Creating people's geographies
By Paul Rincon
Pluto (L), pictured with its largest moon, Charon, is now a dwarf planet
A fierce backlash has begun against the decision by astronomers to strip Pluto of its status as a planet. On Thursday, experts approved a definition of a planet that demoted Pluto to a lesser category of object.
But the lead scientist on Nasa’s robotic mission to Pluto has lambasted the ruling, calling it “embarrassing”.
And the chair of the committee set up to oversee agreement on a definition implied that the vote had effectively been “hijacked”.
I have nothing but ridicule for this decision
Alan Stern, Southwest Research Institute
The vote took place at the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) 10-day General Assembly in Prague. The IAU has been the official naming body for astronomy since 1919.
Only 424 astronomers who remained in Prague for the last day of the meeting took part.
An initial proposal by the IAU to add three new planets to the Solar System – the asteroid Ceres, Pluto’s moon Charon and the distant world known as 2003 UB313 – met with considerable opposition at the meeting. Days of heated debate followed during which four separate proposals were tabled.
Eventually, the scientists adopted historic guidelines that see Pluto relegated to a secondary category of “dwarf planets”.
Drawing the line
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 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”.
Owen Gingerich chaired the IAU’s planet definition committee and helped draft an initial proposal raising the number of planets from nine to 12.
The Harvard professor emeritus blamed the outcome in large part on a “revolt” by dynamicists – astronomers who study the motion and gravitational effects of celestial objects.
PLUTO – A ‘DEMOTED PLANET’
Named after underworld god
Average of 5.9bn km to Sun
Orbits Sun every 248 years
Diameter of 2,360km
Has at least three moons
Rotates every 6.8 days
Gravity about 6% of Earth’s
Surface temperature -233C
US probe (above) visits in 2015
“In our initial proposal we took the definition of a planet that the planetary geologists would like. The dynamicists felt terribly insulted that we had not consulted with them to get their views. Somehow, there were enough of them to raise a big hue and cry,” Professor Gingerich said.
“Their revolt raised enough of a fuss to destroy the scientific integrity and subtlety of the [earlier] resolution.”
He added: “There were 2,700 astronomers in Prague during that 10-day period. But only 10% of them voted this afternoon. Those who disagreed and were determined to block the other resolution showed up in larger numbers than those who felt ‘oh well, this is just one of those things the IAU is working on’.”
Professor Gingerich, who had to return home to the US and therefore could not vote himself, said he would like to see electronic ballots introduced in future.
Alan Stern agreed: “I was not allowed to vote because I was not in a room in Prague on Thursday 24th. Of 10,000 astronomers, 4% were in that room – you can’t even claim consensus.
“If everyone had to travel to Washington DC every time we wanted to vote for President, we would have very different results because no one would vote. In today’s world that is idiotic. I have nothing but ridicule for this decision.”
He added that he could not see the resolution standing for very long and did not plan to change any of the astronomy textbook he was currently writing.
But other astronomers were happy to see Pluto cast from the official roster of planets. Professor Iwan Williams, the IAU’s president of planetary systems science, commented: “Pluto has lots and lots of friends; we’re not so keen to have Pluto and all his friends in the club because it gets crowded.
“By the end of the decade, we would have had 100 planets, and I think people would have said ‘my goodness, what a mess they made back in 2006’.”
Robin Catchpole, of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, UK, said: “My own personal opinion was to leave things as they were. I met Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto, and thought, it’s nice to shake hands with someone who discovered a planet.
Mike Brown’s discovery precipitated the Pluto crisis
“But since the IAU brought out the first draft resolution, I was rather against that because I thought it was going to be very confusing. So the best of the alternatives was to keep the eight planets as they are, and then demote Pluto. I think this is a far superior solution.”
The need for a strict definition was deemed necessary after new telescope technologies began to reveal far-off objects that rivalled Pluto in size.
The critical blow for Pluto came with the discovery three years ago of an object currently designated 2003 UB313. Discovered by Mike Brown and colleagues at the California Institute of Technology, 2003 UB313 has been lauded by some as the “10th Planet”.
Measurements by the Hubble Space Telescope show it to have a diameter of 3,000km (1,864 miles), a few hundred km more than Pluto. 2003 UB313 will now join Pluto in the dwarf planet category.
Mike Brown seemed happy with Pluto’s demotion. “Eight is enough,” he told the Associated Press, jokingly adding: “I may go down in history as the guy who killed Pluto.”