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August 25, 2006

Revenge of the Space Geeks: Oh no you di'n't just deplanetize Pluto

I can't wait for the Anchorman style gangwar:

Dr Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency's New Horizons mission to Pluto and did not vote in Prague, told BBC News: "It's an awful definition; it's sloppy science and it would never pass peer review - for two reasons.

Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh pictured in 1980 (AP)
Pluto was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh
"Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets. It's as if we declared people not people for some arbitrary reason, like 'they tend to live in groups'.

"Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it's inconsistent."

One of the three criteria for planethood states that a planet must have "cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit". The largest objects in the Solar System will either aggregate material in their path or fling it out of the way with a gravitational swipe.

Pluto was disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune.

But Dr Stern pointed out that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

These rocks are all essentially chunks of rubble left over from the formation of the Solar System more than four billion years ago.

"If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn't be there," he added.

Stern said like-minded astronomers had begun a petition to get Pluto reinstated. Car bumper stickers compelling motorists to "Honk if Pluto is still a planet" have gone on sale over the internet and e-mails circulating about the decision have been describing the IAU as the "Irrelevant Astronomical Union".

Theory: These geeks had to come out of there with some news, and this was the easiest way to get attention.

But honestly, that take-down is pretty good. Their definition doesn't seem to make any sense, and seems constructed backwards just to get the headline-making conclusion that Pluto isn't a planet.

This seems to be a generational thing. Some writer on NRO was happy about returning the Solar System to the "traditional eight."

Traditional eight? I guess Pluto was deemed a planet shortly before I came of age, because I never heard of any "eight" planets.

At least in one small respect, I can count myself among the younger generation.


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posted by Ace at 02:05 PM

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