I think there's another planet past Pluto

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(Palomar Observatory. Photo: Mike Brown)

Last night's sliver of a moon grows a bit bigger and sets a bit later in its trek across the skies this month. Can you notice the earthshine getting a little fainter?

While the view of the setting moon from my backyard last night was among the more spectacular I have ever seen, December is not always the best time of the year for sky watching, even here in southern California.

In solidarity with those who have nothing but a blanket of clouds, I bring you an excerpt from my book How I Killed Pluto and How It Had It Coming, published just yesterday, of a December night 11 years ago, when my skies were bringing nothing but misery.

One December night in 1999, a friend and I were sitting on a mountain top east of San Diego inside of a thirteen-story-tall dome. Only a few lights illuminated the uncluttered floor of the cavernous interior, but above you could vaguely see the bottom half of the massive Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory.

The Hale Telescope was, for almost 50 years, the largest telescope in the world, but from where we sat, with the weak yellow incandescent lighting being swallowed in the darkness above, you would never have guessed where you were.

You might have thought you were deep in the interior of a pristine Hoover dam, with cables and wire and pipes for directing the flow of water around.

You might have believed that the steel structures around you were part of the far underground support and control of a spotlessly clean century-old subway system.

Only when the entire building gently rumbled and a tiny sliver of the starry sky appeared far over your head and the telescope began to move soundlessly and swiftly to point to some new distant object in the universe, only then would you be able to make out the shadowy outline of the truss all the way to the top of the dome and realize that you were but a dot at the base of a giant machine whose only purpose was to gather the light from a single spot beyond the sky and focus it to a tiny point just over your head.

Usually when I am working at the telescope I sit in the warm, well-lit control room a few steps away, looking at computer screens showing instrument readouts, staring at digital pictures just pulled from the sky, and pondering meteorological readings and forecasts for southern California.

Sometimes, though, I like to step out into the cold dark dome and stand at the very base of the telescope and look up at the sky through the tiny open sliver high overhead and see - with my own eyes - exactly what the giant machine is looking at itself.

This December night, however, as I was sitting with my friend inside the dark dome, there was no sky to see. The dome was fastened closed, and the telescope was idle because the entire mountain was covered in cold dripping fog.

I tend to get quite glum on nights when I'm at a telescope with the dome closed and the precious night slipping past. An astronomer only gets to use one of these biggest telescopes a handful of nights per year. If the night is cloudy or rainy or snowy, too bad. Your night on the telescope is simply lost, and you get to try again next year.

It's hard not to think about lost time and lost discoveries as the second hand very slowly crawls through the night and your dome stays closed.

Sabine -- my friend -- tried to cheer me up by asking about life, asking me about work, but it didn't help. I instead told her the story of how my father had died that spring, and how I felt unable to really focus on my work.

Desperate, she finally asked me if there was anything that I was excited about these days. I paused for a few minutes.

I momentarily forgot about the freezing fog and the closed dome and the ticking clock, and I finally declared: "I think there's another planet past Pluto."

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