Image: Planetary memorabilia
The 'Star Theater 2' home planetarium puts a star show on your walls, including Pluto as one of the planets. Perhaps a 'Star Theater 3' is in the works.
updated 8/25/2006 4:30:08 PM ET 2006-08-25T20:30:08

Now that astronomers have booted Pluto from the ranks of official planets, what's a planetarium gift shop to do?

It's not often that the solar system loses a whole planet, but it did just that Thursday, when the International Astronomical Union meeting in Prague changed the definition of a planet to exclude Pluto, dropping the count of official planets from nine to eight.

And while it was the scientific community that had to deal with the impact of the change in their view of the cosmos, some Earth-bound businesses began toting up the dollars-and-cents implications of Pluto's expulsion.

Affected by the move are stacks of school textbooks, diner place mats, bedroom posters, computer software, glow-in-the-dark mobiles, encyclopedias and entire museum exhibits depicting the now-obsolete nine-planet solar system.

But while it's clear that the change will mean significant replacement costs for businesses in the education industry, other pockets of space commerce are counting on the upsurge of interest in things planetary to generate new growth.

At Chicago's Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, the ongoing debate about the categorization of planets over the past few months has already sparked newfound interest in museum exhibits, sky shows and an interactive classroom called CyberSpace — which is equipped to quickly reflect scientific advancements like these.

"It's exciting for the general public," said Susan Wagner, Adler's vice-president for exhibits and programs. "We are here to educate, and we will be very happy to engage the visitors in this debate."

In addition to altering its permanent exhibits, Adler will immediately incorporate the new definition of Pluto as a "dwarf planet" into its live planetarium shows and may soon begin an educational lecture series on the topic, according to Wagner.

Update the encyclopedia
While museums stand to see new crowds with a piqued curiosity, the suddenly outdated merchandise on the shelves of their gift stores presents a sticky problem. The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington is working with its product distributors to get astronomically correct educational knick-knacks in its shop as soon as possible.

"We do still need to have the solar system models and the books about the solar system out there. [Replacing them] is going to take a while, and we don't have a definitive timetable," says Becky Haberacker, spokeswoman for Smithsonian Business Ventures. "We are working with our vendors to see what kind of new products they will be producing that will have Pluto in its new classifications."

Although the astronomers' announcement took some businesses off guard, others with a bigger stake in the change were watching carefully. At the World Book Encyclopedia, last-minute events that could affect entries are not a new phenomenon—the annual publication has previously reported on such timely entries as election results and natural disasters occurring just before the year's end.

The Chicago-based World Book made a contingency plan weeks ago to prepare for Pluto's planetary fall from grace, says editor-in-chief Paul Kobasa. "We structure our schedule so that we can catch things," he says. "As soon as we learned that the IAU was contemplating changing the definition of planet, we prepared lists of changes we would have to make contingent on whatever decision was voted." In addition, the encyclopedia moved the entry further back in the printing schedule so there would be no need to "stop the presses."

In another area of the publishing industry, science textbooks will require significant updating of diagrams and, in some cases, whole chapters. Because most textbooks are distributed to schools in five- to six-year cycles, the change in Pluto's status will not be reflected immediately in most areas of the country.

"The books that we're starting to work on that will be new for the 2007-2008 cycle will be going through the normal revision process—and this will be a big part of that revision," says David Hakensen, vice-president of public relations for Pearson Education, a large publisher of elementary, secondary, and professional-level textbooks. (McGraw-Hill, the parent company of and one of the world's largest publishers of textbooks, was not contacted for comment.)

On the other hand, some retailers of science merchandise are excited about the novelty factor that might spur sales in coming weeks. After all, it's not every day that you can own a solar system replica that is categorically inaccurate.

Outer space exposure
PhysLINK, a Long Beach, Calif.-based Web site, stocks about 45 product models that label Pluto as a planet, including books, posters, and mechanical planetarium toys. When asked how he plans to get rid of or make up for the cost of this obsolete inventory, the site's owner, Anton Skorucak, says he expects a surge in customers who want to invest in the products' limited-edition nature.

"I'm actually anticipating that sales of these items will skyrocket," he says. "I think they'll be collectibles, because this is the last time you can get these." To uphold his responsibilities to educators, however, Skorucak will soon update the site with a disclaimer declaring that anyone who purchases the products must be aware of their scientific inaccuracies.

Probably least affected by all the hubbub are the numerous companies that are merely named after the former ninth planet. "People find the craziness of our name appealing," says Marc Ilgen, owner of West of Pluto Software, a California-based company that makes mobile-phone applications. "My immediate reaction is that in the short term there might be some positive effect from the announcement, from things like incidental Web traffic."

And Jerry Bugas, the owner of Pluto's, a California restaurant chain that advertises "Fresh Food for a Hungry Universe," said he views the whole issue as a positive. "If anything, it's more exposure. … It strengthens our conviction of how we feel about Pluto and how we create a theme that goes along with it."

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.


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