Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Pluto is No Longer a Planet?

Astronomers decided they would make a final decision about the definition of a planet at the XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, which was held from August 14 to August 25, 2006 in Prague, Czech Republic.

For an object to be a planet, it needs to meet these three requirements defined by the IAU:

It needs to be in orbit around the Sun – Yes, so maybe Pluto is a planet.
It needs to have enough gravity to pull itself into a spherical shape – Pluto…check
It needs to have "cleared the neighborhood" of its orbit – Uh oh. Here's the rule breaker. According to this, Pluto is not a planet.

What does "cleared its neighborhood" mean? As planets form, they become the dominant gravitational body in their orbit in the Solar System. As they interact with other, smaller objects, they either consume them, or sling them away with their gravity. Pluto is only 0.07 times the mass of the other objects in its orbit. The Earth, in comparison, has 1.7 million times the mass of the other objects in its orbit.

Any object that doesn't meet this 3rd criteria is considered a dwarf planet. And so, Pluto is a dwarf planet. There are still many objects with similar size and mass to Pluto jostling around in its orbit. And until Pluto crashes into many of them and gains mass, it will remain a dwarf planet. Eris suffers from the same problem.

It's not impossible to imagine a future, though, where astronomers discover a large enough object in the distant Solar System that could qualify for planethood status. Then our Solar System would have 9 planets again.

Even though Pluto is a dwarf planet, and no longer officially a planet, it'll still be a fascinating target for study. And that's why NASA has sent their New Horizons spacecraft off to visit it. New Horizons will reach Pluto in July 2015, and capture the first close-up images of the (dwarf) planet's surface.

Space enthusiasts will marvel at the beauty and remoteness of Pluto, and the painful deplaneting memories will fade. We'll just be able to appreciate it as Pluto, and not worry how to categorize it. At least now you know why Pluto was demoted.


  1. "Painful deplaneting memories" won't fade because the wrongful demotion will not last. Pluto IS a planet because unlike most objects in the Kuiper Belt, it has attained hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it has enough self-gravity to have pulled itself into a round shape. When an object is large enough for this to happen, it becomes like Earth and the larger planets, and develops the same geological processes as the larger planets, processes that inert asteroids and most KBOs do not have.

    Not distinguishing between shapeless asteroids and objects whose composition clearly makes them planets is a disservice and is sloppy science.

    As of now, there are three other KBOs that meet this criterion and therefore should be classified as planets—Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Only one KBO has been found to be larger than Pluto, and that is Eris.

    The IAU definition makes no linguistic sense, as it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That’s like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear. It also departs from the use of the word dwarf in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies.

    Second, it defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were placed in Pluto’s orbit, by the IAU definition, it would not be a planet. That is because the further away an object is from its parent star, the more difficulty it will have in clearing its orbit.

    Significantly, this definition was adopted by only four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists. No absentee voting was allowed. It was done so in a highly controversial process that violated the IAU’s own bylaws, and it was immediately opposed by a petition of 300 professional astronomers saying they will not use the new definition, which they described accurately as “sloppy.” Also significant is the fact that many planetary scientists are not IAU members and therefore had no say in this matter at all.

    Many believe we should keep the term planet broad to encompass any non-self-luminous spheroidal object orbiting a star.

    We can distinguish different types of planets with subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets, super Earths, hot Jupiters, etc.

    We should be broadening, not narrowing our concept of planet as more objects are being discovered in this and other solar systems.

    In a 2000 paper, Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. Hal Levison distinguish two types of planets—the gravitationally dominant ones and the smaller ones that are not gravitationally dominant. However, they never say that objects in the latter category are not planets.

    I attended the Great Planet Debate, which actually took place in August 2008, and there was a strong consensus there that a broader, more encompassing planet definition is needed. I encourage anyone interested to listen to and view the conference proceedings at You can also read more about this issue on my blog at

    You can find the petition of astronomers who rejected the demotion of Pluto here:

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