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For Some, the Planets Are Aligned

Pluto's downsizing can be stellar news for firms that use the name or sell collectors' items.

August 29, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

A public demotion is rarely the best thing for one's bank account. But enough about Tom Cruise.

For Pluto, the object formerly known as a planet, bad news might be good for earthbound purveyors of products bearing its image or name. Its takedown last week could provide a heavenly boost to textbook publishers, celestial cartographers, astronomical groups and even an eponymous group of eateries.

Bay Area chain Pluto's has seen a 10% sales increase since Thursday, when the International Astronomical Union downgraded the ninth major orb from the sun to "dwarf planet."

"It's bringing more recognition to the name, which can never hurt," owner Gerry Bugas said. "In our mind, it will always be a planet."

Some in the scientific community tend to agree, saying that in reclassifying Pluto to planet-lite status, the astronomical union muddied rather than clarified the state of the solar system.

For now, the news about Pluto -- which hasn't exactly been a marquee name much beyond its discovery in 1930 -- is a boon for some organizations and businesses, and not just those hawking the inevitable "Save Pluto" T-shirts and bumper stickers on the Web.

The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago, founded the year Pluto was discovered, said sales of a solar system poster doubled over the weekend.

"People are not buying just one of them at a time," said gift shop manager Linda Stucky. "They are buying two or three." She speculated that enthusiasts were getting them as collectibles.

Other items that have drawn customers to the shop include a Pluto crystal paperweight for $99.99.

"Saturn and Jupiter get a lot of attention because they are so beautiful," Stucky said. "Pluto is so far away and so small, we don't even have a good picture of it."

This does not dissuade Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, which promotes space exploration and education. For the last few years, the Pasadena-based nonprofit has offered a set of nine posters -- each with a photograph of a planet -- to new members as a premium.

"We have thousands of them here," said Friedman, whose group is considering an inventory-clearing "last chance to get Pluto as a planet" promotion.

The full set of nine posters costs $10. If it shrinks to eight, the price will not be reduced. Sorry.

"Just like the Hershey candy bar," Friedman said. "The bar gets smaller, but the price remains the same."

Rand McNally & Co., now in its 150th year, mostly sticks to terrestrial mapmaking, but two of its atlases contain depictions of the solar system. Changing the text would not be much of a problem, said travel division Vice President Kendra Ensor.

Modifying the illustration would be more problematic, but Pluto's position in the solar system helps.

"Because it's at the very end, near the edge of the page, it's easier to delete," Ensor said.

Physicist Steve McMillan of Drexel University in Philadelphia hopes Pluto's change in status will not only stick but spur sales of the college textbook he coauthored, titled "Astronomy Today."

The book, in its fifth edition and used at about 300 schools, is being revised for the 2007-08 academic year.

For the current edition, McMillan had considered demoting Pluto to reflect the view of many astronomers that the object lacked the size and other characteristics of a true planet.

"It would have been quite a coup," he said. "But I told my daughter, who was 10, and she said, 'You can't do that to Pluto!'

"So we didn't."

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