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Pluto and the Definition of a Planet

Pluto was formerly considered the ninth planet of the solar system. However,

in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created an official

definition of a planet; one that demoted Pluto from its planet status. Pluto

is now referred to as a Dwarf Planet. But why this change? What made the

IAU come together to make this decision in the first place? And should Pluto

remain a Dwarf Planet? Or should it become a planet again? This paper

answers all of these questions.

Eris

Eris was official discovered by the Palomar Observatory in 2005. They

submitted to the IAU for consideration as the tenth planet of the solar

system (Keenan, 2014, p. 1). Eris was very similar to Pluto, and its discovery

caused scientists to ask the question, what is a planet? The IAU came up

with three criteria a celestial body must fulfill to qualify as a planet. It must

(1) orbit the Sun, (2) have enough mass to overcome forces to reach

hydrostatic equilibrium (or become nearly round), and (3) dominate the area

around its orbit (Llewellyn, Wong, & Ortega, 2015, p. 21). While Pluto orbits

the sun and is nearly round, but it does not have enough mass to clear other

objects away from its orbit.


Plutos Comeback?

Recently a group of scientists submitted a proposal to the IAU which, if

accepted, would change the definition of a planet. This new definition defines

a planet as, a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear

fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape

adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital

parameters (Bowerman, 2017).

In their proposal, the scientists point out several of the flaws in the current

IAU definition. For example, the IAU definition only recognizes objects that

orbit the sun as planets. What about rouge planets which are as large as the

earth but dont orbit any star? Dominating ones orbit is also not possible for

every planet. Even an earth sized object in Plutos spot would not be able to

clear its orbit of debris. The term dwarf planet is confusing on its own; we

recognize Terrestrial planets as planets, Jovian planets as planets, but

somehow dwarf planets arent planets (Bowerman, 2017)?

There are some odd quirks that come with this new definition. Many natural

satellites, such as earths moon, will now also be categorized as planets. We

can count 110 planets in our solar system alone (Bowerman, 2017).

Students in elementary school cannot be expected to know all these

planets! critics object. This is true, which is why students should only have
to know about a few of the important ones; Earth, Venus, Jupiter, etc. There

are 88 constellations, yet most people only know of a few. The same could

hold true for planets if this resolution passes.

Conclusion

The discovery of Eris threw a monkey wrench into the scientific communitys

understanding of our solar system. The IAU met and came up with an official

definition of a planet. In this new definition, Pluto was no longer considered

a planet. However, a new proposition may once again change the definition

of a planet and restore Pluto to its former glory.

References

Bowerman, M. B. (2017, February 21). NASA scientists want to make Pluto a

planet again. Retrieved April 28, 2017

Keenan, M. (2014). 136199 ERIS. Space Science/Astronomy: Celestial

Bodies, 1.

Llewellyn, D. d., Wong, S. s., & Ortega, I. i. (2015). The controversy over

pluto. Science Scope, 39(1), 18-25.