|Manu||Date: Monday, 22-February-2021, 8:01 AM | Message # 1|
|By Zaria Gorvett|
17th February 2021
Strange things are happening at the outer edges of our solar system. An object up to ten times the mass of Earth is pulling others towards it. Is it a planet, or something else?
Percival Lowell was a man of many errors.
The 19th-Century travel writer and businessman – fabulously wealthy, perennially moustachioed, and often found in crisp three-piece suits – had read a book on Mars, and on this basis, decided to become an astronomer. Over the coming decades, he made a number of wild claims.
First up, he was convinced of the existence of Martians, and thought he had found them (he hadn't). Others had documented strange lines traversing the planet, and Lowell suggested that these were canals, built as the last attempt of a dying civilisation to tap water from the polar ice caps. He used his fortune to build an entire observatory, just to get a better look. It turned out they were an optical illusion, created by the mountains and craters on Mars when viewed through low quality telescopes.
Lowell also believed that the planet Venus had spokes – seen in his notes as spidery lines emanating from its centre (it doesn't). Though his assistants tried to find them, it seemed that only he could see this unexpected detail. It's now assumed that they were shadows cast from the irises in his own eyes, as he looked through his telescope.
But most of all, Lowell was determined to find the ninth planet in our solar system – a hypothetical "planet X", which at the time was thought to be responsible for the rogue orbits of the furthest-known planets from the Sun, the cool-blue ice giants Uranus and Neptune. Though he never set eyes on this phantom behemoth, the quest consumed the last decade of his life – and after several nervous breakdowns, he died at the age of 61.
Little did he know, the search would still be going – with a few tweaks – in 2021.
Undeterred by his own mortality, Lowell left a million dollars to the cause of finding planet X in his will. So, after a brief interlude involving a legal battle with his widow, Constance Lowell, his observatory kept looking.
Just 14 years later, on 18 February 1930, a young astronomer was looking at two photos of star-studded skies, when he noticed a speck amongst them. It was a tiny world. He had found Pluto – for a while considered the elusive planet X.
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