Inside the Capitol

Friday, August 17, 2007

Comment on Your Post, "Pluto Demoted Again"


Thank you,

Laurel Kornfeld


Pluto supporters are not going to win this one??? Not so fast.  The so-called "new planet definition" has major problems, and contrary to your claim, there is an abundance of Pluto supporters who are working to see the demotion overturned, both among astronomers and lay people.

Most noteworthy is the glaring error in your opening paragraph, namely the statement that Pluto "was bumped from its position as the solar system's biggest dwarf star."  Pluto is not and never was considered by anyone to be a star.  The term you most likely meant to use is "dwarf planet," the new definition created by the IAU last year.

That term is highly problematic, which is why within days of its adoption, 300 plus astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons Mission to Pluto, signed a petition saying they rejected the new definition and will not use it. Stern plans a conference of 1,000 astronomers to re-open this issue.

There are also many petitions by lay people, both hard copy and online, in circulation supporting the overturning of Pluto's demotion, still gathering many signatures almost a year later.

The IAU determined that a "dwarf planet" is not a planet at all, which makes no linguistic sense.  The vote was conducted by 424 out of 10,000 members, most of whom are not planetary scientists but a narrow group with a specific agenda. The requirement that an object "clear its orbit" to be considered a full fledged planet is vague and arbitrary.  It sets up a double standard because Neptune does not clear its orbit of Pluto, and even Jupiter and Earth do not clear their orbits of nearby asteroids.  For all these reasons, the "new" definition is untenable.

Eris is slightly bigger and more massive than Pluto, but there is no reason both cannot be considered full fledged planets. Both have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium and orbit the sun.  The IAU made a serious blunder with this decision. As more and more discoveries are being made, we should be broadening, not narrowing, our understanding of what constitutes a planet.  I strongly believe and wholeheartedly look forward to this ridiculous vote being overturned, the sooner the better.



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