It's official. Pluto is not a red-blooded planet. As decreed in August by a vote of the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, Pluto is now a dwarf.
At first, the IAU seemed ready to defend Pluto. On August 16, the union's seven-member Planet Definition Committee released a draft Planet Definition Resolution, which stated that round objects in orbit around the sun are planets. Pluto is a round object in orbit around the sun. Therefore, Pluto is a planet. This definition would have given everyone the right to utter "Pluto" and "Jupiter" in the same breath, even though Jupiter is 250,000 times larger. The draft resolution would also have opened the door to granting planet status to at least three objects that had, until recently, been considered unworthy.
Courtesy of NASA and ESA
Plutophiles had about a week to rejoice before the astronomers returned from their deliberation with a change of heart. According to the final IAU definition, a planet must still be round but must also dominate the mass of its orbital zone. In other words, a full-fledged planet must have no competitors in its zone.. Poor Pluto is crowded by thousands of other icy bodies in the outer solar system, some bigger than Pluto itself, so it fails the test. To soothe Pluto's boosters, the IAU elected to call it a dwarf planet, without entirely quantifying what that is.
All this embarrassment stems from a simple problem. The term planet had not been defined since the time of ancient Greece, when the label originated. The word simply meant "wanderer" and referred to the seven prominent celestial objects that moved against the background of stars. They were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the sun, and the moon. So influential were these celestial travelers on classical culture that the names of our seven days of the week can be traced back to them.
Life got more complicated in 1543, when Nicolaus Copernicus described a newfangled, heliocentric universe. Instead of remaining stationary in the middle, Earth moved around the sun just like the other bodies. From that moment onward, planet had no official meaning, and astronomers tacitly agreed that whatever orbits the sun is a planet and whatever orbits a planet is a moon.
This would not be a problem if cosmic discoveries had ended in 1543. But shortly thereafter, we learned that comets orbit the sun, too, and are not, as long believed, local atmospheric phenomena. Comets are icy objects on elongated orbits that throw off a long tail of gases as they near the sun. Are they planets too? How about the craggy chunks of rock and metal that orbit the sun in a region between Mars and Jupiter? When Ceres, the first of these objects, was sighted by Giuseppi Piazzi in 1801, everyone called it a planet. With the discovery of dozens more, however, it became clear that this new community of objects deserved its own classification. Astronomers called them asteroids and now have cataloged tens of thousands of them.
Even the traditional planets don't fit into one neat category. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars form a family because they are relatively small and rocky, while Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are large, gaseous, have many moons, and bear rings.
The story took another twist in 1992, when David C. Jewitt of the University of Hawaii and Jane Luu of MIT began to detect frozen objects on the solar system's fringes, out beyond Neptune. They found a new swath of space traffic, akin to the asteroid belt discovered two centuries before. Known as the Kuiper belt, in honor of the Dutch-born American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who predicted its existence, this region of the solar system contains Pluto, one of its largest members. But Pluto has been called a planet since it was discovered in 1930. So should all Kuiper belt objects be called planets?
Meet the Dwarf Planets
Courtesy of the International Astronomical Union
According to the International Astronomical Union's recently adopted rules, the solar system contains eight planets as well as a puzzling new category: "dwarf planet." While a real planet must gravitationally dominate its region of the solar system, a dwarf is any object that orbits the sun, is not a satellite, and is nearly round. That vagueness left many astronomers confused. How round is "nearly round"? The IAU has designated three bodies, most notably Pluto, that fit the bill. But 12 other candidates (above), including three asteroids and nine frozen objects orbiting beyond Neptune, could soon join the list.
The new definitions all but guarantee future conflict over which objects are dwarf planets and which are "small solar system bodies"—a catchall category for the tens of thousands of known asteroids and comets. Future discussions will also establish the status of the nearly 200 known planets (as astronomers keep calling them) that orbit other stars. By coining the term dwarf planet, the IAU allows millions of schoolchildren to continue call Pluto a planet while acknowledging that it more properly belongs in a different category. To those on the sidelines, the definition also offers a glimpse of the strange things that happen when science and bureaucracy mix.