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July 30, 2005

Tenth Planet (?) Discovered

In case you didn't know, there's a debate whether the ninth planet, Pluto, was ever discovered. There are a lot of small to mid-sized planetoids in a belt beyond Neptune, and Pluto's small size, plus the fact that it's not really a great deal bigger than a bunch of other icy rocks out there, has prompted some astronomers to strip Pluto of its deisgnation as the ninth planet. Instead, they want to lump Pluto in with what they call non-planet "Trans-Neptunian Objects." Pluto would just be the biggest of that non-planet bunch.

Obviously, this angers a lot of people, chiefly because, and I'm quite seriosus about this, we've done a dozen science dioramas featuring Pluto as a planet and we're not ready yet to call our entire childhoods a lie. Everything else in our childhoods turned out to be a lie, but not Pluto. Pluto we thought we could count on.

Now comes the discovery of a Pluto-like planet, or psuedoplanet, whichever you prefer. Except this one is apparently bigger than Pluto.

So, the discoverer points out, if Pluto's a planet, this one must be a planet.

But some astronomers say: But maybe Pluto's not a planet, so why are you bothering us with this nonsense? And then it gets weirder.

Astronomers have discovered an object in our solar system that is larger than Pluto. They are calling it the 10th planet, but already that claim is contested.

The new world's size is not at issue. But the very definition of planethood is.

It is the first time an object so big has been found in our solar system since the discovery of Pluto 75 years ago.

Just in case you thought nothing interesting was being discovered lately. Another possible planet was discovered the same day:

The announcement, made Friday by Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, came just hours after another celestial object slightly smaller than Pluto was revealed, on a very confusing day for astronomers and the media.

The new object, temporarily named 2003 UB313, is about three times as far from the sun as is Pluto.

"It's definitely bigger than Pluto," said Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech. The object is round and could be up to twice as large as Pluto, Brown told reporters during a hastily called NASA-run teleconference Friday evening.

His best estimate is that it is 2,100 miles (3,360 kilometers) wide, about one and a half times the diameter of Pluto.

The object is inclined by a whopping 45 degrees to the main plane of the solar system, where most of the other planets orbit. That's why it eluded discovery: Nobody was looking there until now, Brown said.

Some astronomers view it as a Kuiper Belt object and not a planet. The Kuiper Belt is a region of frozen objects beyond Neptune.

Pluto itself is called a Kuiper Belt object by many astronomers. Brown himself has argued in the past for Pluto's demotion from planet status, because of its diminutive size and eccentric and inclined orbit.

But on Friday he struck a different note.

"Pluto has been a planet for so long that the world is comfortable with that," Brown said during the teleconference. "It seems to me a logical extension that anything bigger than Pluto and farther out is a planet."

Offering additional justification, Brown said 2003 UB313 appears to be surfaced with methane ice, as is Pluto. That's not the case with other large Kuiper Belt objects.

"This object is in a class very much like Pluto," he said.

NASA effectively endorsed the idea in an official statement that referred to 2003 UB313 as the 10th planet.

Yet in recent years, a bevy of objects roughly half to three-fourths the size of Pluto have been found.

Brian Marsden, who runs the Minor Planet Center where data on objects like this are collected, said that if Pluto is a planet, then other round objects nearly as large as Pluto ought to be called planets. By that logic, 2003 UB313 would perhaps be a planet, but it would have to get in line behind a handful of others that were discovered previously.

"I would not call it the 10th planet," Marsden told Space.com.

Alan Boss, a planet-formation theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, called the discovery "a major step." But Boss would not call it a planet at all. Instead, he said Pluto and other small objects beyond Neptune should be called, at best, "Kuiper Belt planets."

"To just call them planets does an injustice to the big guys in the solar system," Boss said in a telephone interview.

We can't have that. Plus, imagine the size of the shoebox you'd need for a diorama containing dozens of mini-planets beyond Neptune.

This is interesting. 10,000 Plutos?

Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, the top scientist for NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, predicted in the early 1990s that there would be 1,000 Plutos out there. He has also contended, based on computer modeling, that there should be Mars-sized objects hidden in the far corners of our solar system and even possibly other worlds as large as Earth.

Thanks to BrewFan, or as My Favorite Nazi so wittily has dubbed him, "SpewFan."


I Question The Timing Update: Kaos muses...

IMHo, I think the new planet is the Death Star planted there by KKKarl Rove. Any day now we'll be seeing legions of clone warriors and tie fighters decending on earth with the intent to destroy the remains of the democrat party or maybe it's just a speck of dust on the hubble mirror.

Everything is a "distraction" from Rovamania.

Or, as Traffic Non-Santa might say, "There's an investigation on."

Plutonian Politics: Is there any way we can use the Planet (?) Pluto controversy as a wedge issue against the Democrats?

Can we bait Howard Dean into saying something derogatory about Pluto?

Because, if we could, it would really annoy a lot of nerdy liberal-leaning voters.

There must be some way to use this. We conservatives can argue on behalf of "tradition," and bait liberals into taking an anti-Pluto position by using over-the-top anti-intellectual arguments in favor of Pluto, perhaps attacking the "pusillanimous puling pencil-necked pointy-heads" with all their silly "facts" and "theories" and "arrayed radio telescopes."

The "reality-based community" will then, predictably and invetiably, be forced to mock the Plutophiles, perhaps denigrating Pluto as a "sub-planetoid Jeebus spacerock."

And then we just sit back and reap the political benefits.

All we need to do, really, is get President Bush to mention Pluto in connection with some passage of a book of the Bible. Isaiah, maybe. Isaiah always seems to set these people off.

Or -- just spit-balling here -- "plucky little Pluto, the period at the end of the solar sentence, a methane-ice covered David fighting the Goliath of post-modern relativism and scientific hubris..."

I know they'd fall for the bait. They just can't help themselves.

They're crazy.


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posted by Ace at 02:16 PM

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