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Pluto to be reinstated as a planet? An astrophysicist explains the controversy that refuses to die

Not too long ago, an article appeared within the analysis journal Icarus, looking for a brand new motive to assault the definition of planets and argue for the promotion of Pluto once more. The researchers additionally be aware that a number of satellites, together with our Moon, will be upgraded to planetary standing.

To grasp this confusion, let me rewind first and introduce the context.

I used to be a younger PhD scholar after I attended the Basic Meeting of the Worldwide Astronomical Union (IAU-GA) at Prague in 2006. I had no clue that I’d have a ringside seat to a historic choice. On this meeting, a committee appointed by the IAU introduced a draft definition of the phrase “planet”, reclassifying Pluto as a ‘dwarf planet’, and all hell broke unfastened.

So what’s a planet?

About 3,000 years again, Babylonians realised that a number of the brightest dots within the evening sky don’t stay hooked up to a given star sample (i.e. constellation) however transfer alongside a slender round band. The Solar and the Moon additionally transfer in the identical band. Thus, these seven transferring our bodies (i.e. Solar, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) have been referred to as planetai (that means wandering objects) by historical Greeks. Over the following 2000 years, all civilisations tracked motions of those seven ‘planets’.

With discoveries of Galileo, Copernichus and Kepler, it turned clear that the Solar is the truth is a star and is (nearly) on the centre of what we now name because the photo voltaic system. Therefore, the Solar was faraway from the checklist and the Earth (which was going across the Solar like different planets) was added to the checklist.

Subsequently, two extra big planets, Uranus (1781) and Neptune (1846) have been found. Between 1800-1840, 4 small our bodies have been additionally found to lie between Mars and Jupiter. All these have been dubbed as planets.

After 1840, it was proven that there are too many small our bodies between Mars and Jupiter’s orbit which might be orbiting the Solar. They have been relabelled as ‘minor planets’ / ‘asteroids’, and the 4 unique our bodies from the asteroid belt, together with Ceres, misplaced their ‘planet’ standing.

For the following 80 odd years, the settled variety of planets within the photo voltaic system was eight.

Enter Pluto!

In 1930, we found one other physique which was past Neptune’s orbit. This was the primary ‘planet’ found within the period of mass media (newspapers, radio) and in addition the primary planet found by an American astronomer.

It caught the creativeness of most of the people. With loads of fanfare, it was named Pluto. All of the TV and radio exhibits, together with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the traditional astronomy books we grew up studying, even the American house probes Pioneer 10 and 11’s iconic golden plates present this image of the photo voltaic system with 9 planets.

The difficulty for Pluto began brewing within the Nineties as we began discovering extra our bodies with orbits overlapping that of Pluto’s. Was the Asteroid belt story repeating itself? Was there one other belt of minor our bodies past Neptune (as predicted by Kuiper)?

In 2003, American astronomer Mike Brown and his colleagues found a physique (now generally known as Eris), which was decidedly larger than Pluto and we may not duck a number of questions

*What number of planets are precisely on the market?
*Ought to we are saying 9, together with Pluto?
*However then what about Eris? Ought to we are saying 10?
*However who’s to ensure that there isn’t a quantity 11 or 12, and even quantity 20 inside the identical belt?
*Ought to we dethrone Pluto as Ceres was dethroned 150 years again and return to eight planets?
*Ought to this be an arbitrary / case-by-case choice or can there be an goal method to outline a planet?

IAU appointed a committee of astronomers, headed by American astrophysicist and historian of science Owen Gingerich, to search out solutions to those questions. This committee submitted its suggestions to the final meeting in Prague that I discussed earlier.

As per their suggestions, any physique “going round any star, spherical in form and never itself a star” needs to be referred to as a planet. This may have saved Pluto as a planet, upgraded Ceres again to the planet standing and added Eris and Charon to the checklist of planets.

About 70 per cent of the astronomers attending the final meeting strongly disagreed with nearly each bit of this definition.

Some identified that there are more likely to be planetary sized spherical our bodies lurking within the galaxy which aren’t orbiting any star. Some argued that we don’t perceive the physics of planetary sizes nicely sufficient, whereas some argued that this definition meant that the checklist of planets within the photo voltaic system would preserve growing every year, ultimately even crossing 100.

Some even alleged that the committee had pre-decided that the one ‘planet’ found by an American (i.e. Pluto) should stay a planet and solely thought-about definitions which glad that mandate.

So what’s the acceptable definition of a planet?

Realising a widespread disapproval for the proposed definition, IAU appealed to the astronomers current to carry discussions inside themselves and give you an appropriate definition.

In these discussions, it was agreed that as an alternative of a common definition of planet, one ought to solely give attention to planets in our photo voltaic system. That approach, one may preserve apart controversial points equivalent to planetoids with out stars and an higher restrict on the dimensions of a planet. It was additionally agreed that Kuiper belt objects, together with Pluto, Charon and Eris, needs to be handled in the identical approach because the Ceres and different asteroid belt objects have been handled.

With these ideas in thoughts, the next definition of the phrase ‘planet’ was proposed.
A planet is a physique in our photo voltaic system that
(a) Orbits across the Solar with out orbiting every other planetary physique
(b) Is of a spherical form
(c) Would have cleared its orbit

The our bodies which fulfill the primary two standards however not the third one have been dubbed as ‘dwarf planets’. This definition ensures that the variety of dwarf planets could preserve growing however the variety of planets is unlikely to extend drastically.

Clearly, a number of American astronomers have been sad about this demotion of Pluto. Owen Gingerich saved mentioning this ‘unfair’ remedy of Pluto in a number of public talks and articles for quite a few years.

One yr earlier than this common meeting, NASA had launched ‘New Horizons’ mission to flyby Pluto in 2015. The New Horizons crew, together with the Precept Investigator of the mission Alan Stern, was dismayed by the brand new definition. Alan Stern is without doubt one of the authors of the brand new paper that wishes Pluto again as a planet.

In hindsight, how would we take a look at the controversy that occurred in 2006 and the compromises that have been reached? Actually it’s not an ideal definition. With Kepler mission knowledge, we now know that the problem of uncertainties about higher restrict on planetary mass was in all probability an overcautious stance. The ‘clearing the orbit’ criterion can also be not as simple as folks thought then. As you go within the outer reaches of the photo voltaic system, orbital durations turn into longer and therefore even Neptune-size our bodies could get categorised as ‘dwarf planets’.

We don’t know for positive what the ultimate variety of planets within the photo voltaic system goes to be. Even now, some astronomers are in search of our bodies larger than Earth past the Kuiper belt. However we all know for positive that the present approach of classifying the planets is the least unhealthy of all choices.

— The writer is an Affiliate Professor on the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Training (HBCSE-TIFR), Mumbai.



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