the newsroom after working with KJZZ’s development team.Prior to returning to KJZZ, Atkinson served as communications director for the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and assistant director of strategic marketing and communications at the ASU Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. He earlier directed communications at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU.In his first stint with KJZZ, Atkinson reported and hosted for KJZZ and produced the station's public affairs program, KJZZ’s Here and Now.Paul spent nine years reporting and producing “Arizona Horizon” on KAET, Phoenix‘s PBS station. He was a general assignment reporter at Phoenix CBS television affiliate KPHO and ABC television affiliate KIVI in Boise, Idaho. He also reported and anchored at NBC affiliate KYEL and ABC affiliate KSWT television in Yuma, Arizona. Atkinson worked as a video editor and tape coordinator at KGTV in San Diego and as a field producer for CNN and CNN Spanish in Washington, D.C.Atkinson earned his master’s degree in mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from San Diego State University, where he led a nationally ranked speech and debate team.Atkinson has volunteered with numerous nonprofits and schools over the years and served with many community and professional organizations. He’s won more than three dozen journalism awards, including regional Edward R. Murrow and Emmy awards, and a national Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists. Atkinson has also been recognized as “Best Reporter of the Year” by the Arizona Associated Press Broadcasters Association for his work at KPHO.He lives in Gilbert with his wife, son and assortment of rescued animals.