Problem with Pluto Proliferates New Planets!

by Val Germann

As many of our readers know, a trend common in our school systems today is the idea that “everybody’s special” and there are no winners and losers. It seems as though this idea has percolated up to the International Astronomical Union, which body has determined that, indeed, all solar system objects are “special” and there will be no real winners or losers in the Great Planet Debate.

The general outlines of the new rules for planets are discussed today on THE GUARDIAN website. Pluto is to be retained as a planet, sort of, under a new multi-tiered system which probably will be accepted by the entire IAU but seems just a tad overcomplicated.

If the ideas are approved at the general meeting of the IAU in Prague next week, schoolchildren will, in future, have to learn that the solar system has 12 planets: eight classical ones that dominate the system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus – and four in a new category called plutons.

At first blush, this seems to be a genius-level solution until the clinkers appear. That is, in spite of the BBC quote above, two of the named objects above are actually not to be Plutons but, well, something else. Ceres, once called a planet but then downgraded to “asteroid,” is now a planet (of some kind) again. Also upgraded is the mysterious  Charon, which orbits between Uranus and Neptune. These two are not “classical planets” or “Plutons” but, ah, just planets. The BBC didn’t get that quite right, which is not surprising considering how arcane some of these rules seem to be.

As for the Plutons, they will include anything greater than about 500 miles in diameter obiting the sun beyond Neptune, which will add a lot of objects over the next few years.

And so, at the end of the day, Pluto remains a “planet” – sort of – but it’s kind of not a planet, too, viz:

The definition keeps Pluto in the planets club, despite the calls to demote it. “Had astronomers realized in 1930 that Pluto was smaller than our moon and with a mass well under 1% that of the Earth, perhaps some special designation would have been devised for it,” Owen Gingerich, the chairman of the planet definition committee, said. “Although Pluto remains a planet by the proposed definition, it will generally be preferable to call it a pluton to emphasise its role as the prototype for a physically distinct category of planetary bodies.”

So, everybody got something out of this new “definition” which, to this writer, merely postpones the real crunch of determining, once and for all, what is truly a “planet” and what truly is not. In the meantime, somebody will get to sell a lot of replacement textbooks, which at least is good for the publishers, eh?

Read the entire GUARDIAN article here.

About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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